We’re always training our dogs, even when we think we aren’t.
I should repeat this line to myself daily. Dogs learn through repetition and reinforcement, and they are probably inadvertently training us more than we are training them. Because I allow myself to be inattentive and lazy, I have permitted our dogs to practice some less-than-great household habits.
Here are some (undesirable) things I have unintentionally trained our dogs to do (or: A Lesson in How Not to Train Your Dogs). Pyrrha and Eden have learned to:
Claw at the outside door because it means that Abby will come open it quickly and be grumpy about it, because we’ve scratched all the paint off and the door now looks like someone was murdered outside it, and she just can’t take it anymore
Come running when they hear the sound of plastic packaging being opened
Expect help with a trapped/lost food toy when Abby comes in the room
Whine for assistance when a beloved ball is lost under the sofa for the millionth time
Flip out when the coat closet door is open, because that is where the leashes live
Flip out when a particular cabinet door is opened, because that is where the food lives
Bark at the neighbors because it’s super fun and makes Abby really irritated and yell-y
So, consider this my promise to myself, and to Pyrrha and Eden, that we are going to team up and start working to erode these oft-practiced behaviors with some switching up of routines, preventing these bad habits from being practiced in the first place, and teaching some incompatible behaviors with tons of positive reinforcement.
What have your dogs unintentionally learned? What have they trained you to do or expect?
When I was 13, I managed to convince my parents to get an Australian shepherd puppy, and the primary selling point for my father was that I told him that Aussies were famously excellent Frisbee dogs. Dad, from whom I inherited my dog-crazy gene, was immediately persuaded. He grew up with two dobermans who played Frisbee with him every day, and a disc-loving dog is a big qualification for him for any dog. So, we get this beautiful Aussie pup, Emma. She’s brilliant, gorgeous, and extremely trainable. But… she has no interest in chasing a Frisbee. Like, ZERO. We could teach her how to army crawl, hop like a kangaroo, and bark on command, but we never succeeded in teaching her how to catch a Frisbee. She’d look at us with complete disdain when we would try to coerce her to chase it.
I open with this story for two reasons:
Breed is not destiny.
Some dogs just will not care about Frisbees. No matter how hard you try. And that’s OK. Dogs should get to do things they enjoy, and if they don’t enjoy Frisbees after your best efforts, it’s OK.
Our German shepherds are a case in point. Pyrrha, our first dog, has no interest in retrieving, even though she loves hunting. Eden, our second dog, has turned herself into a Frisbee fiend, and it’s the most important thing in her young life. Despite being a German shepherd, a breed that is not especially known for skill with flying discs, I have to say that I am pretty impressed by her skill and unflagging interest in the sport.
So, what if you suspect your dog might be a great disc dog?
Five tips that helped us make Eden into a disc dog
1: Assess your dog’s build and disc interest
First, unlike some other canine sports, which have modifications for dog size, your dog’s build will certainly play a part in her ability to become a disc dog. For example, brachycephalic dogs (bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, possibly some boxers, etc.) will never be disc dogs, simply because of anatomy: Their snouts are not long enough to catch a disc. It is possible that toy breeds could enjoy catching discs, but sheer size will prove difficult (both in your skill at throwing appropriately and in finding discs small enough for your dog). Dogs who excel at catching flying discs tend to be in the 30–60 lb. range and in a fit and agile state of health. There can be obvious exceptions to this range, and many dogs who will never become champions can really enjoy disc catching, but this limitation tends to hold true. (I was interested to note, however, that there is a “MicroDog” division in the US disc dog competitions, for dogs under 25 lbs. Cute!)
Secondly, it’s important to determine if your dog is even interested in Frisbees. I think one of the simplest ways to assess disc interest is that the Frisbee itself should be a greater reward to your dog than food. For instance, if Pyrrha was given the choice between some cheese and chasing a Frisbee, she’d choose the cheese, every time. Eden is the opposite. The disc is more valuable to her than food. This is a great and clear sign that you have a potential disc dog on your hands.
2: Buy the professional-grade discs
If you dog does have disc interest, pony up for the professional-grade dog discs by Hyperflite. Standard Frisbees are a thinner plastic that will splinter if your dog spends too much time with them, causing not only damage to the disc but damage to your dog’s mouth. The Jawz discs are expensive, but they are worth every penny.
