A Perfect Circle

… is not only a band worth checking out, but may also be your ticket to a relaxing walk with your dog. A few months ago, Denise Fenzi started experimenting with walking the dog in a circle around the handler in order to reduce leash pulling. Her method has since grown into a pragmatic approach that doesn’t only address excitement-based pulling, but also reduces reactivity and anxiety in some dogs.

I experimented with my own as well as my clients’ dogs, and found Denise’s circle method to make an excellent addition to my leash walking toolbox. It’s both simple and powerful, and it lends itself to being combined with and used in addition to other leash training strategies I was already using. Clearly, it needed to be part of the new FDSA class I was working on as well: Out and About already included several leash walking approaches for my students to choose from.

Three of my Gold students chose to use circles on their urban walks and nature hikes. Their dogs were very different, and all three of them uploaded multiple videos of their leash walking assignments. The circle method turned out to be helpful to every one of them. Here’s what I learned from further exploring it with my Out and About students and their dogs while also continuing to play with it in real life:

  1. Most people find it easier to circle on a collar or front-attachment harness than on a back-attachment harness.
  2. If your dog has a hard time allowing you to lead him into the circle, practice giving in to leash pressure at home. This seems to do wonders for the dog’s understanding – especially if you use the leash pressure game to walk your dog in a circle around your own body.
  3. Going back and forth over familiar terrain – for example, walking the same short loop two or three times rather than walking one longer loop – helps highly excited dogs calm down.
  4. If your dog speeds up, trying to get out of the circle and pull as soon as he gets close to his starting point, add another circle immediately. This tends to slow the dog down, and decrease his speed even on the first circle.
  5. If you’re on a trail that’s too narrow for you to get a radius of more than a few inches, walk ellipses rather than circles.
  6. Walk at your normal speed – don’t run just because your dog would like to go faster. Channel his energy into the circles until he has learned to adjust to your walking speed.
  7. If it makes sense for your dog, combine the circle method with food (food scatters; treat magnets; mark/treat for auto check-ins; the LAT game; counterconditioning; eating as an alternative behavior etc.). While the circle method doesn’t require food, treats can make a big difference if your dog doesn’t “just” pull, but is also reactive, fearful or anxious.
  8. Unless your dog is circling, always encourage and allow sniffing. Most dogs find sniffing to be relaxing, and I’ve seen it reduce both pulling and anxiety.
  9. Acknowledge your dog’s checking in with you! You can mark and feed, or simply praise your dog.

Speaking of circles: Denise’s Cutting Corners webinar will be offered for the third time on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Check it out!

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!

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.

A Year of Being a Choice Architect

Susan Friedman has a wonderful metaphor for shaping desired behavior in an animal: she says the trainer’s job is to be a choice architect – someone who makes the desired behavior easy and attractive, and the undesired behavior hard or impossible. Imagine putting a marble on a slope: it’ll choose to roll down – you don’t need to “make it.” As trainers, our job is to make sure the environment is slopy.

This way of looking at training has two elements I love: it emphasizes giving the dog choice (rather than “making them” do something), and it focuses on manipulating the environmental paths to reinforcement rather than the learner.

Soon after Game joined the family, I realized she would be a great dog to take places – if only I could shape her high sociability and environmental curiosity into laid-back confidence, and build her patience so she would choose to settle rather than pester people, whine or bark when she wanted to interact! Today, I want to tell you how choice architecture and patience helped Game grow from a dog who wanted to meet all the people and all the dogs all the time into a dog who is fun to take places.

Example: tracking group

When Game was an adolescent, I took her to a tracking class. I got permission to use the class as a distraction while doing my own thing. (I can’t say how much I appreciate my colleagues who let me do this kind of thing!)

I asked Game to wait her turn at a big distance from the group – a distance that made lunging and whining unlikely. Here, she had the choice to sit, stand, or lie down in the grass, or to wander and sniff within her leash radius. If she chose to sit or lie down, she got hot dogs and attention; if she stood up, nothing happened. The fact that after a while, she sat down and held her sit while watching the other dog/handler teams work showed me that I had chosen a good distance. Yes, I was the only one working at half a soccer field’s distance while everyone else was standing in a circle. But that was okay. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to my goal, and I wasn’t primarily there for the tracking.

