“Why Isn’t This Working???” – Part I

Let’s say you’re starting to understand the “most basic idea” about training that we spoke about in an earlier post. Basically, if something wonderful immediately follows a behavior, then your dog will be more likely to repeat the behavior: “If I come when I’m called, I get a nice cuddle and a tasty treat!” And now you’re trying it, and it isn’t working, and you’re thinking, “This is bullsh#t! I should just grab him and drag him over here!”

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Mutual trust leads to better behavior and a better bond!

If you’re rewarding with treats, here are some possible problems:

  1. The treats aren’t tasty enough. If a friend says, “Hey, help me move this refrigerator and I’ll give you a stale Poptart”, how inviting is that? I mean, let’s at least have some pizza!!! (We’ll discuss some more specific treat advice in Part II of this post.)
  2. Your dog is too well fed. You need to pay attention to his food supply. We’re not talking about starving your dog, but you can’t give him all his food for free, then try to give him more as a reward. For fastest results, Sophia Yin says, “Throw away your food bowl!” Measure your dog’s food supply for the day, then dispense it in training exercises. If there’s leftover food at the end of the day, then give it to him. (If “fastest results” aren’t a big issue, then just give half his food in training, but don’t train him right after you feed him.)
  3. Your timing a/or treat delivery need work. You may say you’re doing exactly what you saw a trainer do. If you saw comparison video, you’d probably eat your words. “Hey, I’m swinging my golf club just like Tiger Woods…how come I’m not a PGA pro?” An experienced trainer may do 12-15 precise “reps” in the time it would take you to do 3 or 4, and the dog would get a very clear message each time. Getting some feedback lessons from a good trainer really helps! In the meantime, get the Sophia Yin DVD at the top of the Resources page. It teaches treat delivery as the athletic skill that it is.
  4. Someone else in the household is undoing your work. If you’re training your dog to sit for affection and your housemates are training her to jump up, you need to come to an agreement. It’s not fair to a puppy to encourage her to jump up, then punish her for it when she weighs 60 pounds. You need to be consistent, and your housemates need to help, or at least not hurt. Fail, and it’s the dog who suffers.

These are just a few reasons. We’ll talk more in Part II, but here’s the bottom line:

Humane training works! You just need to do it right!

A well-trained dog is a happy dog!
A well-trained dog is a happy dog!
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What Is Humane Training? – part II

NOTE: If you’re new to the blog, you may want to go back to the beginning (bottom of the page) and read the earlier posts, the disclaimer, and pages on “why this blog”, “resources“, and “is this blog for you?” It’ll help fill in the gaps!

Suki's not crazy about retrieving, but she'll do it if you make it worth her while.
Suki’s not crazy about retrieving, but she’ll do it if you make it worth her while.

Now, listen up, especially if you learned “obedience” dog training years ago, think it’s the “right way”, and feel reluctant to change. I was once like you. I had learned standard obedience training protocols in the early ’80s, from a trainer who was, essentially, the Barbara Woodhouse of Australia. When I first read and explored the Cesar Millan books and videos, years later, I thought they made sense, but I was being blind to the negative effects these training styles can have on dogs, and to the generally abusive nature of choke chain training. So I urge you to be open to more modern, humane ideas. It comes down to this:

You CAN teach an old dog-trainer new tricks!!!

“Old school”  choke chain training is an artifact of military dog training. Read the history here. Most people who have trained dogs for years grew up with this older approach. Virtually every long-time humane trainer and teacher working today started out with inhumane techniques. In retrospect, some of them were truly horrific. If there’s an afterlife, and I see my earlier dogs there, I’ll have some serious apologizing to do. We didn’t know there was another way until behavioral scientists started to point the way.

I was stuck between these two training styles just four years ago. I did some choke chain training and some positive reinforcement training. It was a phone conversation with Kate Derr of  Bonaparte’s Retreat that pushed me to let go of outmoded, inhumane methods, and come into the modern age.