Tip: Don’t leave these discs out and about in your home or yard. A determined dog could do damage to them, and plus, keeping them put away increases your dog’s interest in the discs. We store our discs in our shed in the backyard, and Eden freaks out any time we go into the shed for any reason, because it’s a signal that Frisbee is about to begin.
3: Buy two!
This was a great tip we encountered when we started training Edie with discs. The point of always working with two identical discs is to train your dog to always want to have a disc in her mouth. If you just have one disc, your dog is less motivated to bring that disc to you, because you are going to take it away from her and then what does she have? Nothing. BUT if by the time she chases a disc and looks back at you and you already have another disc in your hand, she is more motivated both to return to you and then to offer some dropping/waiting behavior to get that second disc in the air.
4: Start small
Baby steps! Start with some tracking exercises (e.g., rolling the disc on its side and encouraging your dog to chase it). Then start with short tosses (and practice your own disc-throwing skills!). Don’t throw the disc directly at your dog but rather up in the air, as if you were tossing pizza dough.
In the beginning, let your dog keep the disc only if she catches it in her mouth. If she misses it, praise her warmly, but hold onto the disc yourself and then try another small toss. Keep building on this repertoire until your dog can complete catches on her own.
Praise your dog generously and use food rewards if you think extra encouragement is needed. Once your dog has mastered these shorter exercises, start building distance and elevation into your throws.
5: Train polite behavior early
My husband did a good job working with Eden on this when we first started teaching her to catch Frisbees. We ask her to “drop it,” and he even has a cue for her to drop it closer to his feet if she’s dropped it too far away. Do not throw the second disc until you get that behavior you want (be it sitting or standing and waiting, etc.). The disc is the reward, so don’t give the reward until you get that specific behavior.
Edie still has a hard time ending games and will occasionally choose to “promenade” (what we call her running in huge circles so that the game won’t end) when she gets the sense that we’ve had enough, so we still have to work on that. I’d love to also start working on some more advanced disc dog tricks with her, now that she has nailed the basics. (My dad is especially set on teaching her how to vault off his back and catch a Frisbee. So, we’ll see about that!)
But she’s definitely all in to the game, and we love playing with her.
While I’ve been separated from our two monsters this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about my poor leash-handling skills and the need to approximate off-leash walks in our small (but busy) town when we return in August. We have a lot of training to do, and I am excited about the continued challenge of working with our leash-reactive shepherds.
We have leash laws in my town and in our parks and on trails, so it will still be rare for our dogs to experience off-leash freedom, but I want to be able to simulate the experience of off-leash walking with them, as they are both leash reactive to other dogs.
I would like to apply some BAT leash-handling principles but also add a food reward. Our dogs are highly food motivated, and BAT often seems a bit too “mystical” for my taste (and I am not sure our dogs would discern any reward or positive reinforcement from some of its techniques, such as “mime pulling”).
Accordingly, here’s my game plan for modified BAT:
Start working each dog, individually, on 15-foot leads (I like these biothane leashes from All K-9). The “individually” part is what is going to be a pain and be time-consuming, but it’s essential to work with them separately until they both have a handle on the new regime (and until I am totally up to speed with my new leash-handling skills).
Start training inside, in the basement. Graduate to the backyard and then to the front walk, on up, over the weeks, until we are ready for a full walk.
Implement rewards for sticking with me (and not pulling; looking at you, Eden), coming to my side when signaled, and ignoring triggers.
Teach a “leave it” cue for other dogs/people, which means “don’t look at that; look at me and wait for a treat.”
Then, finally, try some walks in the real world!
Do you use BAT techniques? How do you help your reactive dog on walks?
Previously in this series of thinking about dogs off leash:
Some generalizations based on my limited time living in London:
Europeans seem to have high expectations for their dogs. They certainly dote on them, maybe even more than Americans do on the whole, but they also expect them to behave well. The (urban) European dog needs to be able to compose himself at a busy café, wait patiently outside a store, and stroll through a park without picking fights or harassing strangers.
