Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Proximity

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

I’ve been too busy to blog, but I recently finished translating a second sample chapter for Nur Mut! (click here for the first English sample chapter). Here’s a sneak peak at one of the protocols from chapter 8.3 Early interventions for fearful puppies. Part 1 is my protocol for proximity. Part 2 will be the protocol for touch.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Protocol for Proximity and Touch

[…]

Part 1: Protocol for Proximity

 

Before diving into the protocol itself, you need to establish how close you can get to your puppy without causing a stress reaction. No matter whether her threshold is 3 feet or 15 feet – add 2 steps to this distance. This is your starting point – a point where your puppy is perfectly relaxed.

 

Click – Treat – Retreat

 

Choose a time your puppy is resting calmly on her bed or another comfortable spot, but not asleep. Walk up to your starting point. Mark her relaxed body position with a click. Throw a treat to her. Turn around and retreat.

 

Retreating is an important part of this protocol. Not only do you pair your approach with food (classical counterconditioning), but you also negatively reinforce your puppy’s relaxed position by means of removing yourself – a potentially stressful stimulus – from her space. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat the exercise. Again, you will walk up to the starting point defined above, click, treat, and retreat. Keep your session to 5 minutes or less, and give your dog a break. Then, start the game again by means of walking up to your original starting point, treating, and retreating. You are explaining to your dog that you are playing the game she already knows. All she has to do is keep relaxing and wait for you to throw her a treat. What a great deal!

 

Do not walk closer to your dog until you are convinced she understands that your approach predicts a treat. Watch her body language: does she lift her head and start wagging her tail when you walk towards her? She is beginning to understand that something good is about to happen!

 

Once your dog is clearly happy about your approach, you are ready to walk one step closer your next rep. Click, throw a treat to your dog, and retreat. Stay at your new click point for at least 5 reps. Does your dog look equally relaxed and happy about your approach as before? Good! Walk another step closer in rep number 6. Click, treat, and retreat! Stick to your new click point until your dog looks forward to your approach. Then, walk one step closer again.

 

Depending on your starting distance, you may already be standing directly in front of your dog at this point. Avoid leaning over her and looking into her eyes. Dogs can find this typical primate posture threatening. Instead, look at the floor between you and your dog – right at the spot you are going to drop the treat. Make sure to not let your session run over five minutes before giving your puppy a break.

 

dog training, protocol for proximity, fearful dogs, puppy training, counterconditioning, treat and retreatIf everything went well, start your next session one step behind the final starting point of your last session. The first rep of this new session is just a little bit easier than the last rep of your last session. Gradually work your way closer again, just like you did before, until you are standing right in front of you puppy. Is your puppy perfectly comfortable or happy and curious? Excellent! Bend your knees just a little before you click and drop the treat. Straighten up, turn around slowly, and retreat. Again, wait 15 seconds in between the individual reps.

Can you do five reps of walking up to your puppy, bending your knees, and dropping a treat between her paws with her looking perfectly relaxed or happy to see you? (Review the body language chapter if you need help reading your dog!) You are ready to raise criteria! In your next rep, you will squat down completely, click, and reach towards your puppy’s front paws with your treat hand. Do not touch her paws, but drop the treat in between or right in front of them. Get up slowly, turn around, and retreat. Repeat this step several times, waiting 15 seconds in between each rep. Your puppy should look perfectly relaxed or happy to see you – anytime she appears concerned, move your click point back one step!

 

Cold Trials

 

Before we raise the level of difficulty again, it is time for a cold trial. You are going to test whether your puppy has really learned that you squatting down in front of her and reaching out with your food hand is not a threat – even if you do not gradually work your way closer. Choose a time when your puppy is relaxed, but awake. Walk right up to her and squat down. Does your puppy appear just as comfortable with you being close as before? Great! You are ready for the next step.

 

Does she cower, retreat, bark, growl, snarl or snap? Freeze your movement the moment you notice her insecurity, and wait for your puppy to calm down. Count to five in your head: “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies, four good puppies, five good puppies.” Then retreat and give your puppy a break. The reason I am asking you to freeze and count to five before retreating is that we do not want to negatively reinforce the potentially operant behavior of barking, growling, snarling or snapping by means of rewarding it with an increase in distance. Instead, we give the puppy five seconds to calm down or stop barking, and then reinforce her calm behavior with an increase in distance. Anything that doesn’t resemble offensive behavior does get reinforced by your retreat. In either case, try to avoid the need to use this kind of extinction of unwanted behavior in the first place. Ideally, all your training sessions will take place well under threshold. If your puppy hasn’t calmed down after 5 seconds, retreat either way.

 

Take a deep breath. Have a cup of tea and think about something else before you go back to training. Frustration and disappointment don’t make good teachers. Remember that all behavior is information. Now you know that your puppy isn’t yet ready to stay calm when you walk right up to her without gradually decreasing the distance. That’s okay. Go back to your last successful click point, and explain the game to your puppy again. Gradually work your way closer, just like you did before. End the session squatting down and dropping the treat between her paws.

 

Take a longer break, and then do another cold trial. Does your puppy stay confident and relaxed this time? Excellent! If your puppy struggles, be patient and explain the game from the beginning. If your puppy still struggles the third time you do a cold trial, find a competent trainer or behaviorist to help you develop a plan for your puppy to learn to tolerate and even enjoy your approach and touch (See chapter 10.6 Finding the right trainer or behaviorist).

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. In April, she will be teaching Out and About at FDSA – a class that is about a passion of her own: taking your dog on urban walks, nature hikes, and other adventures while having fun and staying safe. Registration opens today – come join me!

 

The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

The Cheesecake Challenge, or an Experiment in Resisting Negative Reinforcement

One thing that training dogs has taught me is to better understand certain behavioral patterns in myself. Here’s an example.

