Dogs don’t get a day off—particularly in the time of Covid-19.

As someone who frequently interacts with working dogs and working-dog people, it is easy to divide the world of dogs into working dogs and pet dogs. Working dogs have drive and are intense; more importantly, they have jobs. Pet dogs, in contrast, are supposed to be happy-go-lucky, willing to hang out with their humans and accept life as it is.

The truth, however, is that pet dogs do work, every day of their lives—which for some requires a certain drive and grit all its own. Even when our lives are not turned upside down by a pandemic, pet dogs have work to do. For example, pet dogs offer quiet companionship for hours while we watch T.V.—even when they would much prefer a game of fetch because their human skipped walking them that day.

Pet dogs are close observers of their humans. They notice when we want to interact with them and when we don’t—indications that are often inconsistent and unclear. Many dogs are expected to stay away from the table while people are eating, but still understand that their human wants them to curl up at their feet when reading a book. Failure to learn subtle indications about their human’s mood can lead to a dog being relegated outside, which is hard on these highly social creatures, or in extreme cases surrendered to a shelter.

Pet dogs must learn a foreign language, and tolerate our frequent failure to learn theirs. “Go lie down” is “down” is also “off.” At times they are expected to be mind readers capable of complying with unexpressed expectations. Despite ambiguity in our cues and general communication, many owners still expect dogs to obey them instantly, regardless of the dogs’ own needs—a belief that is perpetuated when cues are described as commands. If we had bosses as mercurial and dictatorial as some dog owners, we would probably look for a new job. So, I am not convinced that the current meme about dogs being happy to have humans at home all day is universally true—although I’m sure it is for many.

To make sure that all this together time is good for both ends of the leash, ask yourself what is your dog’s life like during our global stay-at-home? Are his or her working conditions still acceptable or are reasonable accommodations to the workplace required?

To help you decide whether your dog’s needs are being met during this crisis, consider the following.

Time off. Does your dog get any time off now that you no longer go to work or even out to dinner? Consider that your dog may still need some alone time (which will also make the transition back to work go more smoothly, assuming we do go back some day). Make sure that your pet dog can retreat and rest away from kids and any other loud or high-energy aspects of your home.

Routines.  Dogs like routines. If your pet dog is underfoot more these days (or less), or is suddenly unusually destructive or is barking more than in the past, consider that your dog may be struggling to learn their new place in a household that never leaves.

Stress.  Covid is stressful. Many people are worried about losing incomes, homes, and jobs. We may have lost people we loved and we fear for our own health. We may not mean to let our stress impact those around us, but it is easy to do so. Dogs, like children, are particularly vulnerable. Dogs live their days entirely at the mercy of their humans. Ask yourself, would you want to be a dependent in your home right now? We all have moments when we fail to be our best selves leaving our pets to pay the price, but what is your primary temperament at home during this period of stress and fear? Could your dog be living anxious and scared? Or is your dog simply ignored and bored? 

My challenge to us all during this period of staying at home is to use this time to observe your dog. Create a stay-at-home routine and watch how it impacts them. Give your pet dog some space every day and see how this impacts their behavior. Notice what they like and what they don’t. Care enough to make sure your dog has access to at least some things they want and voluntarily choose to do every day. Think past dog treats. Treats are great and can certainly reinforce desirable behavior, but so can walks, playing ball or tug, or a long run outside. Joint activities build a stronger relationship and being active is good for both dogs and humans.

Dogs work hard to provide us with the companionship that we desire, but they don’t always know what to do to please their “boss.” You can help by making sure your expectations for them are clear. Instead of focusing on the things you don’t like, which does nothing to clarify what you want your dog to do, catch your dog in the act of doing something good—they will learn how to meet your expectations much more quickly. For example, when your dog walks up to the sandwich you forgot on the coffee table and simply lies down, tell him he’s wonderful and give him a belly rub (if he likes belly rubs) or grab the leash and take him for a walk. Your dog will appreciate that you noticed him doing the right thing and that his choice led to something fun. 

See how many things you can catch your dog doing right each day and how many different ways you can reinforce those good behaviors. Your dog will appreciate your communicating to them what you expect and giving them a workplace that is once again (or maybe finally!) predictable and manageable. Your pet dogs will welcome finally getting the “paycheck” that they have long deserved for all the work they do at home! In turn, they’ll work harder than ever at being good.

Under Pressure . . .

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. This is due, in part, to all the things that have been keeping me busy, but also because I took time to write an article for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Journal, which you can read here. Hopefully you find it interesting and helpful.

Making training rewarding

Hexi Playing - cropped

It feels like this should be an easy topic, no real training or thought needed, and on some level this is true. We all have a general idea how to dole out a reward. But it’s oh so easy to reward ineffectively! I think most of our issues stem from a failure to recognize (or remember) that rewards are ANYTHING that makes a behavior more likely to reoccur. So, a reward is something your dog actually likes and wants, offered in a manner that links it to a behavior so that your dog is likely to do behavior again—like when your dog almost pulls your shoulder out of it’s socket as he drags you to a bush, and then rewards himself by sniffing at it happily.