She made it clear that I wouldn’t be able to adopt Suki unless I changed my approach. I had already fallen in love with Suki’s picture (below), seen on the Internet (she looked like a perfect combo of Australian Cattle Dog and Australian Kelpie), and, the longer we talked, the more committed I became to meeting Suki.

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Suki, with Bonaparte’s Retreat founder Emmylou Harris.

I promised Kate that I’d look more carefully into the modern approach. It didn’t take much to convince me. We’d already had a lot of laughs training our earlier Kelpies to fetch, jump, etc., using clicker training.

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Django the Kelpie in flight.

 I read Patricia McConnell’s landmark book, “The Other End Of The Leash”, recommended my my niece Judy, a critical care veterinarian in Canada. Then I called Kate, and the rest is history.

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With humane training, Suki and I became pals from day one!

What is “Humane” training? – part I

Okay, so use your imagination with me here for a minute…not just imagining what you think, but imagining your emotion.

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Scenario one: You come to visit me, and we decide to go for a walk in town. I put a metal noose around your neck and attach a leash to it. We walk along, and I randomly change directions. Whenever you don’t immediately follow. I jerk the leash, the noose snaps tight around your neck, and you’re pulled in my direction. If you see something nice in a shop window (clothing? A vintage guitar?) and want to look, I jerk the leash and drag you along. Your neck hurts and you start to constantly worry about when I’m going to jerk you again. At the end of a half hour, you would probably feel which of the following?

  1. Loyalty, Kinship, Affection
  2. Fear, Anger, Resentment

Scenario two: You come to visit me, and we decide to go for a walk in town. You stop to look in a shop window, but I say, “Hey, come here for a second. Try this!”. And I give you a chocolate covered strawberry from my knapsack. Then I say, “Okay, now let’s look in that window!” While we’re walking, I tell you how much I love having you visit. “It’s SO GREAT to see you!!” If you’re okay with hugs, maybe I give you a hug. On we go. Maybe I have a hidden agenda that doesn’t interest you…”Hey, while we’re here, I’d like to stop off and look at this old Gibson guitar at Fred and Catherine’s shop! Stop in with me for ten minutes, and then I’ll buy you lunch at this great restaurant down the block”. I keep my word, and you get a tasty lunch in exchange for our little diversion. Again, which might you feel?

  1. Loyalty, Kinship, Affection
  2. Fear, Anger, Resentment
Which Rolly would YOU rather be? Click for larger view!
Which Rolly would YOU rather be? Click for larger view!

Of course, being a human, the second approach might make you feel a bit manipulated, but dogs are not as sneaky as humans in this regard, and they’ll usually take us at face value.

So, here’s the thing: Both approaches work, if all you care about is getting results. But the first approach causes the dog to feel fear, which might transform to anger, while the second approach causes the dog to feel contentment, which may transform to affection and loyalty.

Humane dog training is simply the Golden Rule:

Do unto the dog as you would have others do unto you!

To Treat or Not To Treat…?

Given that we will reward good behavior with something which makes the dog want to repeat it, how do you motivate your dog with the most effective reward?

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“I’m here to please…uh…what’s in it for ME???”

In dog trainer language, “primary reinforcers” are the key; these are things which every animal needs. According to Jean Donaldson, author of “The Culture Clash”, (a “must read” for dog training enthusiasts), the indispensable things are food, water, sex, and avoidance of pain/discomfort. Of these, food is the most convenient for humane training exercises which require many repetitions. There are other reinforcers which are not as universally necessary for animals. Dogs may or may not respond to verbal praise, play, toys, access to open space, a chance to chase squirrels, access to other dogs, a chance to go for a walk, belly rubs, etc., etc.

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Our friend Catherine uses the “belly rub” method on Suki.

Ken Ramirez of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has an excellent DVD on “non-food reinforcers”. There’s a teaser video at this link.