I dislike unsolicited advice. I try to refrain from giving it to others, and it annoys me when it is bestowed on me by friends who (I feel) should know better.

And yet, a lot of the time, my response to unsolicited advice is to reinforce the unsolicited advisor by thanking them for their help. As a result, the friend is likely to give me more unsolicited advice in the future. The spiral of miscommunication continues.

Why on earth would I thank them for something I didn’t want? I recognized what I was doing, and I was puzzled by it – until I observed a completely unrelated behavioral pattern in dogs.

Learning to tug

Some dogs show little natural interest in playing with a tug toy. A common method of teaching them to tug is to excitedly tease and slap them with the toy and push the toy into the dog. Lots of dogs learn to tug this way.

Throughout the training process, a handler who uses this method is getting positively reinforced for teasing and slapping the dog with the toy: the dog grabbing and pulling on the toy is equivalent to me saying thank you to an unsolicited advisor. It’s a powerful positive reinforcer for the handler or the unwelcome advisor, respectively.

But what is happening from the perspective of the dog? Pause for a second before you continue reading past this paragraph. Is the dog’s tugging behavior strengthened and maintained by …

(A) positive reinforcement,
(B) positive punishment,
(C) negative reinforcement,
or (D) negative punishment?

Scroll down to see if you were right!

tugging, dog training, dog trainer, play

The answer is (C): negative reinforcement. The dog in our example doesn’t naturally care about tug toys. The trainer slapping and teasing him with the toy, trying to put it in his mouth, slapping some more while talking excitedly is irritating, confusing, intimidating or annoying to the dog. In an effort to escape the trainer’s behavior, he will sooner or later try grabbing the toy.

That very instant, the slapping, teasing and pushing stops. Wow! A moment of relief! The dog just learned that he can stop his owner’s craziness by grabbing and holding on to the toy. The better he understands his ability to influence the handler’s behavior, the sooner will he grab the toy. Eventually, he’ll start tugging as soon as the toy is presented. Voilà – the dog has learned to tug via a negative reinforcement procedure.

I assume many dogs eventually start to enjoy tugging as such, even if they initially learned by means of negative reinforcement. Some dogs, however, may never truly enjoy to play tug, and keep doing it mostly in order to not get slapped and teased with the toy.

Me? I’m like the latter kind of dog when it comes to thanking people for their unsolicited advice. I keep doing it to escape the pressure of being expected to respond.

Unsolicited advice

Being showered with unsolicited advice from friends – whether it is dog training advice, dating advice, or life advice – feels like being slapped with a tug toy. It’s irritating. It makes me feel yucky and disrespected. If that were the only force at play here, I’d probably actively reject the advice (applying positive punishment), or ignore it (applying extinction).

The pressure to respond and the crux of kindness

However, two other strong forces come into play as well:

  • My need to respond to my friends’ messages (the equivalent of “will to please” in a dog),
  • and the belief that kindness is more important than honesty, i.e. we should not do things that may hurt our friends’ feelings (the equivalent to living by a certain rule structure we sometimes observe in herding breeds).

When a friend writes me a message, the ball is in my court, and I feel like I NEED to give the ball back to them. As long as the ball is in my court, it’s as if the slapping and teasing with the tug toy continued. Having a friend’s ball in my court is pressure – that’s why I’m having a really hard time just ignoring unsolicited advice.

So I will eventually respond – and I’ll be nice about it. I feel like I need to respond to my friend’s good intentions rather than to the effect their unsolicited advice-giving behavior has on me.

I’ll probably at least say “Thank you” or a send a smiley face or a thumbs up emoticon. While this is the weakest reinforcer available to me, it is still strong enough to maintain my friends’ unsolicited advice-giving.

The Challenge

Now that I’m aware of what has been maintaining my grateful responses to unsolicited advice, I’m going to conduct an experiment: I’ll try to change my own reaction, and find out if I can reduce unsolicited advice giving that way. At the very least, I expect to feel better when learning to respond in a way that is in line with my feelings about unsolicited advice. (The training parallel here would be giving the dog a way to opt out of playing tug.)

I’m going to start with focusing on advice given in written form, online. My alternative response to unsolicited advice will be to close the chat window instead of replying. I’m going to use a food reward for myself: I will treat myself to the world’s best cheesecake, which is sold at a local café, contingent on closing the chat window. I’ve only had this cheesecake twice because it’s fancy and expensive cheesecake, but I think about it every time I walk past the café. Starting today, for the next four weeks, I’ll have cheese cake every time I close a chat window on an unsolicited advisor. I’ll see how it goes!

How about you? Has dog training changed your understanding of your own behavioral patterns or the behavioral patterns of the humans around you? Would you like to design your own version of the cheesecake challenge? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

Crate expectations part 4: Building Relaxation

This is part 4 of a 4-part crate training tutorial. Click here to read part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3!

What happens after the 1-minute mark?

Once my dog can stay in her crate for a minute without getting up, I introduce a different kind of reinforcer: a long-lasting chew such as a frozen Kong or a bone. At the 1-minute mark, my crate (or mat) training starts to look very different from building a duration stay for obedience. Now my dog has understood the concept of staying put, I am introducing the element of relaxation.

Introducing a Kong or bone in the crate

  • Get a good book or your laptop – you’ll need it to entertain yourself! You’ll also need the timer app on your phone.
  • Send your dog in her crate. Mark and feed in position.
  • Give her a long-lasting chew such as a frozen Kong or a bone.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 1 and 3 minutes – you can randomize these or take turns feeding after 1, 2 and 3 minutes respectively.
  • Hang out near your dog, who should be enjoying her Kong or bone. Read your book or play on your laptop. Feel free to talk to your dog anytime you feel like it.
  • Every time your timer rings, feed a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and releasing your dog.

