Posts Tagged ‘positive reinforcement’

Favorite Video Friday – Noah and his bird (no more bites)

May 21, 2015 5 comments

After a week of blog posts dedicated to National Dog Bite Prevention Week, I thought it might be fun to end on an uplifting note. This week’s video was first introduced to me by Debbie Jacobs of Debbie is an expert in dealing with fearful dogs, like Foster Maggie.

I love this video for a multitude of reasons:

  1. It features a child learning how to use positive reinforcement to improve the relationship with his bird.
  2. It demonstrates how easy it is to use positive reinforcement to change a response to something fearful (in this case, Noah). If a child can do this, so can you.
  3. The smile on Noah’s face when he realizes that his relationship with his bird has changed. It’s an amazing smile and the look of accomplishment says it all.

I hope you will indulge me this week as I skip the cute dog video for one with a wonderful message and purpose. Watch Noah train his bird.

I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Happy Friday everyone!


How has your dog trained you?

April 29, 2013 22 comments

IMG_9551A few weeks ago I asked you “What has your dog learned by watching other dogs and you?”

The responses were funny and interesting, and they completely reinforced my belief that dogs are waaaaayyyyy smarter than we give them credit for. We still have so much to learn about them….

One of the things I often ponder is what my dogs have trained me to do, like playing ball when they want or letting them outside for a potty break or cuddling when they demand it.  All three of my dogs have behaviors that indicate something they want.

Jasper will wave his paw in the air when he wants me to continue rubbing his belly. Daisy will pace back and forth, between her kennel and the living room, when she wants to go outside, and Cupcake will stand on her back legs and place her paws on my lap when she wants attention. All are behaviors that have worked for them in the past so they know it will likely get them what they want.

Of course, I really do know that my dogs haven’t trained me as much as I have trained them. By giving them what they want when they exhibit these behaviors, I am reinforcing in their minds that this is the behavior they must do to get what they want. It sounds like a circular argument doesn’t it? It is to some extent.

When Jasper wants to play ball and continuously drops it at my feet and I pick it up to throw it, I have told him that dropping it over and over again at my feet will get the desired behavior from me (i.e., me throwing his ball).

We dog owners all have these behaviors we do when our dogs give us a behavior or cue. They have learned from us what works because we reinforce it. Barking at something outside gets our attention, whether it be positive or negative. Jumping on us gets them attention too. Again, it may be a positive or negative response, but it IS attention.

One of the things Jasper has learned is that walks are really, really exciting. When we leash up for a walk in the neighborhood he starts barking and jumping and pulling. Up until last week, I was reinforcing his behavior by giving him attention (“Jasper stop it!” or “Jasper, no barking”). He had learned that barking, jumping and pulling were all behaviors that got him what he wanted… a walk through the neighborhood.

That’s when I realized I hadn’t been taking my own advice, the one I had been giving to clients for years – stop reinforcing the behavior.

So, last week I stopped reinforcing the behaviors by taking away the expected response (i.e., continuing on our walk).. Instead of responding to the Jasper’s behavior with the desired result (to keep walking) I just stopped and ignored him until he stopped barking. When he was quiet for more than 3-5 seconds we started walking again. If he started barking again, we stopped and went through the whole process all over again until he stopped.

It didn’t take him long to figure out that he wasn’t getting the desired response he wanted when he barked and jumped and pulled. I was training him what desired behaviors would get him what he wanted (i.e., walking quietly and without pulling =  moving forward and walking). we still have some work to do, but he is getting better about our walks.

I bet many of you have behaviors your dog has taught you to do too. What are you reinforcing with your dog? What behaviors does your dog do that leads to a desired response from you every single time? Have you tried changing your response? What happens when you do?


Dogs don’t come genetically hardwired to know “SIT”

February 10, 2013 10 comments

Dog Lying on FloorRecently a friend posted her volunteer pin from our old local humane society that I used to volunteer at here in town. It brought back a lot of memories for me. We used to be such a tight-knit group of staff and volunteers. There was something special about the place. Even now, two years later, we all still pine for the days when we would all work together to help the animals in our care.

One of the things that made us such a close group was the amount of time we spent learning how to help the dogs and cats in our care. Like other humane societies, ours offered training classes for puppies and newly adopted dogs. We also had training for staff and volunteers, including such topics as cat care, dog care, positive reinforcement training and understanding dog behavioral cues. And, we had a training program for STAR volunteers, for those of us who worked with some of the less adoptable dogs to help them become more adoptable.

