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.
Our little public library in London had a small shelf of dog books, and so I was pleased to find a copy of John Bradshaw’s book In Defence of Dogs, which was not available at my library in the US.
I had previously read and enjoyed Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense, and this book might be the same book as Dog Sense, just under a UK title. Ha. It’s been so long since I’ve read Dog Sense and the material is so similar that I’m actually not sure. Even if it’s the same, it was a pleasure to re-read and to reinforce what I have already learned about the development and history of canine science.
“Dogs have been adapted, or have adapted themselves, to all kinds of roles, in a way unmatched by any other domestic animal, and such flexibility must lie at the heart of the enduring power of the human–canine relationship.”
Bradshaw’s underlying message is clear: If dog owners knew a little more dog science, dogs and people would be better off.
There is a trend, particularly in America, to mistrust “experts” and science. Dog training originated as more of a craft than a science, and that model persists today. Anyone can call himself a dog trainer. It is not a certified profession in the same way that law or medicine are. And thus dogs suffer from this lack of a scientific standard or professional code. Because the recent decades of canine research have shown us that most of what traditional trainers have assumed about dogs is flatly wrong.
For instance, dogs are not constantly seeking to undermine us and rule the household. Dogs do not behave like captive wolves, and so the old dominance models, which were fixated on “pack leadership” and who was the “alpha” are both completely passé and damaging to our relationships with our dogs. Bradshaw, a professor of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, uses plentiful examples from the scientific literature to make his case. He writes:
“Personally, I am delighted that the most recent scientific evidence backs up an approach to managing dogs that I am comfortable with. As a scientist as well as a dog-lover, I am dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt. If wild wolf packs had turned out to be as fraught with tension as their counterparts in zoos, I would have had to agree that the dominance approach had merit. I would still have been reluctant to adopt punishment rather than reward as my philosophy for training my dog, because for me the whole point of having a dog is the companionship it brings, and for me domination and companionship do not gel. As a dog owner, I was relieved by the discrediting of the wolf-pack idea, since I could then explain to myself and, more importantly, to others why routinely punishing a dog is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.” (Emphasis added)
And this is what I also find so pleasing: Science confirms that gentleness and respect, not dominance and punishment, is the preferable approach to relating to our dogs.
Bradshaw also reviews the history of the domestication of the dog, dog training myths, and the perils of the purebred dog, among other topics.
It’s a compelling and eminently readable book, and his chapters debunking the dominance myth should be required reading for all dog owners. I was pleased to refresh my memory of many of these studies, and In Defence of Dogs profoundly renewed my interest in canine science and general advocacy.
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:
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?
On Sunday, we took the pups on a much-needed hike at a nearby park. We found trails in the mountains that took us about an hour and a half to complete, which was perfect, as we needed to get back to town in relatively short order.
The best part, though, was that the trail was completely empty, so we got to practice some much-needed off-leash recall.
We had both girls on long drag leads, and we were outfitted with bits of cooked, real turkey, which proved to be a very strong reinforcer.
I have to say, I was so impressed with our girls! Living in the city, they are very rarely off-leash, so this is not a behavior that we often get to practice. But they did so well. They stuck to the trail and came back to us every time we called.
Pyrrha’s recall (to me) is pretty foolproof. During the latter part of the hike, she just walked right alongside me. We still need to work on her coming to Guion (as you can see from the first picture of the dogs in this post, she is still nervous about interacting with Guion), so we practiced with him being the only one to reward her when she came back to us.
Eden still needs to work on the actual coming to us, but she always stopped to wait for us to catch up during the whole hike — and she always stopped to reorient and turn to us when we called her. It was very cute, and it put us both at ease, as she never allowed herself to get out of sight. We worked on only rewarding her when she came right up to us (instead of rewarding her as we walked closer to her), and she seemed to catch on to this gambit rather quickly.
I love using long drag leads to practice this behavior, because you still have the reassurance of control if you need it, and 30-foot leads mean that they can never really get too far away from your reach. The only trick is not stepping on the lines while you hike!