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Self-evaluation is valuable for the trainer, the dog and our broader community. At Whole Dog Camp, we aim to collect valid training data so that we can evaluate training techniques and understand more about influences on behavior, shaping behavior as a science, as well as an art. Members have a file that helps them participate in training data collection. Your first training evaluation will provide you with useful data.

Look at  description training levels on the registration page to get an idea of what behaviors are evaluated. Almost every team will test out at “many levels.” Your dog might be an expert (blue!) in one thing, and a complete beginner(orange! red!) in another area. Levels are determined by a teams’ minimal level of performance.  If your dog evaluates at a level orange in social skills, but a level blue in agility, your dog has orange level privileges. Once identified “orange” skills are at least at a green level, your dog can be evaluated again, and pass to gain the privileges of Green dogs. Team level represents the lowest level of  performance, so a “Blue level” Dog will behave at the blue level or higher in every area of the evaluation.

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Reinforcement versus Punishment, and why they are both a bit tricky

IMG_0216In behavior science terminology, Reinforcement (R) and Punishment(P) are functions or “consequences” that either strengthen(R) or weaken(P) behavior.

You won’t see reputable zoos or marine mammal trainers trying to show their animals “who’s boss,” not only because it’s a dumb idea to try to boss around a dolphin, but because punishment stimulates anxiety and unpredictable escape/avoidance behaviors. These difficult to control, potentially aggressive, destructive, and unhealthy behaviors can emerge (and continue) well after punishment has ended.

Many dog trainers now call themselves “force-free” or “all positive.” Although I too recognize what marine mammal trainers and zoo-keepers and other behavior scientists have learned about the dangers of punishment, I don’t call myself an “all positive” trainer because I know that even a leash is not all positive from the point of view of many dogs. Any dog might understandably rather avoid a veterinarian visit, a toe nail clipping, or even ending a fun game. We can and should remove aversive things such as shock, choke, prongs from pet training programs, but the function of punishment is not so easily eliminated. Eliminating punishment, sounds like a good idea, but it’s like eliminating gravity. In spite of our best efforts, punishment happens. Our job is to recognize what punishment is and where it is happening, and do what we can to prevent it from weakening the animal behaviors we want to cultivate.

Accidental reinforcement is not quite as harmful as accidental punishment. Kindness, compassion, generosity, love does not ruin animals or make us mentally or emotionally ill, as excessive punishment does. Sure excess hotdogs are fattening, but they don’t really “spoil” a dog. What “spoils” behaviors is associating desired things with undesirable behavior, thereby reinforcing (strengthening) behaviors you don’t like.

Training is about associating the desired behaviors with desirable consequences, and undesirable behaviors with undesirable consequences. With humans, we can just explain (“after you do your homework, we’ll watch a movie”). But animals learn by experience, so training requires perfect timing for animals to clearly associate behavior and consequence. Delivering hotdogs right after the dog begs at the table? Toenail clipping right after the dog comes when called? That is a confusing.

The environment delivers rewards as well as punishments arbitrarily, sometimes reinforcing bad behavior (I found a cookie!) as well as punishing good behavior (puppy sits and someone steps on her tail). Hate it when that happens! This is why trainers place so much attention on setting the animal up for success with a carefully controlled environment. But even when you are working in a carefully planned low distraction environment, and you’ve set up your dog for success, mistakes happen. One common mistake is misuse of cues.

Ask yourself this: do cues function as rewards? Or punishment? Neither? Both?

Maybe this can gets to the crux of many training problems. To the degree that any or all cues (down/stay/sit/come etc) are disappointing/oppressing or bothering your dog (or kid!), expect those cues to fail. The function of punishment is to weaken or stop behavior and it does so because animals work to escape or avoid punishment. If your “sit!” or “down!” or “off!” cue is often functioning as punishment, your dog will be working to avoid it.

But, you’re a great trainer, and your cues are welcome opportunities, fun paying jobs that your dog loves! Your cues are music to your dog’s ears, like the tinkling bell of the ice cream truck! Like Pavlov’s dog, you cue “come!” and your dog salivates!