Meeting friends

When we met friends – humans or dogs – I waited for Game to offer eye contact or a sit before releasing her to say hi. If she pulled on the leash, I just remained standing. If she whined or barked, I let her (and made a mental note to choose a bigger pre-release distance next time). If she briefly looked back at me, I marked and released her to say hi or go play. Once she started understanding the principle, she chose to look at me faster and faster.

Example: walking in public

The Siam Crown training fields came with lots of opportunities to take strolls on leash at a distance from other dogs who were pottied on leash, and learn to not run up to them, but just walk and explore. We could also walk off leash (Siam Crown is a gigantic park with a wall around it) while other dogs were training in the distance. I kept a distance where I trusted that Game was able to stay in her radius around me rather than being magnetized to the action on a nearby training field. With time, we got closer and closer to dogs working on their obedience or protection skills.

Eating out

I would find a spot at Siam Crown where I could read or cut up hotdogs with Game on a leash next to me. There were various dog training things going on in the distance. When Game lay down and stayed down, I reinforced her with attention and food.

We also visited Thai street food places – places where you usually don’t spend more than 15 minutes – and did the same things there. These were exciting! I had to up my treat value. I set the clock on my phone and rewarded every 15 seconds at first, then every 30 seconds, every 45 seconds … After a while, I was only dropping a treat between her paws every two minutes. This took work – but I was able to lower the rate of reinforcement surprisingly quickly! I set myself the goal to take Game to one of these places once every seven days. Once a week, I invested about 15 intense training minutes in this project. I didn’t find it to be a huge time investment, and loved seeing Game’s progress.

And … We did it!

Game just turned a year old in July, and I’m proud to say that we have met our training goal. Through making good choices easy and reinforcing, and preventing bad choices or making them difficult, Game has become a dog who can go places with me. She is laid-back and relaxed around people and dogs, and unphazed by commotion. (Not exactly a typical Malinois trait!) She makes good choices without me having to micromanage her.

Comfortable and relaxed in public:

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An enjoyable loose-leash sniff walk in a busy place:

Now that making good choices has become a habit, I am starting to increase Game’s level of freedom. In the past, I would have used distance and/or a leash to make walking up to people (a reinforcer for her) unlikely or impossible. Now, if I am with someone Game knows and likes, I don’t mind if she chooses to walk over and say hi. She won’t be over the top, and it’s not her default thing to do. Having been a choice architect in her first year of life is allowing me to increase the amount of freedom she has today.

Of course, I’ll keep reinforcing good choices rather than take them for granted: it’s fun to catch a dog being good!

Have you been a choice architect in your dog’s life? Tell me about it in the comments!

PS: Check out this blog post by Amanda Nelson. She is a choice architect for her dog in an agility context!

Case Study: Toni gets paid for looking at dogs

Last week, I told you about Toni’s relaxation blanket that helped him stay calm around visitors. Today, I’m going to share how we tackled the second behavior his owner wanted to change: lunging and barking at dogs he saw in the street.

During our first consult, I asked Sabrina to take me on one of her usual walks, and do everything the way she normally would, so I could see the problem. Given the part of Vienna that Sabrina lives in, it was likely that we would meet a dog or two, even if we just walked around the block.

Toni walked on his leash relatively nicely. He took his time sniffing doorways and lamp posts, and peeing on trees. The people walking by and the traffic noise didn’t seem to bother him. He’d trot along happily, sniffing here and there, and pee on lots of trees. Except for his dog reactivity, he was a pleasure to walk in a busy town. He ignored strangers on the street beautifully, and Sabrina was doing a great job giving him opportunities to take his time sniffing rather than pulling him along.

When a man with two Labs suddenly appeared in a doorway further down the street, Toni reacted as soon as they entered his peripheral field of vision. He barked, hackles raised, and pulled towards them. Sabrina held on to the leash (which wasn’t easy, given Toni’s size!), and waited while the guy with the Labs crossed the street and disappeared around a corner. Toni shook when the dogs had disappeared, and went right back to sniffing the spot he had been investigating.