Phoebe demonstrates this step on a mat. For crate training, just imagine the mat were a crate – I do it exactly the same way, with the door open. You don’t have to watch the entire video – it’s long and boring, just like relaxing in a crate or on a mat should be for the observer! However, check out the last 30 seconds of this video: Phoebe doesn’t want to leave her mat! That’s the kind of association we want to build to mats and crates!

Transitioning to using your crate in real life

Congratulations! Once you get to this point, you’ve already conquered the most difficult part of crate training! There’s a few tricks that will help you transition from these structured training session to relaxation for longer periods of time, when you’re not sitting next to your dog, and with the door closed.

Removing yourself from the picture

Do exactly what you did in the previous step: offer a Kong or bone to your dog, and set the timer of your phone to random intervals. The door to the crate should still be open at this stage.

  • With your dog relaxing and chewing in the crate, move around the room, doing random things such as cleaning, doing the dishes, or organizing your bookshelf.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and releasing your dog.

What if your dog gets up and comes out?

No big deal. Trade her Kong or bone for food if she brought it with her, send her back into the crate, and return the treat or Kong. If she keeps leaving, go back to the previous step (sitting near the crate rather than moving through the room) for another session. You can also ziptie the bone or Kong to the back of the crate so your dog can’t carry it outside!

Closing the door

  • Set up just like you did in the previous step.
  • At this point, your dog should be so comfortable staying in her crate that you can close the door after handing her the Kong without making a big deal out of it. Close it!
  • Set your timer to intervals between 1 and 3 minutes.
  • Move around the room, doing chores.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and release your dog.

Removing yourself from the room

  • Set up just like you did in the previous step.
  • Give your dog a Kong.
  • Close the crate door.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 1 and 3 minutes.
  • Go about your business in your house – both in the room with your dog, and outside the room.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and release your dog.

Extending the time between bonus treats

  • Set up like before: Kong, closed door.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 5 and 7 minutes.
  • Go about your business in your house – both in the room with your dog, and outside the room.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • End the session after 15 minutes by trading the Kong/bone for food, and release your dog.

Staying relaxed – even after finishing the Kong or bone

  • Set up like before: Kong, closed door.
  • Set your timer to intervals between 5 and 7 minutes.
  • Go about your business in your house – both in the room with your dog, and outside the room.
  • Every time your timer rings, return to your dog and feed her a treat.
  • With every session that you do from now on, keep going for 5 more minutes – even if this means your dog finishes her Kong or bone, and has nothing left to do! Build up to the crate duration you are aiming for.
  • Keep feeding the interval treats even after your dog has finished eating her Kong.

Fading the interval treats

  • Once your dog can relax in her crate even after finishing her Kong or bone, you should be able to stop feeding interval treats. Personally, I like keeping a treat bowl on top of the crate and just dropping one in every once in a while for the rest of her life.

Fading the bone/Kong

  • From session to session, choose smaller and smaller bones, or Kongs with less filling – until all you you need to do is feed your dog one treat when she goes into the crate.
  • Keep feeding Kongs or other chew delicacies in the crate every once in a while to keep up her positive association to the crate! Anytime I leave my own dogs in their crates for a longer time, they something delicious to chew on.

Start using the crate in real life!

If you’ve been following this tutorial with your own dog, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear how it’s going!

 
Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi  for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World. I’ve got an amazing group of students working on a variety of skills and games. Registration is open until tomorrow – come join us!

Corrugated Metal

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

Are you familiar with the trolley dilemma? It’s a thought experiment. You see a trolley moving towards five people tied to the train tracks. You know it will not be able to stop – and if it keeps going, it will kill the five people. There is a lever in front of you. If you pull it, the trolley will be redirected onto a sidetrack, and the five people tied to the main track will live. However, there is one person tied to the sidetrack. If you pull the lever, the trolley will kill that person.

What do you do?

I don’t have to think about this a lot to know what my answer would be: I would not pull the lever. It’s an easy decision. If I pulled the lever, I’d feel personally responsible for killing the person on the sidetrack (but I wouldn’t feel responsible for saving the five). As long as I did nothing, I’d feel like an innocent bystander watching a tragic situation unfold. I can live with that, but I do not want to be responsible for the death of an individual.

Interestingly, most people will choose to pull the lever in the thought experiment. Their criterion is to save the most people possible. Rationally, pulling the lever is the right thing to do because it meets that goal.