I like to think that our volunteers were trained better than those in most other shelters. I might be a bit biased on that front, but I know we certainly were given every opportunities to learn more about dogs and dog behavior (Thank you Rut, Inga, Kate and Colleen!).

Perhaps one of my favorite training segments was the one that didn’t include any dogs at all. It was a regular part of the dog training classes, both for adopters and their dogs and the volunteers and STAR members.

The instructor (i.e., dog trainer) would first have people pair up in class. Once pairs had been established, one person from each pair would be asked to leave the room. The trainer would then tell those who remained that they would be playing the role of a trainer. They would be responsible for training the other person a new trick or command. The catch was the trainer could not use any words to explain to the other person what they wanted them to do. They could use some hand gestures and head nods, but no sounds or words. The class trainer would then assign a trick or command and let the other people back in the room.

It was always fun to watch the other people come back in as we tried to get the to do what we wanted them to do. They would stand there with puzzled looks on their faces trying to figure out what were asking of them. Many would try the obvious commands -sit, down, come, etc. Others would resort to offering a variety of behaviors in hope they would hit upon the right one eventually. Most people figured out what they were being asked to do, with a little time and trial and error, but occasionally, they wouldn’t be able to figure it out and would just give up.

Sound familiar?

If you haven’t already figured it out, the purpose of the exercise was to help us understand what our own dogs go through when we are trying to train them. As many of you already know, training a dog with words only works if you first show them what the behavior is that you want. Saying “sit, Sit Sit, SIT!” over and over again is unlikely to get the behavior you want if your dog has never been shown the behavior in the first place, or if they haven’t been shown how that word “sit” is connected to a specific behavior. (I can’t tell you how many times I heard people going through the dog kennels at our shelter yelling “SIT!” to a dog who had no clue what they were saying or why.)

Dogs aren’t genetically hardwired to know “SIT”. Helping us to understand what it felt like to be our dogs helped us to be better trainers and to have more patience and understanding when working with them. Sometimes putting ourselves in their shoes can open our eyes to things we had not seen before. I know this one certainly made an impact on me and how I work with my dogs.

What about you? Have you ever done this exercise with your spouse or a friend before? How did it change how you work with your dog?

My dirty little secret – my dogs are fence fighting

September 24, 2012 42 comments

The run to the fence

Why is that when it comes to our dog’s behavior, or misbehavior, we seek the easiest solution first? I am as guilty of it as anyone else. I like to think I know better (and I really do), but I admit it, sometimes I just get lazy and choose the easy way out.

I am sure you must think my dogs are perfect, after all they look so darn adorable in those photos I share with you, but the truth is we have a little secret here at Casa del Mel (well okay, if you’re my neighbor it’s not really a secret). We have a barking problem. No, actually it’s worse than that, what we have here is a fence-charging, fence-fighting problem.

It used to be a once in a while thing, but over time, as Jasper and Lady have gotten closer, they gotten better at triggering one another with a simple look. Now, the simplest thing (a sound, a person walking by, etc.) can trigger “the look” and a race to the fence to bark and fence fight with the neighbor’s dogs behind us.

It is not a pretty sight. It’s also very annoying for both me and the neighbor. The problem is that both our dogs are outside a lot. And, both take part in the fence fighting.

So what have I tried?

  • Making the dogs wait at the door before going outside – This only works until we get outside and then some sound or person triggers them and off they go again.
  • Running down to where the fence fighting was occurring and try to stop the behavior after it was already in full swing – Uh yeah. Waaaay too late.
  • Using a device that emits a sound only dogs can hear to stop them in mid-run to the fence – This worked on the two dogs it was meant for, but scared the bejesus out of the dog who wasn’t involved, Daisy. It made her afraid to go outside. Can you imagine how awful I felt about that one?
  • Keeping one dog on a leash until they settled down outside and then letting them off leash once they were calm – See bullet number one for how well this one worked.

What I started to realize was just how little time I was spending trying to understand what was happening and why. Instead, I was focusing the majority of my time on trying to stop the behavior after it had already occurred. No wonder I had so little success.

Any good dog trainer will tell you observing a dog’s behavior can help one to understand his triggers, and in doing so, reveal a wealth of information about him and the behaviors you are seeing. Understanding a dog’s triggers can also help show you where and when to redirect them. But here I was trying to solve the problem without really observing their behavior. So that’s what I started doing first.