Sabrina explained that this was a typical Toni reaction: he’d become aware of a dog – sometimes, that dog had to come quite close until Toni noticed; sometimes, he was still further away. Toni would pull and bark until the dog had disappeared. Since Toni was a big black dog, the other owner would usually get out of the way, and Sabrina tended to just stay where she was, tightly holding on to the leash, until the trigger was gone.

Toni didn’t have dog friends or regular contact with other dogs except the ones he saw in the street. He didn’t have a concept of how to deal with them, or what to do with them, but seeing them was clearly arousing. That arousal manifested itself in barking, pulling, and lunging.

We were going to teach him an alternative way to react to dogs in the street, and a way to get rid of the startle response that probably contributed to his arousal when a strange dog showed up unexpectedly. I love Leslie McDevitt’s “Look At That” (LAT) protocol for cases like this because it gives the dog something specific to do (look at the trigger), and it creates positive associations with the trigger (food!).

A quick break down of the “Look at That!” game for those of you who aren’t familiar with it:

The dog gets specific job around his triggers: showing them to his human by means of looking at them. Looking at the trigger gets clicked or otherwise marked. Upon hearing the marker sound, the dog turns back to his human to collect his treat. The owner can even click her dog several times in a row for looking at a trigger and then back at her – until the trigger is out of sight.

Later, a cue is attached to the behavior. I usually suggest “Schau!” – German for “Look!” – to my Austrian clients. We introduce the cue by saying it when the dog is about to turn his head and look at the trigger anyways. Through repetition, the dog connects the cue with the behavior. The goal is that eventually, the human can cue “Schau!” when she sees a trigger the dog hasn’t yet seen. The dog will then scan the environment until he finds the trigger in order to collect his click and treat.

I didn’t video Toni’s training sessions, but here is a short clip of another client working on the first steps of LAT with her adolescent Border Collie. I am coaching the owner and videoing, and a helper is walking my Greyhound up and down in the distance. Toni’s first sessions looked very similar to this.

Training steps

We started working on LAT once Toni had learned to work for his food and knew the meaning of the click (turn to your handler and collect a treat). This was achieved as a side effect of the first training steps with his relaxation blanket.

Toni’s first LAT dog session took place on a wide, open field outside the city. I instructed my helper to walk Fanta, my Greyhound, up and down at about half a soccer field’s distance from Toni, Sabrina and me. Toni saw the decoy dog in the distance. He tensed up and watched intensely. He didn’t lunge or bark though. The distance was much bigger than what he was used to from the city. I asked Sabrina to click right away, then feed from her hand as Toni turned towards her. He swallowed his cookie, then looked again. Click and treat. He looked back – click and treat. After about four clicks, Toni visibly relaxed. He had collected information and realized this dog in the distance, who wasn’t coming closer, was not a threat. What’s more, looking at him was getting paid in clicks and cookies! Once Fanta had walked up and down four times, Toni seemed happy and interested in this new game, and Sabrina’s timing and mechanics looked nice, I asked her to start walking and move parallel to Fanta. Now, Toni got clicked for looking at our helper while walking. Since this went just as well, Sabrina could reduce the distance to Fanta by 4 feet. She kept walking parallel and clicking Toni for looking there and back.

In the course of this first meeting, we did several short sessions, interrupted by sniffing breaks for Toni, and worked our way closer and closer to Fanta, until there were only about 15 feet between the two dogs, and they could still walk parallel to each other without Toni getting the least bit upset. Towards the end of this session, Sabrina started introducing the “Schau!” (German for look) cue. She inserted it right before Toni was about to look at Fanta.

In our next session together, we practiced in a different place, with a new helper dog, and went through the same protocol again. Toni did well, enjoyed the new game, and never got over threshold.