Accordingly, “training” seems less formal and more about exposure to the world at large. This is also much easier to do than in America, because leash laws—even in a city as large as London—are much more relaxed here than in the States. Dogs only wear leashes occasionally and thus they have to conduct themselves appropriately in public beyond the limits of a leash.
All of this exposure and leash-less-ness creates dogs who are, on the whole, relaxed and well-adjusted.
Obviously, not every dog in Europe is well-adjusted. (I saw a miniature schnauzer try to bite the head off a baby Maltese in the street, but this was mainly because the schnauzer was straining at a leash and his owner was shouting, “BE NICE! BE NICE!” which was definitely ineffective and only escalated the situation.) But overall: Such polite dogs.
All of this compounded off-leash time in giant parks has created a culture of European dogs who
have excellent recall;
don’t have reactive outbursts to other dogs or people, in general;
seem calm and self-controlled in almost every public circumstance.
This is the trifecta of good behavior that I feel like the majority of US dog owners I know (myself included) just dream of for their dogs.
And so who is to blame for maladjusted dogs acting up in public? Obviously, we humans are. These are the conclusions I’ve drawn:
For all of my reading, I am a sadly lazy trainer, and I have unwittingly allowed my dogs to practice reactive behavior.
I have bad leash-handling skills. And having two reactive German shepherds has proven to be a large stumbling block for my ability to train myself.
Leashes are very helpful and an essential safety component of the 21st-century dog’s life, but I daresay we misuse them more often than we know. I know I am at fault here and that my poor leash-handling skills are often to blame for my dogs’ reactive outbursts. I transfer a lot of tension to the lines when I see another dog, because I also get anxious.
I also have not trained Eden in loose-leash walking, at all. Pyrrha, being so shy, naturally has always wanted to stick close to me, and so I assumed I was just an awesome dog trainer and was magically teaching her how to loose-leash walk, through mind transfer or something. False. Pyrrha just had no interest in pulling. Eden, on the other hand, thinks she’s a husky. Sigh!
So, up next in my chain of pondering all of these “perfect” European dogs: How can I improve my leash-handling skills? More thoughts to come.
What do you think? Are leashes (and thus humans) partly to blame for a lot of the reactive dog behavior we see stateside?
So. Here’s the behavior, which has more or less been happening since we adopted Eden:
When I come home during the day to let them outside, Pyrrha freaks out and redirects her excitement in the form of aggression toward Eden. Pyrrha growls at her, nips at Eden’s neck, and generally just fusses and sasses (barking, growling) in Eden’s face until they get outside. And even once they are outside, Pyrrha continues this general antsy, aggressive behavior for a minute or so until she can control herself. Eden, the poor thing, is usually a bit afraid to venture out into the yard until Pyrrha calms down, and I don’t blame her. I, too, dislike being chomped on the neck without good cause.
Fights are not necessarily started, but Pyrrha will body-slam Eden for a minute or more until she seems to regain her right mind. The more I try to physically intervene, the more ramped up Pyrrha seems to get. My tactic so far has been to let Pyrrha out into the yard first, let her chill a bit, and then let Eden out. This works most of the time, but I acknowledge it’s not getting at the root of the issue, because Pyrrha still reacts this way every time I come home.
My bigger questions are: What is causing this behavior? What does it mean?
My simplest guess is that Pyrrha is just REALLY excited when I come home, and she doesn’t know how to properly handle this emotion, and so she expresses it in excitable aggression toward the closest target (e.g., Eden). Notably, she does not practice this behavior if Guion is the one to let them out (presumably because she’s not that excited when Guion comes home).
I want to figure out how to get Pyrrha to a place where she doesn’t feel like she has to react this way but being mystified to the cause leaves me with few solid, workable ideas.
So, my trusty, intelligent readers: How do you interpret Pyrrha’s behavior? What would you do if it were your dogs?
While renewing my commitment to training our dogs and brushing up on the literature, I am reminded of a few simple dog-training truths. You know all of these things already, but I am scribbling these principles here as a strong reminder and encouragement to myself.
Dog training is hard, you feel me?
Good training requires a lot of commitment.