One way to reward ineffectively is to accidentally reward a behavior you don’t want!

Another way rewards can run off the tracks is when some of us confuse treats with rewards. Pet food marketers encourage this error after all, and it’s easy to feel you have rewarded your dog simply because you have shoved a treat at them—I think we are all guilty of this at times. But does your dog like the treat? Or maybe your dog is bored with a treat that was once super yummy—until 6 months passed by with absolutely no variation. You don’t have to hang out with dog trainers very long to hear someone indignantly say, “but he always liked these before”! Would you like potato chips if they were all you were ever allowed to snack on?

I might want to test this theory on myself, just to be sure! Potato chips are pretty darn good.

Maybe your treats are great, but your demeanor screams boredom or frustration or inattention when you offer your dog their treat. Another common thing that I see is a person leaning down over their space-sensitive dog as they offer the treat, counteracting the pleasure the dog might have felt over the treat. All these types of things can easily affect whether a tidbit is received as a reward by the dog.

Think how you feel when someone slaps food in front of you and then marches off. It’s not dinner. It’s an insult. Consider context when you’re evaluating your methods for rewarding your dog.

A related problem is the ease with which we forget that there is a whole world of rewards out there that we can draw upon. We are creatures of habit after all. But we needn’t limit ourselves to one brand (although my dogs do like Zuke’s®). Even hot dogs or cheese can get old, so although food is really helpful for precision, and treat placement, toys and games can be fun too and more motivating for some dogs or certain behaviors. Tugging (let your dog win) is a great reward for a recall or for holding two-on/two-off in agility. Frisbee or retrieving a ball can be highly motivating, and works-off calories from all the teats you’re using too.

Watch your dogs’ demeanor as you branch out. There are dogs who just don’t want you to toss the ball; they want to hold on to it. A squeaky toy that one dog loves may scare a sound-sensitive rescue.

So, now you’re convinced you should branch out, but don’t stop at toys. Why not look for other opportunities to reward good behavior. Let your dog out to play after a nice “sit” or “down.” Tell your dog to “go sniff” to reward his decision to not tug you all the way to the well-marked mailbox. Also, what things in the environment are rewarding behaviors you don’t like? You may need to cut off access to this environment-based reward if you want the annoying behavior to slowly extinguish itself.

Quantity can also be important, along with delivery (e.g., one treat after another to draw out the fun, or a quick jackpot or a 5 minute game of tug for a great job). A puritanical insistence on avoiding handouts (the nothing-in-life-is-free plan) can also undermine certain types of training, such as classical conditioning, as can the ever-popular fear of over-treating. Outside of calories (and cost), I’m not sure why this is of such concern for so many people. But over and over, I see people reward their young dog for finding a source after a long, hard search with, drum roll, a single, teeny, tiny treat—even after they were encouraged to go wild—and then they wonder why their dog is distracted by all the good scents occurring naturally in the environment. Hint—they are more interesting than the reward that you’ve conditioned your dog to associate with the scent.

I’m not suggesting that we treat anything and everything, but we forget at our peril that a better-than-all-previous-efforts effort deserves a bigger-than-most payout even if the behavior still needs work. Any effort may warrant a jackpot if it was in the presence of an overwhelming distraction, or took an exceptionally long time to complete. I cannot emphasize enough how an occasional piece (or 5) of steak, or a meatball, or a long tug session in exchange for a better-than-most effort may be all that is needed to help motivate a dog accustomed to working in a sea of teeny, tiny kibble.

So ask your dog to learn a lot and work hard, but remember that nothing in life is free. Pay up!

*Next time we’ll talk about rewards, I’ll explore how searching can function as a reward.

Slaying dragons is difficult when you ignore them…

…Or when you decide to start with the mother of all dragons!

Slaying DragonsI read an article this morning, a parable really, that addresses the common practice of talking about change, promoting it even, while running scared from the reality of it.  There’s a similar phenomenon seen in dog training where a handler says she wants her dog’s behavior to change.  This handler attends classes to promote change.  She fights traffic to get to this class after work.  She pays for this class.  While in class, she listens carefully to what her instructor says.  Then, while waiting her turn, or coming or going from the building, this handler reverts instantly to gripping the end of her leash, hanging on tight, and tolerating all of the problem behaviors she just spent an hour learning how to address.  And then she wonders why nothing ever changes.

Behavior changes slowly.  Habits are easily entrenched, but hard to fill in or reroute.  There is no magic formula.  To change behavior we all must make small changes.  Work with new “baby” behaviors patiently and consistently.  You have to nurture a future habit until it becomes fixed.  Then you’re ready to make the next change, and so on.