In session number three – my last LAT lesson with Sabrina before I sent her out to practice on her own – we were ready to play in a more urban environment. We worked in a parking garage I often use for this kind of training: it is usually not frequented by dogs (so there are no unexpected triggers), and it’s easy to do set ups with having a dog suddenly appear behind a car. It’s not a busy garage, so there are some, but not too man distractions. You can see this location in the video of Border Collie Rose above. We worked a bit with both my dogs (Fanta and Phoebe) as the decoys. This time, I handled the helper dogs myself while Sabrina and Toni worked alone. Sabrina learned to watch out for my dogs appearing behind a car, clicking as soon as Toni saw them, and then walking off in whatever direction was safe and increased the distance between us. I gradually made things more difficult for them, trying to hide behind parked cars to sneak closer and surprise them both! Neither Sabrina nor Toni were getting nervous at this point – it had really turned into a game they both were having fun with.

In the second half of our urban LAT session, we took Toni for a walk through the neighborhood. Now Sabrina was working in real life rather than with set-ups. She was going to apply the protocol we had been practicing to the random dogs she met in the street. I led them past the back of a small, fenced dog park: instead of avoiding triggers, we were now looking for them so Sabrina could click and treat Toni!

Sabrina was doing a great job looking out for dogs, cuing “Look!”, and being proactive. Rather than passively remaining in place and waiting for the trigger to pass, she now actively helped Toni cope by means of clicking, treating, and, whenever necessary, retreating.

After successfully testing what we had practiced in the real world together, Sabrina was ready to play the LAT game anytime she met a dog on her regular neighborhood walks. She was going to avoid really close encounters with other dogs for now, until the new, alternative behavior of looking instead of lunging and barking had become an ingrained habit.

When Sabrina wrote to tell me about their progress about half a year later, Toni had learned passing strange dogs on the same side of the street, on a narrow sidewalk, without getting upset! Sabrina isn’t bringing her clicker on walks anymore, but she still makes sure to always have treats on her, and feed a particularly tasty one after passing a dog up close. She says she believes Toni wouldn’t need to get a cookie every time anymore, but she likes paying and praising him because it reminds her how proud she is of him.

Why we chose this training approach

Sabrina’s goal was for Toni and her to be able to walk through her neighborhood without him getting upset about other dogs. She didn’t need him to interact with other dogs up close, but she wanted their city walks to be enjoyable and less stressful. Sabrina just needed a strategy and a plan about how to get through dog encounters. Having the LAT game in place, she stopped being passive, and was able to successfully lead Toni through the situation.

Book Recommendation

Check out Leslie McDecitt’s books Control Unleashed and Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program to learn more about the “Look at That” protocol as well as other training games! I really like Leslie’s training approach. Her books are targeted at sports dogs, but many of their games and concepts are very useful for working with pet dogs as well.

Case Study: Toni learns to relax around visitors

Meet the dog

Toni is a very big, black-and-tan, floppy-eared, 3ish years old male mixed breed who was adopted by Sabrina when he was about 5 months old. With the exceptions of the two issues described below, Toni is a laid-back and mostly low energy dog.

Sabrina has four housemates, and they all have active social lives – a lot of the time, there isn’t just five people at their house, but rather ten. It’s never boring, and it’s never quiet. Toni does well in this environment – he’s a good fit for a social owner. Soon after Sabine got him, he started greeting each and every one of their visitors like old friends, even when they were new ones.

The behaviors we wanted to change

1) Toni used to get very excited when Sabrina had visitors, would try and jump on their lap as they sat on the couch, solicit attention, scratch their legs, and whine. It wasn’t easy to have a conversation with Toni in the room. Sabrina wanted to change his behavior around visitors. Taking him places wasn’t easy, either, because he insisted on being the center of attention when Sabrina was out with friends.

2) Out in the street, Toni would bark and lunge at other dogs. Sabrina wanted him to learn to pass them calmly.

Training steps: Learning to relax around human friends

Toni’s life included a lot of different people coming and going. He had the right kind of personality for it – he liked people. However, he liked them so much that he wanted to interact with them, and he had learned that the best way to do so was to pester them until they gave him attention! Sabrina had a lot of dog-loving friends, so this had been working well for him.

We decided to teach Toni to station on a blanket. This particular blanket would only come out when Sabrina wanted him to stay on it, and the blanket itself would become the cue to lie down.