People are lazy. Myself included. This is why we have dogs with behavior problems that don’t seem to improve. This is why our dogs frustrate us and we feel like neither party is clearly communicating with the other. This is why young dogs are getting adopted out and then returned to shelters a few weeks later.
The truth is that we’re always training our dogs to do something, even when we think we aren’t. Successful training requires a lot of commitment, awareness, and conscientiousness on the part of the dog owner.
You have to be intelligent to be a good trainer.
Time to be offensive!
If you want to be a positive reinforcement trainer, intelligence may be a prerequisite — or at least a mild level of intelligence. The less intelligent or less patient among us resort to shock-collar training because it’s easy. This may seem like an extreme statement, but I don’t know of any great positive trainers who aren’t also very intelligent. I also don’t know of any people using shock collars or physical or psychological intimidation who know much (if any) canine science.
Lately, I’ve become increasingly enraged by the success of a shock-collar “training” organization in my area. The “trainers” are not certified by any national training organization, at least according to their website — because why would they need to be? All you need to know is how to push a buzzer to shock your dog in the neck. Small children can be “successful” shock-collar trainers.
I’m very dismayed with the rescue that we got our dogs from, as they have become increasingly involved with these shock-collar trainers. Whenever the rescue gets a slightly difficult German shepherd, they ship them off to “board and train” with the shock-collar folks. They love posting before and after videos of these dogs (in fact, the incisive Eileen from Eileen and Dogs has sampled from their videos in some of her excellent posts against shock collars). The rescue’s presence on Facebook and constant promotion of their “training” techniques is actually one of the main reasons I got off Facebook; I couldn’t take it anymore.
In their videos, you see a similar pattern: In the “before,” we get an energetic dog, with the trainer in the background saying stuff like, “As you can see, Roscoe isn’t trained at all, and he is crazy,” while the trainer yells “SIT!” at the dog when the dog is looking at someone else or playing with a toy on the asphalt. And then we get the “after”: All of the life in Roscoe’s eyes is gone. He now walks slowly and tensely next to the trainer, who is gripping the shocking device, and Roscoe now does everything the trainer asks him to do. The trainer exclaims, “See how well he heels now! Look how calm he is!” Yes. And see how you’ve utterly crushed his spirit. That is not a calm dog; that is a broken dog.
Just watch some videos of people working with clicker-trained dogs and compare. There is so much JOY in a positively trained dog. The positive dog is having fun with her human; they are strengthening their bond as mutual trust and encouragement is exchanged. The shock-collar-trained dog? No joy — and of course there isn’t! Would you be happy when you were working with someone who electrocuted your throat at various intervals? There is compliance, yes, but at what cost?
I’m not saying you need a PhD in animal behavior to clicker train your dog. But you do need to understand the basics of canine behavior and psychology, to understand why and how you need to do certain things. Otherwise, you will create very serious problems for yourself and your dog in the long run.
People. Be kind to your dogs. Learn some basic canine behavior and science before you start shocking them in the name of obedience training.
How do we break the pattern of laziness, and thus the appeal of shock-collar training?
I’m just as lazy as the next person. If I hadn’t been welcomed into this dog blogging community and found Patricia McConnell before Cesar Millan, I might have resorted to intimidation-based training tactics. I understand why physical and psychological domination appeals to so many dog owners. But knowing what I now know about dogs, it chills my blood to see those techniques used on dogs.
What aspects of dog training do you wish more people knew? What reminders about dog training do you need to hear yourself?
This is perhaps my least favorite attribute of myself as a dog owner. Now that we have two, I’m finding it even harder to make time to work with the girls on new behaviors. Since the nipping incident,* our commitment to working on P’s classical conditioning protocol for reactivity has been strongly renewed, and that has been encouraging and motivating. But everything else? Eh. Not much progress.
We tell people all the time, “Oh, Eden is SO smart,” and then they say, “Really? What can she do?” Umm… she can sit… and maul you at the front door when you come in? Oh, yeah, and she’s also really good at digging giant holes in the backyard… Yeah. Definite second-dog syndrome sufferer.
(*Side note: Thank you all for your gracious and kind comments about the nipping incident. You were honest with me about the difficulties we’ll continue to face with Pyrrha and children, but also encouraging that this is something we can continue to work on and be very vigilant about. Meant a lot to me.)
