dog training

Mouthing & Play-biting

play-biting-huskyMouthing or play biting can be cute to watch when your dog is just a pup, but when it continues into adulthood it can be anywhere from annoying or inappropriate to downright dangerous.  Nipping the problem in the bud by teaching a dog bite inhibition is the best route, but if your adult dog is already in the habit of mouthing/play biting when riled up, it’s time to change your approach. #1. Don’t reward the behavior: many things can be interpreted as a reward to a dog.  Continuing to play with the dog is the worst thing you can do – you’re telling him/her that it’s okay to use their teeth on your skin.  Even talking to or yelling at the dog can reinforce the behavior, because you’re giving the dog attention, which is usually a reward.  Take your hands away, stop playing, and ignore the dog (i.e. take the rewards away) when your dog mouths.

#2. Redirect the dog to a better behavior: you don’t have to stop playing and having fun with your dog.  Redirect the dog’s mouthing to something harmless – perhaps a stuffed toy, ball, or any number of tug-toys and rope toys you can buy at most any pet store.

#3. Praise the dog for appropriate play: if your dog is playing nicely, i.e. without touching their teeth to your skin; or with a toy, praise them.  Calmly tell them they’re a good dog, or give them a treat.  Or just calm down and give them a good rub.  These all tell the dog it’s doing the right thing and reinforces the behavior you want!

#4. In tough situations, be a puppy: if the dog isn't responding to you ignoring the bad behavior, make a loud startling “yelp” noise and get up and leave the room.  Go do something else for a few minutes away from the dog, and then come back and resume play if the dog is calm.  This will usually work if other methods don't, and vice versa.  For some dogs, this will just rile them up more; so use caution.

By giving the dog good things to do, and avoiding giving them the opportunity to perform a behavior you don’t like, you’re setting your dog up for success!  You’re on the way to having a more rewarding relationship with your canine companion.

Dog training: What is positive-reinforcement (R+) dog training?

So, I've already talked about some different types of traditional punitive training techniques in my previous post.  I'll move right along with the more modern, science-based techniques I mentioned: positive-reinforcement (abbreviated as R+) training and clicker-training.  A lot of people seem to think these methods are a little out of reach or difficult to understand, but I hope to clear them up a bit right here, right now.

Positive-reinforcement is ultimately very simple once you get the idea.  It's all based on Pavlov's theory of classical conditioning and B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning.  If you aren't familiar with the famous Pavlov's dog experiment, I'll summarize it quickly for you.  Ivan Pavlov, a researcher, conducted an experiment by ringing a bell prior to each feeding the dog in the experiment was given.  Over time, he observed that when the bell rang, the dog began to salivate, ultimately anticipating the oncoming food before it was ever presented.  The bell had become a condition stimulus that the dog associated with food.

This basic concept, which is really what positive-reinforcement training is all about, is that if you condition a dog by creating an association between a conditioned stimulus (CS) (i.e. the bell in Pavlov's experiment) and a reward (i.e. food/treats), the previously neutral stimulus (the bell) will now elicit a conditioned response (i.e. salivating/expecting food).  It's science!  B.F. Skinner furthered this idea by discovering that you can shape behavior once you are able to condition animals.  

Have I lost you?  I hope not.  Here's where it all comes together.  Small devices that make a "click" noise when depressed are convenient and can be used in place of a bell.  That's clicker-training.  You can also replace the click with the word "yes" or many other stimuli, for that matter--it's a matter of preference, though many trainers prefer a clicker because of the consistency and recognizable sound.  First, you create an association between the CS of your choice and the receipt of treats (also referred to as "charging" the clicker in clicker-training, by clicking once and immediately giving the dog a treat, and repeating this several times in several different charging sessions).  Once the dog makes the association that the CR means that treats are coming, you can communicate to the dog very quickly and efficiently when they've done something you want.

One misunderstanding many people have about reward-based training such as this is that the dog must become dependent on treats in order to behave.  This is incorrect, because whatever reward you are using to teach the behavior, be it treats; praise; toys; or other things the dog finds rewarding; they are only used during the beginning stages when first teaching a particular behavior.  They are phased out over time, and in fact, if you were to continue rewarding the dog each time they successfully perform the behavior, the training would not be as effective.  Once the dog understands the behavior we are asking of it, we use something called an intermittent reinforcement schedule, which, in layman's terms, basically just means changing it up and not giving the same reward each time.  Think of it in terms of gambling: the idea that you might win something makes it that much more appealing to do.  Your dog is essentially becoming a gambling addict (in a good way!).