Our first challenge was that Toni wasn’t interested in food rewards. He was free fed. Sabrina had a 15-kilo bag of high-value kibble in a corner of her bedroom. The bag was always open, and Toni just walked over and ate when he was hungry. He had been free fed ever since Sabrina got him. He was a little chubby, but he didn’t over-eat. He was very relaxed around food in general. Food wasn’t a limited resource. This was convenient in everyday life, but presented a training challenge!

In order to increase Toni’s interest in earning his food, Sabrina stopped free-feeding him. The first thing Toni needed to learn was that food could be the consequence of something he did – a concept he wasn’t familiar with. However, he knew how to sit. This was our starting point. Sabrina asked him to sit, clicked, and fed a cookie. She threw the next cookie to make him get up again, asked for another sit, clicked, and threw a cookie. After looking slightly perplexed in the first few sessions, Toni decided that this strange new game was fun. Now that food wasn’t available for free anymore, Toni’s interest in it had increased considerably. He liked interacting with people anyways, and these cookies weren’t all that bad, either! You could see him perk up as he realized that he had the power to make clicks happen and food appear.

With the help of a cookie pressed against Sabrina’s hand with her thumb, he soon learned to do a hand-touch as well, which earned him a click and released the cookie. Sabrina could fade the lure within a few reps. Toni learned to figure out how to get his cookie: sitting, hand touches, or “shake”: he needed to paw at a closed fist in order to get his treat!

Next, I showed Sabrina how to add an element of shaping to her training sessions. Toni was going to learn to go to the blanket we were later going to use to change his behavior around visitors. I asked Sabrina to get a new blanket Toni had never seen before. She made a big fuss about it, then put it on the floor. Toni came over to investigate – click! Sabrina threw the cookie away from the blanket. Toni chased down his treat, and since he hadn’t been done investigating the blanket just yet, he returned to give it another sniff – click! In the course of several short sessions, Toni learned to step on the blanket with all four paws. Now, Sabrina clicked him for standing on the blanket, and then lured him into a down with the reward cookie. She waited a second or two, clicked again, and threw a cookie off the blanket. After a few reps, Toni offered his first voluntary down on the blanket and got a jackpot. After every brief session, Sabrina removed the blanket. It was only out when she was working with it.

Once Toni had learned to lie down on the blanket as soon as it was presented, we put the blanket where Sabrina eventually wanted it to be when she had visitors: in one of the corners of her big couch. It was important to her that Toni could be a part of her social life. She didn’t want him to have to wait in a different room, in a crate, or in a corner. During training sessions on the couch, she could sit next to him, feed him cookies and read or work on her laptop at the same time. She could also scratch his ears while he relaxed next to her, which he loved.

Once Toni recognized the appearance of the blanket on the couch as his cue to lie down, we started adding duration. From this point onwards, we made sure that Toni wouldn’t have Sabrina’s undivided attention. She’d read a sentence – feed a cookie. Read two sentences – feed a cookie. Read three sentences – feed a cookie, and so on. As long as he continued hanging out on his blanket next to her, cookies would materialize. At the same time, we made sure her full attention and eye contact weren’t part of the picture we were creating. After all, we wanted Toni to eventually relax rather than “work,” and Sabrina wanted to be able to focus on her visitors, and not just on her dog.

Toni was good about relaxing for the occasional cookie, and daily sessions got Sabrina to a point where she could soon read several pages of a book between the individual cookies, and occasionally replace a cookie with ear scratches. We systematically introduced Sabrina getting up, walking around the room, and sitting down again while Toni remained in his spot. He also learned to stay when Sabrina got up, left her room, and then came right back in. We practiced this until Sabrina could get up, go to the kitchen, get a glass of water, and return without Toni getting up or getting fidgety.

The next step was practicing with various visitors. The first one was me: Toni learned that the blanket game could still be played when someone else was in the room. We first increased the rate of reinforcement again, and since Toni’s desire in this situation was to interact with the visitor, we decided that I – the visitor – would give him the occasional cookie and attention when he was on the mat. My attention made the reward even more reinforcing.

It turned out that Toni was actually able to be quite patient and well mannered now that he knew hanging out on his blanket would get him cookies and attention. His excitement hadn’t been due to high arousal and overflowing energy – he had simply learned that he had to pester people in order to get attention. Once provided with an alternative behavior, he turned out to be an easygoing big boy.