One of my main training dilemmas/deterrents right now is the difficulty of training one on one.
Pyrrha is extremely attached to me — as in, obsessive level of attachment. She is uncomfortable and anxious if I’m not in her line of sight at all times. This is one of her many fear burdens. Eden, being much more laid-back, is fine doing her own thing, but she also doesn’t like being excluded from the action (and will voice her discontent quite enthusiastically).
What I’ve done in the past, when I want to actively work on new behaviors, is crate one dog, and then go into another room with the other dog and close the door. What’s happened so far is the crated dog pitches a fit with lots of barking and crying, either from mere separation or the knowledge that someone is getting treats and it isn’t them. This usually results in the dog being trained feeling rather distracted by all the commotion beyond the door.
Potential solutions I haven’t tried yet:
Give the crated dog a high-value bone or stuffed Kong, in the hopes that this will distract her
Train out in the backyard, in the hopes that this will reduce crated dog’s distress and minimize the noise distraction
If I’m working with Pyrrha, ask Guion to go play Frisbee or fetch with Eden, if he’s home (this solution has limited applicability, however)
I know there are little videos and podcasts on how to train with multiple dogs in the room at one time, but those dogs have killer down-stays and self-control, neither of which our pups have mastered yet (see introductory text: “lazy trainer,” etc.). So, those things need to happen first before we can reliably work on simultaneous, double-dog training sessions.
I really do want to work on this and renew my commitment to our girls. They could be SO much better trained than they are, and I take full responsibility for that failure. A partial motivation to revisit this conundrum is that I’d like to take Eden to an intermediate training class with our beloved trainer, but I don’t want the trainer to be disappointed by how little Eden has learned since we were last in class! Yeah. Chalk it up to the strong motivator of Dog Lady Shame.
So, help! Those of you with multi-dog households: How do you make solo training time happen? Even if you don’t have several dogs at home, how do you think I could manage this more effectively?
Whenever we had fosters, all dogs in the house were crated when we weren’t home or when we were sleeping. When we just had Pyrrha, though, she got free reign of the house during the day and at night. Pyrrha is one of the most trustworthy dogs I know with house independence, mainly because she’s fabulously lazy and not the slightest bit mischievous.
But since we added Eden to the household, we’ve gone back to crating both dogs, whenever we’re absent or sleeping.
This is fine, because we train all of our dogs, fosters or permanent, to love their crates, but one of the girls’ repeated points of tension with each other is when I come home to let them out of their crates. Pyrrha gets very agitated by my re-entrance and often takes it out on Eden with growling and snarking. To mitigate this, I let them out of their crates and into the yard separately, but it’s always kind of a pain. And I wonder if this would be resolved if they both got to be free when I came home.
That said, I don’t think Eden is ready for full-house independence when we’re not home, but her foster told me that he didn’t crate her at night (and this was back when she was only 4.5 months old, and notably crazier). She is still very much the puppy, and endlessly curious about things, so for her safety (and the safety of our shoes and houseplants), I still think it’s smart to crate her during the day when we’re not home.
But. I’m debating with the idea of letting both dogs choose where to sleep at night and keeping the door to their room and their crates open, so they could sleep in their crates if they chose (which Pyrrha probably would, although they both love that little rug in front of the French door, as pictured above).
What do you think?
Where are your dogs when you’re not home or sleeping? If you made a transition from the crate to house freedom, how did you manage it? How did you know your dog was “ready”?
So. I feel like a terrible dog guardian. But I also feel kind of hopeful about this discovery, even though it rankles the feminist in me.
Context: Kari recently got to meet Ian Dunbar (jealous! But thanks for the tip that he’ll be in Fredericksburg in May!), and he apparently said that men are better at walking reactive dogs than women, because men just “don’t give a shit” about what people think of them. Reading this made me feel some womanly outrage and immediately jump to counterpoints. Men also care what people think of them! Women aren’t the only ones. And surely this is a crass generalization about the sexes.
But on a recent family walk, I wanted to put Dunbar’s theory to the test.
I’m always the one who walks Pyrrha, because she’s so bonded to me, and Guion always walks Eden. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes get jealous of them, because they get to be the “friendly, normal” pair who gets to walk in front of us and have happy interactions with strangers and/or their dogs.