What did I learn by observing Lady and Jasper?

  • The behavior almost always starts when Jasper and Lady get excited by something in their environment – a neighbor walking their dog, the sound of a dog barking (usually one of the fellow fence-fighters on the other side of the fence), a child running through the front yard, etc.
  • In almost every case, Jasper is the one who gets the most excited by this external stimuli.
  • Before the mad dash to the fence, there is a “look” exchanged between Jasper and Lady. Once this happens, there is only a second or two before redirecting the behavior is too late.
  • Very rarely does Jasper engage in the actual fence fighting, but he loves to get it started.
  • Lady doesn’t appear to see fence fighting as an act of aggression, but rather as a fun game.
  • When outside alone, neither dog seems interested in fence fighting at all.
  • If Lady can be redirected before she reaches the fence, Jasper loses all interest in the game. Jasper is much harder to redirect because food is less of a reward for him than the excitement the behavior creates (I seriously suspect he is an adrenaline junkie.)

Who knew so much could learned by just taking the time to actually observe the behavior? I suspect my dog trainer friends would say “Duh!”

Armed with this new information, I have now had a place to begin to start to address the issue and the resulting behaviors (let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to prevent the triggers that set Jasper off).

So what have I started to do to change the behavior?

  • Train all 3 dogs to understand that the click of my clicker will yield a treat.   (I have tried using a clicker in the past, but it used to scare Jasper and Daisy.)
  • Retrain the dogs to “Come” and follow-up with a click and a treat.
  • Increase their recall response by calling them to “come” at random moments (e.g., when they are playing or sniffing in the yard).
  • Wait for that trigger to occur and use the recall to redirect Jasper and Lady to “come” to me instead of running to the fence. Often I catch them in mid-run and will get Lady to spin around and come back. Jasper is less likely of the two to respond to the recall when he is excited, so I use the recall specifically with Lady because I know that 1) Jasper has no interest in fence fighting unless Lady is there, and 2) if he sees Lady is getting a treat for following through on the “come” command, he is more likely to follow suit.
  • Be more consistent. If I don’t have a treat on hand I use lost of praise, but I always use the recall command to redirect.

So far the results have been fairly successful. There are still times when the recall doesn’t work, but the more we practice, the more successes we have and the less fence fighting we see. We are a work in progress. (Now if only I could get them to stop when I have to run inside for something!)

So now I am interested in you… What things are you working on with your dogs? Have you also had an issue with fence fighting? How have you worked to resolve it? Share your training issues and successes.

Fellow fence fighters – the neighbor dogs. (BTW – They are really sweet dogs too.)

“The Look” has been exchanged and the race to the fence begins.

The successful recall. Lady is redirected and receives a click and a treat in return.



Dog training gone bad. What would you say?

February 21, 2012 25 comments

Looking back on my early experiences with training dogs, I feel grateful that Caesar Milan wasn’t a household name yet. Even though positive reinforcement wasn’t a widely used term then, I know now that this is exactly what I was using with my dogs, Teaco and Alicia, back then. I taught them all sorts of tricks using positive reinforcement: jump on the bench, jump off, down, sit, come, heel, etc.

It’s the same method I use when training my dogs today. Why? Because I know it works. It’s worked all my life with all of my dogs. Why would I choose a method that to me seems cruel?

This past weekend I happened to be speaking with someone about our dogs and some of the work we are doing to manage our dog’s barking at other dogs along the fence line. During the conversation, she mentioned that she had pinned her female dog down to let her know that she was misbehaving. Ugh! I inwardly (and I am sure outwardly) cringed when she said this. My face had to have relayed my reaction to this news, if not, then my stunned silence must have done so. I wanted to say something to her about using this type of “training” method. I wanted to tell her how wrong this approach iss and the repercussions of using it. I wanted to share with her the scientific data that shows this type of training approach only leads to more aggression in a dog, not less. Submission? A man-made concept to feel oh so powerful over a often smaller and weaker being.

Yes, I wanted to say all of that. Instead, I froze. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to sound like I was lecturing, but I wanted to educate. Instead, I remained silent and then murmured something innocuous and walked away. To say I was disappointed in myself was an understatement. I could have used this moment to educate instead I shut down because I didn’t know quite how to approach the topic without sounding like I was lecturing.