After some experimenting, we decided that the mat would come out right before a visitor came into Sabrina’s room. If he stayed on his mat, the visitor would come over and great him with a cookie right away. If he got up, the visitor would turn around and close the door behind them. Sabrina would pick up the blanket, wait a second, and then put it down again. This usually reminded Toni to lie down. Now the visitor could come in and approach again.

Sabrina then began to ask other helpers to visit her in order to train her dog. First, we worked with two of her dog-savvy housemates. Then, she would ask friends to help her. If Tony stayed on his blanket, Sabrina would instruct her friends to deliver a cookie to him and calmly talk to him.

While building this new behavior, Sabrina had people over specifically for this exercise, not in order to socialize or talk about other things. She was consistent in her training, and it showed in Toni’s progress. He learned to stay on his mat while visitors came in the room, and his overall level of excitement around human friends decreased.

Sabrina then switched from cookies to long-lasting chews and stuffed Kongs that Toni could use to entertain himself on the blanket when she had people over. At that point, she was able to actually focus on her visitors, too, and not just on training Toni. By the time Toni had gotten used to eating part of his dinner from a Kong when Sabrina had people over, she was able to start giving him more freedom again. At first, she had made sure people would leave before Toni finished his Kong. Then we tested what would happen if Toni got to finish his Kong before the visitor left: it turned out he soon dozed off while Sabirna and me were still sitting together. We then tried what would happen if Sabrina released Toni and took away the blanket after he had finished his Kong – and he would just trot over to his bed and continue dozing off there. The Kong seemed to have a calming effect, and Toni’s need to be the center of attention had disappeared now that his relaxation on the blanket got reinforced on a regular basis. As Sabrina gradually increased his post-chew freedom, he would sometimes go right to his bed, and other times, he’d jump off the couch, wag and wait for ear scratches from Sabrina or the visitor before heading over to his bed. The attention-seeking behavior and vocalization had disappeared completely.

Training steps: Learning to relax in public

Sabrina wanted to be able to take Toni more places. In order for him to relax around friends away from home, Toni needed to generalize his blanket skills. Most cafés and restaurants in Austria allow dogs, and it is pretty normal that people bring their dogs when they go out for lunch or dinner. In order to practice for this, Sabrina and I went to McDonalds. Fast food restaurants are perfect for this: you can just get up and leave anytime, and it’s perfectly fine to only spend a few minutes inside. We picked a table in a quiet corner. Sabrina would head over to the table, put down the mat, and calmly reinforce Toni for lying down on it, and for staying down. I would get our drinks from the counter and join them. Once Toni had settled, he got a frozen Kong or long-lasting chew. We would finish our drinks, keep an eye on Toni, and discuss the next training steps. Then, Sabrina would trade the Kong or the remains of the chew for a cookie, release Toni, pick up the blanket, and we would leave.

After going through these steps together, Sabrina was ready to practice at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks on her own, or in the company of dog savvy friends. If she went on her own, she made sure to set him up for success by having him wait in the car while she ordered her coke or coffee and put it on the table, and set up the blanket. Then, she got Toni from the car, lead him directly to her table, and rewarded him for recognizing his blanket and lying down on it.

Gradually, Sabrina increased the time Toni could spend at a fast food restaurant, and decreased the attention he got from her until she was able to take him to other restaurants as well and actually have conversations with her friends while he relaxed on his blanket under the table.

Why we chose this training approach

Toni wasn’t a high energy dog to begin with. That made the blanket a good choice. He wasn’t torn between finding an outlet for his energy, and staying on the mat. He just needed an acceptable way to solicit attention when people were around. Hanging out on a blanket was congruent with his base personality: a big, friendly, laid-back dog.

Toni’s excitement around people wasn’t based on anxiety or insecurity. He genuinely liked people, and wanted to meet them. Not knowing how to get their attention was frustrating to him. Interacting with them was reinforcing, not stressful. This made it possible to integrate visitors into his reinforcement protocol.

It was important to Sabrina that our training plan would allow Toni to keep being part of her social life. She wanted her friends to be his friends, too. Using a blanket on the couch achieved just that.