This time around, I told Guion to walk Pyrrha, and I took Eden. It was a warm, sunny evening, and so there were tons of people out on our walk, with their dogs and children. Trial by fire, husband! I gave him the bait bag and wished him luck.
We passed six or seven dogs on leash. And we walked by the House with the Scary Dogs, where Pyrrha always loses her shit, like gets all paws off the ground with fear and fear-aggressive displays. The Scary Dogs were throwing themselves at the fence toward her.
Guys. Pyrrha had NO REACTION to any of this. Like, none.
She was still a little tense, but she never made eye contact with the dogs (either the leashed ones or the Scary ones), and she was taking treats from Guion the whole time. No barking, no lunging, no growling. Calm, contained walking.
Why did this happen? I’ve been asking myself this question since, and we’ve taken other walks where the same thing happens (Guion walks Pyrrha; no outbursts at all).
My basic theory is that Guion is just a calmer person than I am. I’ve mentioned before that I think my nervousness just amps up Pyrrha’s anxiety on walks. Guion doesn’t worry about anything, ever, and I think Pyrrha was picking up on his projected confidence. I have tried to work on this, and I try to put myself in a calm, confident mindset whenever I take Pyrrha on a walk, but clearly, some of my anxious self is still seeping through.
So, Dunbar’s theory has held true in this case. But my response to Dunbar would be that if men “don’t give a shit,” it’s because they’ve been cultured by our society to believe that “giving a shit” about their dog would come off as fussy, feminine, and silly. It’s NOT because having a penis makes you an inherently better dog walker. Women “give a shit” because culture allows us to be worrisome, apologetic creatures. And, for better or worse, both approaches rub off on our dogs.
At the end of the day, though, all I care about is that Pyrrha isn’t reacting in fear on walks. That is HUGE. Huge, you have no idea. Guion is still going to practice our classical conditioning protocol with her, but for now, he’s Pyrrha’s walker, and I’m Eden’s. It’ll be so interesting to see how this develops, but I have hope — even if it’s tempered by some of my feminist anxiety.
What do you think about all of this? Are men better at walking reactive dogs than women? If you have a leash-reactive dog, have you ever tested this theory?
One of the things I’ve recently learned in my few years of dog ownership is that you are always training your dog — even when you think you aren’t. We train our dogs to do all sorts of things unconsciously. (For example, they keep barking and jumping at the exterior door, because I let them in whenever they do that. Bad human!)
But to help myself train a bit more consciously, I’ve been setting up what I call “training stations” around our house.
I’m sure you’ve been there before: Your dog suddenly behaves exactly the way you want her to, and you have nothing (powerful, e.g., food) to reward her with. Or your dog issues the movement you’ve been trying for weeks to capture, and you don’t have a clicker or a treat anywhere in sight. This seems to happen to me all the time.
Hence, training stations.
These are just little areas of the house where I have learned that I tend to want to work with the dogs, so I outfit those spaces with treats and a clicker and maybe a rewarding toy or two. All of this is put up in a place where the dogs can’t get to it.
In this area, on the console table in our dining room, I’m mostly trying to reward both girls for coming when called. They both have a habit of barking at our neighbors (at wee hours of the morning), which is not desirable. Now that I have this station set up near the door, I can quickly reward them for coming when called — and boy, has it been working! Both Pyrrha and Eden will come almost every time when I call them to come in from the yard. It’s still a work in progress, but having this station near the door has been so helpful.
I also have a training station in a basket in the basement, where we do more movement-intensive training (like working on our stay, go to mat, or leave it cues). We also do most of our grooming down here, so the basket is filled with treats, toys, clickers, and grooming supplies.
Finally, I also have a tiny training station in the dog room, where they have their crates. Both girls have their “go to your house” command down pretty solid, but we still like to intermittently reinforce this. Because these treats live on the windowsill, the door to their room is often closed if we haven’t put the treats up and out of reach.
It may seem silly, but having these little stations has certainly improved the likelihood of me training and reinforcing good behavior, as well as just encouraging me to do some training on the fly.
What strategies have you adopted to make training easier in your home?