This is hard however.  First, you have to know where you want to go with your behavior issue, whether its your dog’s or your own.  After all, a fun trick that you once taught your dog may turn into a “zombie” problem that keeps rising from the extinguished behavior pile to haunt your obedience routine, or simply piss off guests, if you didn’t look ahead at what your long term expectations really were.  For example, I have a “rewind” trick that now rises up in finishes and other exercises from time to time–I find it funny, but it could really upset a trainer with more exacting standards.  I have another trick where my dog peeks through my legs.  I like it, but not all guests are amused and my agility instructor can’t stand it!

It is also hard because we don’t break things down and think small enough.  For example, teaching “stays.”  Each session I ask students to start teaching “stay” first by teaching the dog to resist following a treat when the handler moves their hand away from the dog.  Then, I’ll have them simply build some time into their dog’s sit: one one thousand, treat.  Then move to: one one thousand, two one thousand and treat.  Now build this up to a solid 5 seconds.  At this point, I’ll ask them to add the actual word, “stay”, but go back to counting one one thousand, the hold period that your puppy has already mastered (and not a 5 minute stay), mark and treat, then release.  Now build up to five seconds slowly before stepping away–and when you do, lower the time held.

Invariably, students ask their puppy, who just acquired the concept of sit, to stay as they walk out to the end of the leash.  Of course the puppy follows, bouncing along beside them happily–or she might wander off to sniff the puppy next to her.  The student then calls and scolds the puppy (breaking down the puppy’s nascent heel and recall) and drags him back to try again–hopefully I catch each student before this cycle gets too far!

Knowing this, I have to wonder why I still decide I’m going to make a change, like taking up meditation, or eating well, or starting this blog, and then alternate between attempting to create an award-winning site and completely ignoring my page, sometimes for years!  I should listen to myself and start small.  Baby steps.  Write an entry each week (I almost said day, but caught myself).  When this is habit, I will grow the behavior.  I’m getting better and better at expecting smaller changes from my dogs, maybe I can start expecting less of myself, and getting further in the end.

Dog Days

Every day I pass a house that has a German Shepherd dog tied out beneath a pine tree. The dog has shade and I see what appears to be a water bowl.  The owners take the dog in at night.  In other words, its most basic needs are met.  When I think about the limitations placed on that dog’s life, however, how his muscles and mind are atrophying from the stationary existence he is forced to live out under a tree, I want to cry–and to steal the dog.  Yet, this dog’s life is better than lives lived by many other animals and, for that matter, many people.  I believe our society’s unthinking indifference towards animals feeds our mistreatment of the weak and the powerless of all species including our own.  Small things accumulate into large problems; most things fall apart slowly, one board or brick at a time.

The German Shepherd is visible, but many dogs languish in suburban boredom, at least Monday through Friday.  A few ideas to break up the boredom without derailing your busy schedule include frozen Kongs, you can even use them for feeding main meals; wet food can be stuffed in and then frozen, while kibble can be added and then capped with peanut butter before freezing.  “Grass” feeders;  working for the food gives your dog a mental challenge.  Puzzles for dogs also challenge the dog to think as they attempt to locate treats.  Canine fitness games can give you and your dog a fun, indoor training outlet when the weather is too cold for long walks.

What are you doing to enrich the lives of the living being in your care each day?

First Things First

One night several years ago my dog lost her trail at a busy intersection.  The scent she was following had washed down the banks of the road into the ditches on either side.  As cars passed, remnants of the scent trail floated away making it extremely difficult for my dog to follow it further.  I became frustrated because I thought my dog had just stopped working.  Because I focused on the perceived misbehavior, I couldn’t see the actual problem–or what my dog had done right!  All I saw was that she had started eating grass and jumping up on bystanders instead of working.  Later, to my chagrin, I realized that these behaviors were signs of her stress, presumably stress she felt over her failure to please me.

Fortunately for both of us, a more experienced tracker instructed me to back up and re-cast her over a part of the trail where she had worked scent before, and, sure enough, she went back to work–right up to the road, where, once again, she stopped.  This time the handler suggested that I put her on lead and take her across the road.  I did and again she went back to work, quickly finding her hidden helper, much to her delight. It had been an exceptionally hard trail!

Like my dog, we all are searching for something or other.  And, like her, we work hard at it.  We tend to focus on failure and fail to see strengths, however.  We refuse to modify our plan, show flexibility, or simply laugh when things fall apart–most things in life are not life or death.  Often we fail to formulate a true goal.  Unsurprisingly, we get frustrated.  It’s hard to make it to the end of the trail if you’ve lost all scent of it and are beating yourself up, or, worse, don’t know what you’re looking for in the first place!

That night, I learned that I must stay neutral when my dog loses her way.  Provide a little help and encouragement, instead of simply criticizing failed efforts.  I don’t mean we should accept failure, just don’t punish it.  Most importantly, learn from it, and look out for small successes to reward.  One step at a time, we can all get where we wish to go.