I’ve had many conversations about the trolley dilemma. People’s answers – and how they reach them – fascinate me. It always gives me pause when a good friend believes they would pull the lever without hesitation. From where I’m standing, pulling the lever looks a lot like getting involved in something it isn’t my place to get involved in. I wonder if whatever personality trait makes people want to pull the lever, and play God, is also behind our ethnocentricity, our fighting of wars, our self-righteous attempts to keep immigrants out of our country, or our denying of health services to those who can’t afford the insurance premium. If you pull the lever, you change the trajectory of others because of your own belief about what the path of these others should or shouldn’t look like. How is this different from building border walls to keep people from pursuing their journey? The one pulling the lever (or building the wall) always believes they are doing it for the greater good. I’m critical of all these things.

~~~

dog training, ethics, Guatemala

Body jolts can be a symptom of neurological deficits caused by distemper. I didn’t know that until a friend mentioned it the other day. Distemper is a viral disease that spreads through aerosol droplets, fluids and contaminated food and water. I had seen body jolts like the ones my friend described in one of the free-ranging neighborhood dogs. One of the dogs who hangs out in my street – the only one who isn’t in good shape. A black female. I took a video of her incessant body jolts and sent it to my vet. “Looks like distemper,” he said. “She probably needs to be put down.” My hand was already on the lever when I realized what I was doing.

I asked around, and found the owners of Black Dog. A dark red corrugated metal door in a corrugated metal house. I knocked, and a little boy opened the door. I caught a glimpse of their dirt floor patio, the rusty white pickup truck parked in the corner, and a cage with a blue parakeet. Black Dog (whose hind legs seemed wobbly) stumbled up to the door to see who was there.

“Is Black Dog yours?”, I asked the boy.
“Yes.” He was holding on to the doorframe with one hand and looking at me with bright brown eyes.
“She looks ill. I thought maybe I could take her to the vet.”
“Sure,” said Little Boy.
“Thank you! Are your mom or dad here so I can ask them as well?”
Little Boy ran into the corrugated metal house, and came back with Dad, a young man.
“Hi,” I said, “I’ve noticed Black Dog shows signs of moquillo. Distemper. It’s an infectious disease that could put the other neighborhood dogs at risk. I wondered if you’d let me take Black Dog to the vet.”
“Okay,” said the young man. “You can take her if you want. She was hit by a car … That’s why she’s not well. That’s all.”
“Okay,” I said. “If the vet says she also has distemper – would it be okay with you if he put her to sleep? In case we need to do it so she cannot spread the disease?” The Spanish word for “put to sleep” is “sacrificar.” Literally “to sacrifice.”
“Yes,” said Dad.
“Thank you. I’ll get a leash from my car, and then I’ll take her. I’ll let you know what the vet says.”
“Okay,” said Dad, and closed the corrugated metal door behind me and Black Dog. Black Dog strolled down the street, sniffing for food.

I got hot dog slices and a slip lead from my car, and followed her down the street. The sun was shining. Black dog was happy to pick up the hot dog slice I put on the street between us, and let me pull the lead over her head. Being incredibly gentle with her mouth, she took a second hot dog slice from my hand. I lured her to Bergziege, my car. Black Dog let me lift her into the crate without protesting much.

“You’re very good”, I told Black Dog on the way to the vet. “Let’s see what the doctor says.”

“We’re almost there.”

“You’re a good girl.”

“It’ll be okay. You don’t worry.”

The vet had no doubt it was distemper. The jolts and her wobbly gait were advanced neurological symptoms, he said, meaning the virus was affecting her nervous system.

He switched off the cheerful bubble fountain in the aquarium in his examination room. I lifted Black Dog up on the metal examination table and wrapped my arms around her.

“Hold her tightly,” said the vet. “You can talk to her.”

He injected a sedative, followed by a reddish liquid that would stop her heart, and finally saline solution to push the euthanasia drug to her heart. It was peaceful, and took a few minutes at most. I told Black Dog she was a Good Dog. That it was okay. In German this time: “Brav bist du. Es ist okay … Gleich ist es vorbei. So ist es gut.” Her neck went limp. I let her slide out of my arms and onto the table. The vet listened for her heartbeat. It had stopped.

I helped put her in a large black plastic bag, and paid 300 Quetzales. One of the staff members carried the bag to my car. In Guatemala, you need to take your dead animal home and bury her yourself.

“I’m sorry,” I told Black Dog in my car. “I am sorry, girl.”

The road to my neighborhood isn’t paved, and I could hear Black Dog in her bag slide back and forth in the crate every time I went through a pothole. Jhhhh-clunk. Jhhhh-clunk.

I stopped at the red corrugated metal door and knocked. The sun was shining, and the street was busy with farm workers on their way to the coffee fields.

Dad and Little Boy weren’t home. Grandmother opened. She had no teeth in her mouth and was hard to understand.

“Hi … I’m the girl who took Black Dog to the vet.”
“You already took her?”
“Yes. I am sorry … It was distemper. The vet had to put her to sleep …”
“He killed her?”
“Yes. I am sorry.”
“Well,” she started to close the door.

“Wait,” I said. “I have her in my car. We should bury her.”
“I don’t want to see her.”
“I am very sorry …”
“You killed her. YOU bury her.”
“Okay,” I said. “I will bury her. I am really sorry. It was moquillo. We had to to put her to sleep to keep the other neighborhood dogs safe.” “Sacrificar.” That word again. It seemed oddly appropriate.
There was a moment of silence.
“It’s a sin to take the life of an animal or a person,” said Grandmother. She was calm. She didn’t cry. She didn’t seem angry. She looked straight into my eyes and informed me of a fact. “It is a sin.”
“I am sorry,” I said, because really, what else was there to say?

We said goodby, and I left. Black Dog was dead, in my car, in a black plastic bag. I realized that I didn’t own a shovel.