That’s great! But if you want that conditioned response to strengthen desirable behavior, it needs to be delivered during or just after the dog is performing a behavior you like. Conditioned reinforcement strengthens the behavior it follows. So if your dog is chasing a cat and you are yelling “come!” it might actually (oopsie!) strengthen the chase response. Or, if you say “sit” or “heel” and your dog doesn’t immediately sit or heel, and you say it again, and again, you’re strengthening the dog’s poor response. Much like feeding hotdogs when dogs beg at the table, some pet owners ignore their dog’s good behaviors, and feed them cues only when they are misbehaving!

So what does this mean in real life terms? Partly it means, don’t let your dog chase the cat. Set your dog up for success and prevent rehearsal of undesirable behaviors. You know where you and your dog are and what you are doing when your dog screws up. Don’t do that! If a plan (or no plan) is not working, change it. Make a plan to set your dog up for success and to practice and reward the behaviors you’d rather see happen. When accidents happen, as they surely do, just go get your dog and leash or crate or move her away, don’t stand there delivering conditioned reinforcement (cues) when you know she is not responding.

IMG_5500When my dog breaks a sit or a down, I avoid a re-cue. Instead I can deliver a “release signal” (“okay! all done!”) which leaves her wanting more. WHAT?! The game is over? Let me try again!

Don’t set the game up to fail. That is, don’t expect to condition your dog’s response to new cues in a highly distracting environment. Condition the response you want in a low distraction environment, and then build on that by practicing in many different environments, increasing the distractions and difficulty slowly. I also train conditioned “encouragement/discouragement” signals (“yay” versus “oopsie!”) and use them to help dogs think through and solve a puzzle. Like the game “colder colder/hotter hotter,” conditioned encouragement and discouragement (“oopsie” and “yay!”) can help dogs develop confidence in solving behavior problems and finding prizes, reinforcing behaviors that I like.

“Things” can function as both reinforcement or as punishment, depending on when and how you use them, and how you build your associations. Hotdogs are not always reinforcement. Lures, for example, often appear to function as punishment when trainers withhold food too long under the dog’s nose, and the dog gets frustrated, confused and gives up. The dog might be wondering, “Can I have that hotdog or can’t I? Am I supposed to follow the food in your hand, or will I get in trouble for doing that?”

Animals work to get information, and they work to avoid confusion. Animals aren’t born with any understanding of human language. Their response to cues is a conditioned response that develops through real-life learning experiences and associations, and not because you’ve shown the dog who is boss.

That’s enough for today! I enjoy comments or questions, and specific examples if you have them, below!

Is this my puppy?

I’m getting ready to pick out a new puppy. In my lifetime, I’ve owned 10 of my own dogs, and directly lived with and trained hundreds of other dogs (approaching 600 now), as well as heard stories and been consulted on many more. I know that choosing our dog determines so much about what will follow in our life with our dog.

Here are the things I consider when looking for my new puppy.IMG_3209

Coat: Personally, I want a smooth-ish coat. Partly that’s to avoid excess hair, grooming time and costs and so that it will be easier for me to do tick checks. But I don’t want a coat that is so short that my dog will be cold in winter. I am looking for a coat that is not long enough to get snarled and matted, but thick enough to be warm in winter. I like a non-shedding coat, but I know they cost more time and money to maintain, and snow clumps up on them, so although I’ve loved my non-shedding dogs, non-shedding is not my current choice.

Size: I want a dog who is just big enough to enjoy skjoring, but not so big that he will take up a ton of space or become too heavy as we age for us to lift up on our boat. I want a dog who I can catch in my arms or who can jump up on my back. So I am looking for a dog who will be no heavier than about 50-60lbs as an adult.