So, I am asking you for help. How would you have handled this issue? How would you have turned the discussion into one that would educate and not lecture? How can I broach the topic with her again? I welcome all your thoughts and ideas.

Treating People More Like Dogs

September 11, 2011 17 comments

I was catching up on some blog reading this past weekend (this is what happens when you get a full-time job and can’t keep up on all your favorite blogs!) when I came across this one by Pamela over at Something Wagging This Way Comes. Thought-provoking, insightful, and a great message about the kindness of strangers – in this case, the stranger would be Pamela.

It really got me to thinking about how I can improve my personal approach in situations where the dog owner is treating their dog in a way that I believe is harmful. I’m not very tactful when it comes to situations like this. I pretty much say what is on my mind. But that doesn’t really help the situation does it? In fact, it might even make things worse, especially for the dog.

Pamela’s approach, and Vicky’s comments (see the comment section) made me realize that there is still so much I have to learn about working with people. I have no problem with dogs, that comes naturally to me, but humans? That’s a whole different ball game.

I am more apt to give a dog the benefit of the doubt than a person. I watch their behavior and often wonder at the root cause. What caused them to act this way? What triggered it? What past experience led to the behavior? How can I communicate to this dog in such a way that I can help them get beyond where they are now? These are the things I think when working with a dog.

And yet, when it comes to people I often go right to judgement. I forget that every person has a story, a tragedy, a personal experience; all of which makes up the person before me. I don’t know their story. I don’t know what makes them tick. I certainly don’t know why they react the way they do – with people or dogs. Perhaps if I took the time to speak with them, to learn a little more, to better understand who they are, and where they are coming from, then maybe my contribution to the world would be a better one. Certainly more dogs would be the better for it.

I have a lot to learn in this world, but I think the lesson I take away from Pamela’s post is that I need to treat people more like I treat dogs. Seek to understand and then influence positively. Maybe it’s time to practice what I preach.

Investigative Report Into A Doggy Daycare Shows Why You Need To Do Your Research

November 18, 2010 60 comments

Tonight, KMSP Fox 9 News aired a piece (please DO watch the video) about a local doggy daycare facility that, to be honest, left me absolutely speechless. The dogs were treated in a manner that was utterly appalling.

To the common layperson, using a prong collar to train, pulling a dog by it’s ears enough to cause pain, twisting a dog’s penis to teach them to stop peeing are not only outmoded forms of training, they are cruel, and they have been proven to lead to behavior issues in dogs later on.

There are a lot of people out there who work with dogs. Not all of them have your dog’s best interest at heart. Some of them do not even have a lot experience working with pets, or may treat your pet in a way that you wouldn’t want them to be treated. I wrote a blog post a while back about the need for owners to be their dog’s advocate. I cannot stress this enough. Whether it be a dog trainer, a doggy daycare or a pet sitter, you need to do your research. You need to know what methods they use to train your dog, discipline your dog, work with your dog, etc.

Understanding the latest in dog behavioral science is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but perhaps this information shared just this past week by Dr. Sophia Yin (a veterinarian with a Masters in Animal Science) will help dog owners to understand that knowing who is doing what to your dog is so important. Because the latest information shows that aggressive training techniques lead to an aggressive response from a dog. I learned about this information 2 years ago and shared it on my blog, but it is worth sharing again:

The highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect:

• Hitting or kicking the dog (41% of owners reported aggression)
• Growling at the dog (41%)
• Forcing the dog to release an item from its mouth (38%)
• “Alpha roll” (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%)
• “Dominance down” (forcing the dog onto its side) (29%)
• Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%)
• Staring the dog down (staring at the dog until it looks away) (30%)
• Spraying the dog with water pistol or spray bottle (20%)
• Yelling “no” (15%)
• Forced exposure (forcibly exposing the dog to a stimulus – such as tile floors, noise or people – that frightens the dog) (12%)

In contrast, non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses:

Training the dog to sit for everything it wants (only 2% of owners reported aggression)
• Rewarding the dog for eye contact (2%)
• Food exchange for an item in its mouth instead of forcing the item out (6%)
• Rewarding the dog for “watch me” (0%)

(Data from a study by, Herron, Frances S. Shofer and Ilana R. Reisner, veterinarians with the Department of Clinical Studies at University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine)

This is why it is so important to know who is caring for your pet. Not knowing, could put you, your dog or your child in danger. You need to do your own research. After all, it is your best buddy you are talking about here right?

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