~~~

Black Dog is now buried on the edge of the coffee field behind my house. I asked two guys working in the field to help me. “Of course”, they said. They had shovels. We made a deep hole and buried Black Dog. “One gets attached to the animals, doesn’t one?”, mused one of the guys. He was wearing a white shirt which, inexplicably, was still white after hours of field work. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.”

~~~

Today, I pulled the lever, and I redirected the trolley. I reached into an ecological niche, and I pulled Black Dog out of it. I don’t know whether the death of Black Dog will butterflyeffect the free ranging dog population “for the better” or “for the worse” – I don’t think it is possible for us to know.

I believe there is no “right” answer to the trolley dilemma. The dilemma isn’t about doing the right thing – it’s about knowing who you are, or who you want to be. Do you get involved in something you aren’t a part of – something you can only see from your own, limited point of view – or do you not? Do you dare disturb the universe?

I do not want to be the kind of person who pulls the lever if it means harming someone. Today, I harmed Black Dog’s family by imposing my own cultural beliefs on them. (Sure, you could say I was imposing facts, medical facts, on them rather than mere opinions, and of course I was doing it for the greater good; for all the other neighborhood dogs, for the vulnerably-aged puppies down the street, or for whatever helps me sleep at night. It’s easy to justify the dogmas of our own ethnocentrism. It wasn’t my place to disrespect Grandmother’s beliefs though.

Grandmother must think I do not understand. At all. And she would be right. I do not understand what her life with Dad, and Little Boy, and Black Dog is like behind the corrugated metal door, in the corrugated metal house, in a postcolonial society. Who is she? Who are her family? What do they love, and fear, and hope for? What do people and animals mean to her? Did they love Black Dog? I don’t know. I’d like to think that they did. I, not God, took Black Dog to die, and maybe the fact that I could go out and do this – just like that! – is part of what is wrong with the world.

The most difficult moment today – the moment I needed to hold my tears back – was not the moment I held Black Dog in my arms on the sterile metal table, and felt the life slip out of her. That moment was peaceful. I am not scared of death, and I don’t think animals are, either.

The difficult moment was when I turned away from Grandmother in the door, and towards my car. “It’s a sin to take the life of a dog or a person.”

There is a power dynamic that allowed me, the white girl with the broken Spanish, to knock on a red corrugated metal door in a little corrugated metal house with a dirt floor, and take something away from a Mayan family. And I don’t mean their dog – I mean something bigger than their dog. The moment Grandmother looked into my eyes and said: “It is a sin,” I learned that I would rather be someone who respects the beliefs of others than someone who knocks on doors in this way. I would rather allow a sick dog to continue in the population, whether that entailed watching the trolley run over five others or not. I am, of course, aware that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Maybe one day, I’ll own the grace it takes to move in this world without stepping on things.

Training Tip: What Should You Do if Your Dog Leaves a Session?

You’re in the middle of a shaping session or practicing a well-known behavior … and your dog turns around and walks away.

None of us like when that happens – but it happens to all of us, and it’s not the end of the world. What’s important is how you react.

Your gut instinct probably tells you to lure or coax your dog back and ask for one more rep. That’s understandable: as humans, we like being in control, and we feel like it should be us – and not the dog – who decides when the session ends.

Ideally, it would indeed be us: ideally, we’ll set ourselves and our dog up for success, and stop training when she would still like to keep going.

The session your dog left before you ended it? That’s not an ideal session. Almost always, the best thing you can do in this situation is end it without making a big deal out of it. Go back to the drawing board, think about why your dog may have left, and set yourself up for success the next time.

“Allowing” the dog to walk away and sniff, bark at the fence, or chase a squirrel feels counterintuitive to many trainers. I also need to consciously make the decision to stop when my dog disengages. A part of me always wants to keep going – stopping now feels like I’m giving up control of the session. Maybe the reason we as trainers are uncomfortable with this feeling is a remnant of the belief that dogs “have to” work when we ask them to, and that we mustn’t “let them get away” with leaving.

It is indeed possible to teach a dog that she “has to” work any time you ask her to. Many trainers have successfully done so for decades. It’s not necessary though – and I would argue it isn’t in line with a philosophy of empowering our dogs, of giving them choice and agency and regarding them as partners rather than subordinates.

Work doesn’t need to be an obligation, and neither does it need to be something you are begging your dog to do. It can (and should!) be a wonderful privilege; an activity your dog LOVES to share with you. When something is a privilege or a favorite activity, we don’t need to lure or coax or “make” our dogs do it.

A few days ago, Grit left our TEAM 2 practice. We were working in the yard. Someone walked past, and Grit ran to the fence and barked at them. I picked up my mat and my scent tins and my distraction bowl, went back into the house, and left her outside in the yard alone. Grit had just gotten distracted, and that’s no big deal – it’s okay to get distracted when a stranger walks by. Neither of us had expected the person to show up. By the time Grit turned around to look back at me, I was about to close the door behind me. Her chance to play and train had just ended! I still wanted to do that run-through, so after spending 10 minutes answering e-mails, I went back outside, and we started over – without either distractions or disengagement!

Doesn’t “allowing the dog to end the session” reinforce her for leaving? The answer is no – not if working with you is rewarding! If working with you is fun, your dog generally wants to keep going – even if in this one particular situation, he left for some reason or other. Making the loss of the privilege to keep working a consequence of disengagement negatively punishes the disengagement. As a result, as long as you have set yourself and your dog up for success, are using coveted reinforcers, and aren’t asking for something that is too difficult, you should see less disengagement in the future.

If you see more disengagement in the future, you have bigger problems. It seems like the end of your session feels like a reward to your dog – and that, in turn, means there is room for improvement within your training sessions. Are your reinforcers appropriate? Did you choose a training environment your dog is ready for? Could you be asking too much of your dog? Do you tend to train too long? There are lots of elements you can consider and adapt in order to change how your dog feels about training. You can learn about some of them in this quiz I made:

Quiz: Optimize Your Training Sessions

If you want to learn even more about fitting fun and well-planned training sessions into the limited amount of time you have for your dog, I’d love to see you in my upcoming FDSA class: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World. The December term starts tomorrow!