Gender: I currently have two females, including one who considers herself “Queen Bee.” Usually I choose spayed females, (intact dogs are such a pain! yuck!) because I don’t like to deal with all the leg lifting and penis conversations that often come up with even neutered male dogs, but this time, to make my dogs happy I think this new puppy should be a little boy. Same-gender dogs in multi-dog households can cause strife, so  I’m getting a boy to help ensure that my Queen Bee won’t be jealous.

The tricky decisions regard breed. Rather than think in terms of “breed,” I think in terms of behavior and personality traits. I want a very smart healthy dog, but I don’t want a dog who naturally obsesses on squirrels or cats and birds.  Been there done that. It’s so much easier to have a dog who is more interested in human beings than in prey.

Prey drive can vary a lot between dogs even within the same breed — you can have prey driven collies and shepherds and terriers, and others of the exact same breed who care not a whit about squirrels. There is some association between prey drive and shyness. Shy dogs tend to have more interest in hunting and less interest in humans. Shy dogs are more difficult to train, more at risk of becoming reactive/aggressive, and they have less predictable and more time consuming responses to training (because they would often rather be avoiding social interactions).  I certainly learned a lot from my shy dogs —  but I absolutely don’t want to choose a shy dog now.  I’m in the mood to teach fun tricks and games, not the mood to spend three to five years working to counter-condition a reactive anxious or prey-driven dog. I am not going to choose a breed that will make it impossible for me to get homeowner’s insurance, nor a breed that is unlikely to live a long heathy life.

So, I do want a super athletic dog. I want a sociable energetic puppy who tugs and is eager to play with me, who might grow up to jump through hoops and run agility for half an hour and still want to play some more. I want a puppy with healthy bones and eyes and ears. I want a smart dog who is likely to live a long time. I want a dog who is emotionally healthy, responsive and fun to train. I want a puppy who plays well with other puppies and humans.

My best dogs have all been mixed breed rescues. Buying a purebred dog might make it easier to “know what I’m getting” (and maybe that’s what I will ultimately do), but there are no guarantees in terms of health or longevity or temperament, and no one breed “has it it all.” I’m starting my search as I always have, by looking at sheltered puppies.

IMG_7205The best way to evaluate what size, coat color and behavior traits will be like as an adult is to choose an older puppy. It’s almost impossible to evaluate how a “breed unknown” 8 or 10 week old puppy will mature, but it’s even harder to know what size or shape a pup will grow up to be if you aren’t certain about the puppy’s age. If you adopt a 6 week old puppy believing it is a 10 or 12 week old puppy, you are likely to wind up with an adult dog who is MUCH larger than you expected. So I will try to find a puppy where the actual date of birth is known. If I select a BIRTH DATE KNOWN 8 or 10 week old puppy who is between 8 and 15 lbs, my adult dog is likely to grow into the “medium” size range than I am hoping to adopt.

Now evaluate temperament. The best test is just watching the pup play and interact. If you drop a metal spoon, does the pup shy away from it?  I want the dog where curiosity wins out. I want the pup who sniffs the spoon or pan (even though he maybe was startled by it at first). I bunch up a ball of paper, toss, and I like the pup who goes and gets it and brings it at least part-way back towards me. I want the pup who is very curious and interested in me, who prances and dances and seems happy and playful and cheerful. I don’t mind if he bites at my ankle and demands to play. I hold the pup and touch his paws and tail and try flipping him over. If he seems to want to play with me, if he is smart and funny and active, I like that. I’ll look at his body. Does his shape look balanced and healthy and normal? If I know the mother dog, does she seem limber? Is there any concern about vision or hearing or other functioning?

I watch how the puppy plays with other puppies. Is he happy and confident? Is he in the thick of things or staying off to the side? I want the playground leader,  definitely not the wall flower for me, but the playful cheerful littermate.