Check back next week for how we worked on Toni’s second issue: barking and lunging at strange dogs in the street.

A Pet Dog’s Job

Trainers often distinguish between pet dogs and sports dogs. A pet dog is a dog whose only job is to be a pet. A buddy. A friend. A loyal companion and family member. A sports dog, on the other hand, has a very specific job: she is supposed to do well in her owner’s chosen field of competition – agility, obedience, nosework, tracking, herding … Dogs can have all kinds of jobs, and successful sports dog handlers usually focus on one or two of these options and dedicate a major part of their spare time to them.

Rumor has it that being a pet dog is easy and doesn’t require any training at all. Few things could be further from the truth! The typical pet dog is a family member, integrated into her humans’ life as much as possible. Human lives are pretty complex, and so are the behaviors required of a family dog!

Sports behaviors are trained specifically for the ring. The rules are clear, and you know what distractions to expect. Pet dog behaviors, on the other hand, are trained for all kinds of situations: living in the house, riding in a car, interacting with people and other dogs, socializing at the dog park, chilling under the coffee shop table, riding public transportation, playing with children, walking in the city, hiking in the mountains. Being a pet dog requires a lot of flexibility and great generalization skills. Often, a pet dog is expected to be mellow and relaxed during the week, and up for adventures on the weekend. He is expected to be social and friendly with all people and dogs, but not so friendly that he knocks over children or grandparents during a happy greeting. She is are expected to keep the leash loose, no matter how exciting the environment, to come when called, no matter what the distraction, and to be cuddly and low-maintenance, yet active and wiggly when it’s time to play. She is are also supposed to be cute, bark as little as possible, and don’t chew on inappropriate objects.

Being a good pet dog is not an easy job!

The good news is that having a good pet dog can add significantly to a human’s quality of  life: you’re never lonely, even when you are alone. You have a hiking partner. You have someone to pet when you’re sad, an ice-breaker when meeting new people, and a conversation topic at every party. (“You won’t believe what my dog did today! She …”)

The bad news is that it’s hard to train a pet dog to fulfill all these expectations! Attending puppy class at your local dog training club won’t cut it – after all, you want good behavior at home and in everyday life, not just in the training building.

The good news is that there is a simple trick that might significantly improve your dog’s behavior and your relationship with her – and it doesn’t even require a lot of effort. It might not make her perfect, but it will help!

We tend to see the bad rather than the good. As a result, dogs get yelled at more often than they get rewarded: you catch your dog chewing up your shoes and tell her “No!” However, you don’t reward her for chewing on her Nylabone. You get upset when she ignores you when you call, but take it for granted when she comes. You are mad at her when she pulls, but don’t even notice when the leash is loose.

So here’s the trick:

For the next two weeks, don’t feed your dog’s dinner from a bowl. Give her her usual breakfast before you leave for work in the morning. Measure out her dinner, and fill your pockets to make sure it’s always handy. Your job is to feed your dog his entire dinner portion as a reward for things you like. Make an effort to catch her being good! Does your dog not jump up when you come home? That’s worth praise, pets, and food! Does she settle on her mat while you have dinner rather than beg at the table? Get up a few times during your meal, walk over and drop a piece of dinner kibble on her bed! Does she sit politely and make eye contact to get you to pet her or open the door? Praise and treat her! When you walk her, does she occasionally make eye contact? Praise and feed every single occasion! Let her know how happy this makes you! Does she come in from the yard when you call? That’s worth a cookie or two! Does she only bark once or twice when there’s a disturbing sound outside? Go feed her; that’s great! Does she greet the delivery person with a friendly tail weg? Praise and treat! Does she allow you to clip her nails? That’s worth at least one cookie for every nail!

If there’s still food left in the end of the day, feed it from her bowl, and make a mental note to make an even bigger effort to catch her being good tomorrow! With every day, you’ll catch her being good more often, and you’ll run out of kibble sooner and sooner. After two weeks of using her dinner to reward good behavior, compare your relationship and and your dog’s behavior to what you started out with. How did it change?

For more tips and tricks on raising the “perfect” pet, check out my Perfect Pet class, starting October 1st at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.