One thing that most everyone agrees on: The treats should be phased out as soon as possible. Ian Dunbar discussed this in the video I posted yesterday. In that video, he alludes to the difference between “luring” (or “bribing”) and “rewarding”. In luring, the dog sees the treat, and is led by the treat. If you always use this technique, the dog will only be inclined to obey if there’s food present. In “rewarding”, the dog does not see the treat until after he has completed the behavior. Dunbar recommends luring the dog with a treat, but, within a dozen reps, switching over and hiding the food, then luring with a hand signal but no treat. It’s a kind of “bait and switch”, but the dog is pleased to learn that, amazingly, even if he obeys an empty hand, a treat still appears! Hence the dog will learn to do the behavior without food being present, because the hand signal predicts the arrival of food.

Now, the cool thing is that you can condition your dog to regard affection (or some other non-primary reward) as a good reason for performing. We use the same technique we used in an earlier post for training the “Yep!”

  1. Rub your dog’s chest or give her an affectionate scritch at the back of the neck.
  2. Deliver a treat.
  3. Repeat.

In this way, your dog will learn to expect a treat after the affection. The affection will be the “message” that predicts the arrival of food. You can just do this any time your dog is being good. Is she lying on her bed like a good girl? Just go over, give her a little belly rub, then feed her a treat. Over time, the affection will gain power as a reward.

And here’s a huge scientifically proven fact: The “message” (referred to in dog trainerese as a “secondary reinforcer”), actually changes the dog’s emotional state, and makes the dog happier and more content, just as the food does. So, eventually, the “Yep!” or the neck scritch will win the dog’s heart for you.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the concept of “humane” training, and why the older model of choke chain training does not win the dog’s heart, but, instead, makes the dog comply out of fear.

Your Dog Does NOT Understand English!!!

I know, I know; your dog can understand everything you say, and he can spell “P-a-r-k” and “W-a-l-k-i-e-s”, too!

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But NO! Dogs only learn as much English as we teach them. What they do learn really well is how to read subtle body language and vocal inflection. (This was first identified at the turn of the 20th century, in the case of “Clever Hans”, a horse who was said to perform complex math computations. Read here!)

Of course, it’s fun to think of your dog understanding your every word, as in this William Wegman video with his dog, Man Ray:

But there’s a downside: If your dog doesn’t seem to understand, you then tend to blame him for being stubborn or resentful, when he’s usually just clueless, because you’re not communicating clearly.
So, what’s the solution? It’s easy! Teach your dog “English as a Second Language”! A great way to start doing this is Ian Dunbar’s “Lure-Reward” training, shown here:

(disclaimer: Often, with expert dog trainers, their perfectionism may intimidate you from even trying their techniques…don’t let this happen. Every dog is unique, and you may need to adjust to your dog’s learning style. Just do the best you can…this may be the topic of a whole ‘nother blog post…)

With this sort of method, your dog can learn “ESL” word by word. Just remember to keep commands simple. If Rover understands “Rover, Sit”, it does not follow that he’ll understand, “Hey, Rover, come over here and sit down!” How confusing is that? Three different commands (come, sit, and down) in one sentence! And, although it may seem like fun to impress your friends with Rover’s understanding of English, you’re doing your dog a genuine disservice by taking something which should be simple and making it difficult.

The Most Basic Idea In Dog Training!

Everything in dog training grows from this one simple concept:

Dogs recognize the consequences of their behavior.

It’s part of their survival technique.

If a behavior has a favorable consequence, they’re likely to repeat the behavior. If it has a painful or negative consequence, they’re less likely to repeat it.

“If I sit, I get a treat!” is a very simple version of this contingency.

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If you understand that the consequence which occurs immediately after the behavior is what the dog learns from, then you’ll begin to comprehend the importance of timing. For example, if you say, “Sit!”, then lure your dog to a sit, and, while you’re reaching for your treat, he stands up and barks, he may think you’re rewarding him for standing and barking.