Finding 5(0) with Kathy

I recently finished the German translation of Kathy Sdao’s book Plenty In Life is Free. It’s a great little book that makes a strong case for treating animals with kindness. One of my favorite parts is Kathy’s SMART x 50 protocol, which is presented as an alternative to NILIF (training based on the assumption that Nothing In Life Is Free for dogs). SMART stands for “See, mark and reward training.” Kathy advises her clients to count out 50 treats every morning, and use them to see, mark, and reward desired behavior throughout the day. The goal? Having an empty treat bowl in the end of the day. 50 sounds like a lot, but once you get in the habit of catching your dog being good, your treats will go like hotcakes.

I recommended that protocol to a number of clients when I first read Kathy’s book, but then somehow forgot about it. Now that I was translating Plenty in Life is Free, I decided to implement SMART for the next week with my own dogs, particularly Game – an adolescent whose house manners were a bit all over the place! For 7 days, I’d take one cup of kibble out of her daily food portion and put it on the kitchen counter every morning. Throughout the day, I fed Game any time I caught her being good, and if anything was left at night, she got it with her dinner.

Within a week of paying attention to catching Game being good, I had her mat manners back: anytime she chose to hang out on her mat and I happened to see it, a treat would materialize between her front paws. Anytime she stayed in the yard without immediately scratching the door when I went inside – a new habit she had developed recently – I’d treat her. She didn’t need to do anything specific – any behavior other than scratching the door or whining got reinforced. The first two days, I mostly fed her standing in front of the door expectantly. On day 3, she chose to lie down, and that’s what I could capture. My criterion was simple and ensured I had countless opportunities to reinforce Game: if I don’t dislike it, I’ll treat it!

In only one week, I had Game’s good house manners back. The best part: I didn’t lose any time working on these things – the training just happened while I was going about my day. All I had to do was remember to prepare a cup of kibble in the morning, and get into the habit of seeing, marking, and rewarding behaviors I liked.

I challenge you to give Kathy’s SMART x 50 protocol a try yourself! Start today, and stick to it for a week. It’s ideal for behaviors you are too lazy to work on in designated training sessions – things that seem boring rather than fun to you as a trainer. Leave me a comment to let me know how it’s going, and what you choose to reward!

PS: I’m getting ready to teach one of my favorite classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Finding Five – Training for a Busy World is starting on December 1st. It is an entire class about fitting a little bit of training time into a busy schedule, making use of games similar to Kathy’s SMART x 50. It’s also a class about reviving your relationship with your dog: if the reason you haven’t been training or spending time with her is not a lack of time, but a lack of motivation, you’ve come to the right place as well. Registration is open, and I’d love to see you in class!

Crate Expectations Part 3: Adding a Cue and Extending Duration

This is part 3 of a 4-part crate training series. Click here for part 1, and here for part 2.

We’re picking up right where we left off last time!

Test your dog’s understanding!

  • Once you can count to 10 without your dog getting up, it’s time to test her understanding! In your next session, click and treat her for lying down in her crate.
  • Then, count to 10 in your head without intermediary steps.
  • Click, and feed in position.
  • Use your release word and throw a reset treat out of the crate.

Phoebe demonstrates the test. Her marker word is “Good!”.

Successful? Excellent! You’re ready for the next step!

Did your dog get up before you had counted to 10? That’s okay – you’ll explain the exercise again:

  • Go back to slowly building duration: count to 1 in your head – mark and feed. Count to 2 in your head – mark and feed, etc.
  • After counting to 10 without your dog getting up, give her a break.
  •  In your next session, test her understanding again.

Adding the Cue

  • Say the cue of your choice (for example “Go in your crate!”) right before your dog is about to do the behavior. To an observer, it should look as if she was going in the crate because you told her to.
  • Mark as she lies down in the crate, and feed in position.
  • Count to ten in your head. Mark and feed in position.
  • Say your release cue and throw a reset cookie out of the crate.
  • As soon as she is done eating it, say your crate cue again.
  • Mark and feed her for lying down in her crate.
  • Count to 10 in your head. Mark and feed in position.
  • Say your release cue and throw another reset treat out of the crate.

Feel free to talk to and praise your dog when increasing the duration of a behavior! The next video shows how chatty I am when building duration on real-life behaviors.

Phoebe’s crate cue is, “In die Box!” (German for “In your crate!”). I use two different marker words in this video (“Good!” when feeding her in position, and “Okay, get it!” when throwing a cookie for her to chase). Don’t worry about this if you only have one marker cue for your dog – just use your usual click or marker word!

So far, I’ve asked you to count in your head. This allowed you to increase duration in steps smaller than a second if necessary. From now on, you’ll work with real seconds to keep track of your further progress. Use the timer on your phone for help!

Extending the Duration

10-20 Seconds

Now that your dog knows her crate cue and can lie in her crate for 10 seconds, it’s time to extend the duration even more.

  • Say your crate cue, and click and feed in position as your dog lies down in her crate.
  • Wait for 10 seconds. Mark and feed in position.
  • Wait for 12 seconds. Mark and feed in position.
  • Wait for 14 seconds. Mark and feed in position.
  • Wait for 16 seconds etc.
  • If your dog ever sits up, stands up or leaves the crate, wait for her to go back in and start with 10 seconds again. (Back to 10 – 12 – 14 etc.)

Work your way up to 20 seconds in 2-second steps.

20-60 Seconds

From 20 to 60 seconds, you’ll increase the time between treats in 5-second steps: 20 seconds – 25 – 30 – 35 – 40 – 45 – 50 – 55 – 60 seconds. The time between treats is getting longer!

Even though you marked and treated in between, your dog has now spent quite a long time lying in her crate without getting up – substantially longer than the 60 seconds of your very last rep! And you didn’t even need to close the crate door in order to convince her to stay in!

Stay at this stage until your dog can work all the way up to 60 seconds!

You don’t need to watch all of this video … take a look at the beginning and the end to get an idea of the progress. Feel free to talk to your dog throughout your session.

Test your dog’s understanding!

  • Send your dog in her crate, mark, and feed in position.
  • Then wait for 60 seconds right away. Mark, and feed the 60-second treat in position.
  • Say your release cue and throw a reset treat for her to chase out of the crate.
  • If your dog struggles with this step, explain the game again: start over with 10 seconds – 12 – 14 – etc. between treats before testing her understanding again.

Phoebe demonstrates the test for building duration on a mat. Just imagine the mat were a crate – my training process for both these skills is exactly the same.