There are no guarantees. Purebred as well as mixed breed dogs have arthritis and dysplasia, they go deaf and blind, they can have thyroid and behavior problems. Purebred puppies are born with the same numbers of problems that shelter dogs have. No matter what dog I select, I am going to need to deal with his health and training issues, defend his health and happiness for the rest of his life. So at this point, it’s just a matter of enjoying the process of meeting many puppies until my heart is fully able to answer the question:  is this my puppy?IMG_5493

Boat Dog Doo-doo

IMG_0272We travel with our dogs, to competitions, festivals and educational events, via boat and plane and car. Of the many tricks they do, one that I am often asked about is , “You get them to “go” on the boat? How did you do that?!”

In a nutshell, the answer is, we taught them to go “pee or poop!” (help me come up with funnier cues! see comments!) “outside” first. And then, we taught them that the top deck of the boat is “outside” and we cued them to go “pee or poop” there.

Assuming you need more detail than that, I have to go all the way back to when my dogs were babies and newly rescued, and of course I crate trained them. Crate training does not mean puppy torture, it means I used a physical cue to help condition them to feel safe and relaxed on cue. Relaxing (and loving it!) on cue in the crate then helped me condition many other behaviors.

So first you need to teach your dog/pup to LOVE the crate. I’ll go into that in more detail elsewhere, but basically this is done by “leaving ‘em wanting more,” keeping crated sessions very short and highly reinforced. For example, try starting by locking a piece of stinky cheese, or supper, or a dog bone into the crate. Dog wants in! Let the dog into the crate only when the dog is really demanding it, and then when the dog leaves, lock the dog out! Dog wants to get into the crate! Yay! Trade (always trade, don’t just take stuff from the dog) beef bone for a piece of chicken if the dog tries to leave crate with dog bone. Leave dog bone in the closed crate. In our house, the crate is the only place we allow dogs to chew raw beef bone. That makes going into the crate a special opportunity to chew! Never take a pup out of a crate when he is fussing, always wait for that one quiet second (and then run!) to let him out of the crate when he is quiet and calm. See Susan Garrett’s wonderful CD and book “Crate Games” for more details on how and why you should crate train every dog. Her book “Ruff Love” is also helpful if you are starting with an adult dog.

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The lifejackets are most important when loading and unloading the dogs off and on the boat. They give you a handle to maneuver your dog as well as flotation.

Once your dog likes the crate, and you’ve got him sleeping in the crate through the night (my puppy crate would actually be either right beside my bed or actually ON my bed at this point!), leash in the morning before he fusses,  walk him to the door, and say, “outside!” as you go outside. Say “outside” every time you go outside to your designated convenient potty place.  Wait a minute, up to three minutes, for him to go pee or poop. If he “goes,” say your cue words as he is going, and deliver a wonderful treat right after he goes. If your yard is fenced in, the “treat”  could be letting him off leash. You could also just praise and pet, or praise and deliver a food treat. If he doesn’t “go,” don’t reward it. Bring him back inside, lovingly put him back in the crate, and try again in ten or fifteen minutes (or half an hour). Eventually he will “go”, you will deliver your cue as he goes, and now you can go for a walk or play off-leash.

In this way, my dogs learn to go to the bathroom on cue right at the beginning of our adventures. Some people make the mistake of walking until the doggie goes potty, and then that’s the end! Dogs learn to hold it FOREVER in order to get a longer (and longer!) adventure. If my dogs don’t go to the bathroom pretty darn quickly, I end the walk, crate to prevent accidents, and try again just a little bit later. In this way, my dogs learned that when I pull over to the side of the highway and say “pee or poop,” their best bet is to go to the bathroom immediately, and then I might let them sniff around for a few minutes afterwards. At dog events, I take them out and if they don’t go immediately, they go back in the shady car, or back into their crate in the show’s crate room. I associate the phrase “pee or poop!” with the activity so often (regularly!) that they hear the phrase and know they know that this signals a limited opportunity. If they need to go, they go, and if they don’t go, the opportunity goes away for now.