Most trainers believe that you have to reward the behavior within one second for the dog to really “get” it.  As a result, trainers learn to develop a quick message to promise the dog that a reward is coming. “Clicker Training” is one method which we’ll discuss later, but I like the verbal “Yep!”, in a punchy, high-pitched chirp that dogs like. Here’s how you’d develop this:

  1. Start with a handful of small training treats and be in a small room where the dog can’t really get too far from you.
  2. Say a chirpy “Yep!”, wait a half-sec, and deliver a treat. Don’t do the two things simultaneously. The “Yep!” must come first, then the treat. The treat must be perceived as the “consequence” of the “Yep”. When I was first learning this, I’d silently say “and GO!” to myself after I said, “Yep!”, then I’d immediately deliver the treat: “Yep!” -> silent “and GO!” -> treat.
  3. Repeat this about 30 times. Maybe you’ll use part of your dog’s kibble for the day as treats, to prevent her from getting fat…
  4. Do this every day for 3 or 4 days. She doesn’t need to do anything. She just hears, “Yep!”, and a treat arrives. You’ll know she “gets” it if you go “Yep!” and she reacts.

Now, if you’re working on something close up, you can just deliver the treat within a second. If your dog is across the room and you’re training her to sit at a distance, you can use “Yep!” to tell her a treat is on the way, then get the treat to her ASAP.

The understanding of the “If A, then B” contingency” is simple, but the application of it is not so simple. Remember, think of dog training as a skill which requires practice and repetition, both for you and the dog.

In the next blog post, we learn a bit more about teaching your dog, “If A, then B”.

What do dog training and going to the gym have in common?

No sensible person goes to the gym one time and says, “There! I’m in good shape now!” Likewise, if you go the first day and learn that you can bench press a maximum of 130 pounds, you don’t go for your next workout and try to bench press 250 pounds. The equivalent in dog training might be that you get your dog to come across your living room for a treat on day one. Then, day two, you take her to the park, let her off lead, then get mad when she doesn’t come after you call her from 50 yards away while she’s chasing a squirrel.

Likewise, if you go to the gym 3 times a week for 6 weeks, make some real gains in strength and fitness, you can’t come back a year later and expect to pick up where you left off. Same goes for “obedience class”. It’s “use it or lose it”. Want your dog to stay well trained? Make it part of her daily life.

My favorite method of doing this comes from the late Dr. Sophia Yin, who called this method, “Say ‘Please’ by sitting”. She goes into this in detail in the DVD I mention on the “References” page, but you basically train your dog to sit for any reward it wants: treats, meals, belly rubs, other forms of affection, getting out the door, getting in the door, greeting guests, etc. : Whatever the dog wants, she must sit and look at you to get it.

Here’s Dr. Yin demonstrating the beginning of this training with a pup. And watch her fantastic timing and crisp delivery. It makes it so easy for the dog. “I do the right thing, I immediately get a treat”, with no confusing motion involved.


Here’s a great little video of Sue Sternberg getting the first “sit” from a very untrained dog. The crux of the matter happens in the first four minutes. This video is meant to train workers in rescue facilities, but it’s a great demonstration of teaching a dog to work out a problem. Once you get this part down, say “please” by sitting is a breeze…

Starting out: Why Train Your Dog?

Welcome to this new adventure of mine! Please read the information pages in the menu on the right. We might call this blog “Dog Training For People With Short Attention Spans”. I’ll try to keep these posts short and to the point. So…the first point:

Why Train Your Dog? Here are 3 big reasons:

  1. For Safety: Let’s keep your dog alive and safe, and keep everyone who interacts with your dog alive and safe as well.
  2. To bond with your dog. Establishing this bond is part of why you wanted a dog. Training helps increase the likelihood that your dog will look to you for guidance, and decrease the likelihood that your dog will just blow you off in any situation.
  3. A well-behaved dog can be included in more of your life, and go more places with you. The dog will be happier…you’ll be happier….what’s not to like? After all, wouldn’t you like a dog who could go everywhere with you?

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All of these motives are supported when you use humane dog training. Instead of tugging and pulling your dog, and yelling at him when he doesn’t get with the program, humane training is fun for both the human and the dog. “Training” becomes “game-playing for rewards” for the dog, and you’ll be laughing at his attempts to earn treats rather than yelling at him and frowning.

Okay, first post complete! Stay tuned for more short and sweet concepts!!

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