You can train very complex behaviors with this type of training.  For an example of the amazing things that are possible with clicker training, please check out the video by one of my training heroes, Emily Larlham (and her dog, Splash), below.

Splash the Border Collie!

The benefits of positive-reinforcement-based dog training are many.  In this type of training, you're teaching the dog the think for themselves—they're getting more from the training than they would with punishment-based methods.  Dogs tend to really enjoy this type of training because they're engaged and having fun.  If you're using treats with a dog that loves food, then the dog will enjoy food in return for doing things you ask.  If you have a dog who loves to play with toys, then the dog can learn that doing things you like brings play sessions with toys and they'll be more inclined to work with you.  In the case of learning loose-leash walking, moving forward is the reward, so if you reward a dog by moving forward only when the leash is loose, they quickly learn to stop pulling!  It's a beautiful, effective method that is humane, fun, and lasts longer than simply punishing a dog.  The process of learning the behaviors you teach them is so much more participatory, rather than just telling them they did something wrong, you're being more proactive and productive by telling them what to do instead.

Edit 10/2013: A nice video example of the difference the dog experiences between these two training methods is linked below.

Dog training. That's where you show the dog who's boss, right?

Part: One (this is bound to be lengthy, so I'm writing it in two parts). 2012-07-17 19.46.20There are many "theories" of dog training floating around in the world today.  There's correction-based dog training; pack-leader "alpha" or "dominance" based dog training; there's clicker-training; positive-reinforcement training; and there's even progressive reinforcement training.  I'm sure I've left some out.  What's a dog owner to do?  How does one know which is best, and what'll work best for their dog?

Well, I won't be shy and I'll come out right away and say that the first two on that list are ones you'll want to avoid.  Why?  Because behavioral science, numerous research studies, and when it comes down to it, basic common sense dictates that we should follow the path of least resistance and at least do no harm to our pets.  If you have a dog that is misbehaving, or simply doesn't know commands you think he/she ought to, then your ultimate objective is to teach the right behavior.

In correction-based dog training, you would "correct" (read: punish) your dog for "misbehaving."  An example would be jerking on a cinch ("choke") chain when the dog pulls on leash to teach him not to pull, or to slap the dog on the nose or rear end with a rolled-up-newspaper or paddle for getting into something in the house you'd prefer she didn't.

Dominance (also "pack" or "alpha") training tells us that we must be dominant to our dogs.  We must be their unwavering leader and not allow them to dominate us.  We must be so intimidating to our dog that they respect us and do not misbehave for fear that we may dominate them and show them who's boss.  Examples would be the "alpha roll" (disclaimer: DO NOT DO THIS), wherein the dog "misbehaves" and you physically push the dog onto the floor and roll him onto his back, and generally stand there and stare intimidatingly until they submit (if they do submit and don't bite you in the face, instead).  Other methods include those seen on shows such a Cesar Millan's "The Dog Whisperer," where you'd hit the dog with the tips of your fingers (emulating a "mother wolf's 'bite'") and say "chhh chhh" when they act inappropriately.  This in turn frightens the dog into submission, and the dog then stop the behavior.

This is not an extensive description of these methods, but hopefully you get the gist.  There are numerous problems with the two training methods I just described.  You may have figured it out on your own simply by reading the terms "choke" and "hit" and "frighten."  Who actually wants to do those things to their "best friend"?

Beyond hurting or scaring your pet, these methods can cause further damage simply due to the fact that they can cause a dog to fear you, and ultimately all they do is suppress behavior.  They don't get to the root of why your dog is barking or chewing or pulling on the leash, they simply punish the dog for doing it.  This can work in the short-term, but in the long-term, you may be building up a lot of stress and fear inside of your best friend, and sadly, this frequently ends up in the dog showing other, more complex behavioral issues including aggression in some form or another down the line.

Hopefully after reading this, you're eager to learn more about more gentle, positive, effective methods of training.  I'll go into detail about those in my next post.  This has gotten lengthy. :)