And so on the boat. I brought them up on deck, said “lets go outside” as we went from the cabin up the companionway onto the deck, then I said “pee or poop!” Both my dogs were worried about this at first. They held it and wished we were going ashore. But we weren’t going ashore. Tiger lily “held it” for a record of 36 hours. But then she peed. Bee (as I knew she would) got this right away. Once the two of them both “pee or poop”’d once or twice on deck, and were rewarded for it, it just was easier and easier. They just go right on the deck and I put poops in a composter can, and wash off the urine (see a previous blog post for this detail). So I don’t want them to hold it till we go ashore, so they’ve learned that after they go to the bathroom, I take them to shore.

Nowadays, they are mature and I only crate them at dog events.  We can stop on a dock for a few days and then go to sea, and they are flexible. They let me know that they want to go “outside,” and they are adapted to going wherever and whenever I tell them to go. Sometimes, Tigerlily (who is 12 years old) has a hard time waking up, so recently I’ve found that starting up the boat engine is a cue to her that she better wake up and go while the going is good. I start the engine, she wakes herself up enough to get up on deck. We clean up, weigh anchor and off we go.

Questions? Alternative cue ideas? Put them in the comments section below.

Teaching dogs to predict the future

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My dog can’t tell me the winning lottery number. But teaching a language your dog can understand allow your dog will be able to know a lot about whatever is coming up next. This ability to get clear information from words builds dogs’ interest in whatever I have to say.

Many people chat, but idle chatter is confusing to dogs. For example, people say “down” when a dog is jumping up on them, yet they don’t expect the dog to lay down. Dogs don’t “naturally” understand words, especially similar sounding but differently used words such as “no” and “go” and “okay.” It requires regular practice.

Guests are often surprised by the lack of dog mayhem at our and doors gates. My dogs are relaxed not because I’ve had to “show them who’s boss”, but  because I can usually tell them who is at the door, and if they are coming outside or not. I can tell them to relax. When I say, “this is for Tigerlily,” only Tigerlily gets up and walks to the door. If a door event does not include dog participation, I say,  “sorry! Dogs stay!”and  they barely lift their heads, thump a tail, and go back to sleep. With experience  their ability to understand grows stronger year by year.

Of course I must use the full palette of dog training tricks (food, toys, praise,privileges) to teach my dogs, but because I formally teach and use words, I can use words to reinforce desirable behaviors. Information is very reinforcing, so I let my dogs know when I see a “stranger” dog approaching.  “Do you see the dog?” It  helps my formerly “nervous Nellie” dog to avoid getting suddenly startled by a hairy beast. “Oh that’s Rover. He’s a nice dog!”

My dogs have lots of  intentionally trained experiences with all these words. Their understanding puts me in a leadership position. They don’t need to warn me about the dog, because they can hear that I already know.  They see I am not  hysterical. My words help them predict that we will safely navigate any situation.

Sometimes people ask me how many words my dogs understand.  The last time I counted, many years ago, it was about 100 different words. That’s not many, my dogs are mutts not border collies, but just  few trained words can  go together to make almost an infinite number of  different sentences. They are constantly learning new words.

When I  first taught Tigerlily the difference between ball, rope, and pencil, I saw her struggle to recognize subtle differences between English language sounds.  So now I never (ever!) use the word “no” because it sounds perilously close to “go”. When I was teaching “down” and “bow” and I saw that “bow” sounded  like “down,” so I changed the verbal cue to “ta da!” Much easier!

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Some words (cues) are quite challenging to train, but many are easy! When I bring the puppy outside, I say “outside!” Serving water, I say “water!” Raining hard outside? For fun  I try explaining, “water outside! Water, water, water!” It’s fun to see the light bulbs go on in their brains.

Choosing words carefully is a huge part of this training game. For example,  the word “down” only means “lay down.” When I go downstairs I simply say “stairs!” or (on the boat) “go below!”If I want the dog to put all her paws on the floor I say “off” (not “down”).

Teaching clear precise words also helps us better observe how dogs think. It was very interesting to me to see that my dog Tigerlily identified her realistic looking toy squirrel as a “squirrel.” When I tell her to “get the squirrel and put it in the basket!” to my dogs, we were sharing a good joke!

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