Up until now, what we’ve been working on could just as well have been an obedience stay. In the video you just watched, Phoebe holds a sphinx down and concentrates on me – this is not the relaxed crate (or mat) behavior we eventually want! Check back for part 4 to see how I transition to relaxation and extend the duration further next week!

If you’ve been following this tutorial with your own dog, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World.

Crate Expectations Part 2: Lying down in the crate and starting to build duration

crate training, dog training, dog crate

This is part 2 of a 4-part crate training tutorial. Click here for Part 1: Shaping Interactions with a New Crate.  

We’re picking up right where we left off – with Hadley’s third crate training session. Hadley is a fast and active little Border Collie. Staying still doesn’t come naturally to him! I need to build duration in tiny increments. The most important part throughout the teaching process? We’re both having a good time!

Hadley – Session 3

00:04 Since Hadley offered a down outside the crate just before, I click for one paw in, “Yes, we’re still talking about the crate.”
00:20 I was going to click for 2 paws in, but he went all the way in – so I jackpot with a hand full of treats.
00:45 Since he did so well with all 4 paws, I wait for him to go all the way in again.
00:54 “Will you choose to stay inside if I delay the click?” Yes! Good boy!
01:00 Building duration for standing in the crate.
01:07 Hadley leaves the crate …
01:10 … so I start building duration from scratch once he is in the crate again.
01:33 He offers to sit! Jackpot!

  • Start each session just a little easier than you ended the previous one in order to set your dog up for success. Then raise criteria again. Once your dog has offered a sit, gradually expand the duration. Sooner or later, she should offer a down: sitting gets boring!
  • Jackpot the down, then gradually build duration again – this time with the dog lying down in the crate.
  • Just like you did with the standing and sitting dog, go back to an easier version of the exercise any time your dog gets up and/or leaves the crate. If you made it up to counting to 6 in your head with your dog lying down, but then she gets up and leaves the crate, start with immediately clicking for walking in and lying down, then clicking for lying down while you count to 1 in your head, lying down while you count to 2 in your head, lying down while you count to 3 in your head, etc. The reason we click a lot is that we want our dogs to be successful and have fun rather than be frustrated and give up. This is especially important for dogs who are new to clicker training and shaping.
  • If your dog gets up after the click, feed him in the position you just clicked – just use the cookie to lure him back into a sit or down.

Hadley – Session 4

In this session, I try to build duration for the down. Hadley is having a hard time staying down. That’s okay. When he gets up, I just lower criteria and go back to clicking as soon as he downs, and counting to 1 or 2 in my head. We’re not in a rush. Note that when he gets up after the click, I feed him in a down position. I just use the cookie to lure him back down. Feeding in position speeds up the learning process!

01:47 You can see me click and then say “Get it!” in the end of this session. You’ll observe the same thing in some of my other videos in this series. The trainer I am today would not click before saying “Get it!” “Get it!” itself serves as a marker cue.

  • Build duration in a down position until you can count to 10 in your head without your dog getting up!

Hadley – Session 5

Building duration of lying in the crate. Hadley is still tempted to get up a lot. I’ll patiently explain what I want him to do until he understands – and he will understand. It’s just a matter of time and patience. Always work at your dog’s pace!

Hadley – Session 6

Hadley is getting better at staying down! At 02:17, I count to 9 in my head before he gets up. (I’m counting fast with Hadley, who needs the duration to increase in steps smaller than one-second increments. In his case, counting to 9 is not the same as 9 seconds.)

Check back next week for part 3 of the crate training series! If you’ve been following this tutorial with your own dog, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear how it’s going!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World.

Crate Expectations Part 1: Shaping interactions with a new crate

I have been helping a student get her dog used to a crate, which reminded me of the crate training tutorial I wrote a year ago, and never ended up sharing anywhere! I’m going to split it into 4 blog posts. If you try this protocol with your own dog and run into problems, feel free to ask your questions in the comments, and I’ll try to help you out!

Traditionally, dogs used to be “trained” to spend time in their crates by means of just putting them in the crate, closing the door, and not letting them out until they stopped whining or barking. Not only is this stressful for your dog, it’s also hard on your neighbors, who might not approve of your dog barking in her crate all night. The good news is that there are other, less stressful ways of getting a dog used to a crate. It might take a little longer to get duration than if you just locked your dog in, but it will be much less stressful for both you and your dog.

dog training, life skills, crate training, dog crate, dog kennel

If your dog already has negative associations with her crate, I recommend getting a different model (plastic instead of wire or wire instead of plastic) and starting from scratch with a new crate in a different location. It’s easier to build positive associations to an entirely new object than to change your dog’s feelings about a crate she already dislikes.

I usually use a combination of shaping and luring to get started. If you are an experienced shaper, feel free to free shape the behavior instead. Also, please note there is more than just one way to train your dog to enjoy spending time in her crate. The steps I’m sharing here with you have worked well for me – that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t get equally good results with a different and equally stress-free training technique.

Crate Training Setup

  • Remove all other objects around your crate to make it obvious to your dog that your training session is about the crate.
  • If your dog has a tendency to wander off or is a young puppy with a short attention span, put an x-pen around yourself and the crate, or keep her on a leash.
  • Keep each session to 1 minute – set a timer to remind you to stop training and give your dog a break.

Click any Interaction and Feed in the Crate

  • Click any and all interactions with the crate. Throw a treat into the crate so the dog eats inside the crate! If your dog hesitates to step in the crate, put the treat near the door so all she has to do is stick in her head to get it. With every click, put the treat a little further inside the crate until your dog has to step in to get it – first one paw, then two, three, and finally four.
  • Can you get in three to five more clicks and treats while your dog is still in the crate, has just finished eating her previous treat, but hasn’t had time yet to come out again? Great!
  • After three to five rapid-fire clicks and treats, wait a little. If your dog comes out of the crate, wait to click until she shows interest again. If she stays in and waits, add another click and treat inside the crate, then click and throw a treat out to set her up for another rep.

Hadley – Session 1

At the time I worked on this tutorial, Hadley was the least crate-trained dog in our house, so I’m using him to demo the first steps. I chose a crate he has never been in, and a location I have never worked on crate training before: out on the patio. In order to keep him from running off, I put an x-pen around Hadley, myself and the crate. He’s making it easy and has no trouble going all the way in when I feed in the crate after the first click. Note that I don’t wait for him to go all the way in before each click – I really do click any interaction with the crate. Looking at it is enough at first! That’s the shaping part of this exercise. However, I feed in the crate so he has to go all the way in for his treat. That’s the luring part of it!

00:54 Now I want more than just looking at it – walk towards it to get a click!
01:23 For the first time, I wait a little bit to see if he’ll stay in on his own, or come out again. Just a fraction of a second … He stops and looks at me, and I immediately reinforce this choice with a click and treat.

Hadley – Session 2

00:13 I delay the click a tiny little bit to see if Hadley chooses to stay in the crate rather than come out … And he does, and looks at me expectantly! Yey!
00:23 Click for sticking the head in the crate.
00:51 Click for one paw in.
01:08 Click for two paws.
01:16 Again, I delay the click, and Hadley chooses to stay in the crate rather than come out.

  • Delay the click just a little longer once your dog is successful: you started with clicking for looking at the crate and proceeded to clicking for sticking the head in, putting one paw in, then two paws, three paws, and finally all four paws.
  • Once you get four paws in, start adding duration: with your dog standing in the crate, delay the click longer and longer: dog in the crate – click immediately. Dog in the crate – count to 1 in your head, click, and treat. Dog in the crate – count to 2 in your head, click, and treat. Dog in the crate – count to 3 in your head, click, and treat.
  • When your dog leaves the crate before the click, wait for her to go back in, and start building duration from scratch: dog in the crate – click immediately. Dog in the crate – count to 1 in your head, click, and treat. Dog in the crate, count to 2 in your head, click, and treat. Etc.
  • Eventually, most dogs will offer a sit or a down in the crate – just standing there gets boring. Jackpot the sit or down with praise and a hand full of treats!

Check back next week for the following steps!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information, or join her December class at FDSA: Finding Five – Training for a Busy World.

What happens in your body when you run into a lion?

I’ve been translating parts of my German-language book on fearful puppies, and decided to rewrite and extend my introduction to the specific training protocols for helping young dogs conquer their fears. All my protocols stress patience and working under threshold. Here’s the reason why:

Psychogenic distress has a number of physiological effects we should be aware of when trying to help a puppy overcome her fears. There are two systems that get activated under stress: the sympatho-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Let’s look at them by means of an example.

Imagine you are walking to the supermarket. Suddenly, a lion jumps out of a driveway. The SAM axis responds immediately – your adrenaline levels rise quickly, and you are getting ready to outrun or fight the lion! A few minutes later, your adrenaline levels drop back to normal again. The same holds true anytime your puppy meets “her lion” – no matter whether that’s indeed a lion, a person on crutches, a strange dog or a teenager on a skateboard.

The HPA axis, on the other hand, is activated more slowly and remains active longer. It leads to the release of cortisol. Indeed, your cortisol levels will only peak approximately 20 minutes after you ran into the lion, and elevated cortisol levels can be measured in your body for up to an hour or two after the stressful event. Again, the same things happen in your puppy’s body when she encounters a trigger.

Why is this relevant when trying to change your puppy’s negative associations to skateboarders, men in hats, or strange dogs? Staying under threshold in training is significantly more effective than training in a state of mind our dog would be in if she saw a lion: anytime your puppy experiences distress, her ability to learn is compromised. While we do want to face the triggers your puppy is concerned with, we need to stay at a point where they do not trigger the physiological responses associated with distress. A puppy’s brain is most receptive when she is in a relaxed and attentive state of mind. That’s why, in order to maximize the training benefits for your sensitive puppy, you should stick to the recommended maximum duration of the training protocols as well as the minimum relaxation times in between sessions. If your puppy “goes over threshold” (i.e. the physiological stress response is triggered), you don’t only lose the benefits of your current desensitization session, but also of the following reps: the physiological stress response takes a while to subside, and only when your puppy’s body has returned to homeostasis can you effectively change her association to a trigger by one of the protocols described below.

Stress Stacking

Earlier in this chapter, we learned that adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t immediately drop back to normal the moment a real or metaphorical lion disappears: adrenaline levels stay elevated for several minutes, and cortisol levels for up to two hours. When several minor stressors happen immediately one after the other, the total level of stress keeps rising. That is to say the puppy doesn’t process them one after the other (image 1), but simultaneously (image 2).

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 1: Meeting several minor stressors in a row isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

An isolated trigger that is only perceived as slightly stressful by your puppy might cause your puppy to run away, freezy, alarm-bark or air-snap if it happens simultaneously or soon after another minor or major stressor. Stress stacking is also the reason many moderately reactive puppies and dogs don’t react to the first or second trigger they meet on a walk, but will react to the third one.

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 2: … but more like meeting a lion!

Thresholds and Relapses

And there is another reason I recommend always working at a distance to the trigger that is great enough to avoid fear reactions. Experiments show a connection between elevated heart rate during training sessions and future relapses. This hasn’t only been studied on animals, but also on people undergoing exposure therapy in order to conquer phobias. The results showed that the subject was most likely to relapse when the level of fear they themselves reported to be experiencing was out of line with the level of fear indicated by their heart rate. This is why I don’t like using food lures when socializing fearful puppies: a food-motivated puppy may be tricked into approaching someone she wouldn’t approach otherwise, only to realize she is in way over her head once she has swallowed the food.

Special thanks to FDSA instructor Jessica Hekman for making making sure I got the science right! Jessica also pointed me to one of her articles, which wasn’t only helpful, but also interesting and enjoyable to read. Check it out if you want to learn more about psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.