Friday, August 26, 2011

Training Breakthroughs

I love training breakthroughs, especially when I have been working on a very difficult trick with my dog and we finally have reached the next step of the trick. It is so awesome to see those "light bulb" moments with dogs in class as well that are struggling with doing a complete down or getting into heel position. For a few weeks I have had my mind set on teaching Lex and Lucy (but more Lex) to high-step. At first I was completely perplexed on how to teach this, but got a few pointers from a friend that taught a freestyle
introduction seminar (see the post called Freestyle).

I started very sloppily with Lex trying to do a "wave" in a standing position, but he associated that cue with sitting, so he would sit each time I asked for a "wave." Then I cued him to stand and gave him a hand signal for high-five, which he did. So began the long road to the high-step!

I had to slowly phase my hand away so he was lifting his front leg and not slapping my hand, then put a cue to it for the one leg and start the process over for the other front leg.

As of this morning, his right leg was on a verbal cue, lift, and a hand-signal and his left leg still needed an assisted hand-signal that I wasn't going to continue to use AND I had to reward for each leg lift and couldn't string the two together.

Then came our breakthrough! With the help of one of his favorite foods, cheese, I got him to do "lift" and "other" in succession and only treated after he lifted both legs once. That is major progress because the next step is to get him to do a few reps of one leg at a time and put those reps on one cue like, "march" or "prance." Then I will need to get him to actually do the leg lifts while moving forward! I hope that once he gets good at them in place, the movement will come naturally. If not, then I will have to do some brain storming!

In the end, I will have 4 different brand new tricks. I will have each leg lift on a cue (already accomplished) and a stand in place march and a walking high-step.

Yes, trainers teach their dogs weird things lol.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

Recently, I have had a handful of older dogs sign up for classes. By older, I mean over 10 years. This is quite new for me, as I have never had people interested in taking classes with their senior dog. While I commend the owners for seeking higher learning for their aging dogs, I don't think training is for all elderly dogs.

One of the dogs is a 10 year old small breed rescue that prior to class, knew zero obedience commands. His owner sought classes because she felt that even though he is a great dog, she would like him to know how to sit, come when called and walk nicely on a leash etc. Poor little guy has had a few road blocks that have made training more difficult. The biggest challenge is his allergies. His owner doesn't know what he is allergic to and he is on a strict diet which really limits what treats he can have. Unfortunately, the approved treats aren't to his liking and he rarely will eat them while in class. Another road block is that he has never had any prior training for 10 years! That is quite a long time to go without challenging the brain to learn something new. While I am sure he learned about his world and socialization etc, learning in a more structured way can be frustrating to some dogs that have never had to do a command when asked. Great thing is that he has been learning. He will be done with his 6 weeks next week and can now sit, stay, come, leave-it and is much better on the leash as well as interacting with other dogs. His progress was much slower than a younger dog as we had to utilize a training method called capturing, rather than relying on lure and reward. There were times I felt guilty that he wasn't progressing like the other dogs in class, though I never felt his owner held it against him. I had to frequently remind myself that his progress will be slower. Thank goodness I had this experience with him, because just last night another, even older dog, signed up for classes!

Dog #2 is an 11 year old maltese mix who has been with her owner since 8 weeks old, but never has had any training. The owner sought training due to some new behavior problems that surfaced from a stressful move (potty training issues, separation anxiety), and hoped that she could get some answers to her issues by signing up for a class. I gave her some guidance on her two top issues and we dove in with teaching her some obedience commands. Surprisingly, the dog picked up the new commands right away! She was thrilled to be learning and seemed to soak it all in like a sponge. The owner was likewise, surprised and so proud of her little old dog.

I realize that my own dog, Lucy, falls into the senior dog category. She will be 9 in December. She enjoys learning new things and learns at an insanely fast rate. I think a life-time of training has helped her love using her mind and even as she ages more, she will only be limited by her body.

When I remember Lucy's age, I feel slightly guilty about judging old dogs learning new tricks. Older dogs CAN learn new things and their past, their breed and their owner's skill level, are all going to be factors in how fast they learn and how well.

However, there are still some cases where an older dog shouldn't be subjected to training class. Thankfully I have only had to talk one person out of training class that fits this category. If your senior dog has trouble hearing or seeing, a class in a new environment probably isn't a good idea. If your elderly dog can't get around well or has medical issues, a class isn't a good idea. If your aging dog rarely leaves the house, is grouchy towards other dogs and strange people, he would be much happier at home. Teach him some new things within his comfort zone and take it slow. After all, it has been said that humans who keep their minds active live longer, so why not our dogs?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Positive Training All the Way!

I just read an article written by a fellow dog trainer with a call to arms to certify dog training and finally cast out those dominance based trainers and those who recommend them.

I fully applaud him for doing this. Happily, it seems that positive training is on the rise and I don't have to give the "please don't watch Ceasar Milan" speech nearly as much anymore. The handful of traditional trainers in my area attract a different category of people. Generally older people that have trained that way for a long time and are not open to change, people that I probably don't want to take on as clients that will challenge positive dog training and be closed to trying it.

While I am a proud preacher of positive training, there are people that have their heels so dug in, it is better not to stress myself with pushing them to change. The clients that have felt this way inevitably drop out of class and keep to their medieval ways. I honestly feel bad for their dogs.

Traditional trainers and those who seek them out aside, one of the truly sad things Michael mentions in his article is the animal advocates that recommend this type of training. I have seen far too many animal rescue groups suggest traditional trainers and insist that their dogs need a hard hand or need a leader to teach them respect. These are the same people that have rescued dogs from abusive or neglectful homes. These people have an intense love for dogs and doing right by them, yet they place choke chains on their neck and basically abuse them in the name of training.

I have heard of veterinarians, animal communicators, groomers etc also recommend traditional training from what I assume to be a misunderstanding of current dog training standards! Dog owners trust these professionals for advice and I am sure a great many are lead down the wrong path from seeking out the wrong trainer or methods.

Even those who choose not to use a trainer have ready access to traditional training books, videos, online literature etc. It is quite sickening and sad to think of all the dogs being mistreated in the name of training by well meaning owners and animal advocates that are simply misinformed.

I apologize for the rant, but this article really struck a chord for me. I hope people become more educated about training and realize the impact traditional training has on dogs and the bond they have with their owner.

If you would like to know more about the differences of positive training versus traditional, without the moral issue thrown in, take a look at my post titled, "Value." It has a basic definition of each with the differences.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


One of the topic requests I got recently was about dogs begging for food at the table. This has been a contentious issue in my household between my husband and I for a long time!

Begging is a learned behavior. Dogs beg only because we have shown them that it works. They look cute and linger about the table, and we feed them scraps. Funny to think how that is a major factor that played into dog domestication. Dogs lingered at the edges of villages/camps and scavenged for the leftovers. Humans learned that the dogs didn't pose much of a threat and actually offered protection and soon the dogs got more brave and came closer and closer to the humans and eventually became domesticated animals (in a nutshell).

I don't mind begging. Honestly, I think it is cute. My husband doesn't think it is so cute. I love it when Lucy puts her head on my lap and gazes up at me for a tidbit of my dinner and he doesn't even want a dog to look in his direction from across the room when he is eating!

Beggars can be reformed. There are a ton of options. First you can use the extinction method. Basically ignore your dog and don't give them anymore scraps. She will try harder at first (extinction burst), and then the behavior will slowly disappear. This method doesn't work for me. I may be able to resist feeding them when my husband is home, but I don't when he is not around and by intermittently rewarding, I made the begging behavior stronger!

The next method is you can teach the dog to do a behavior incompatible with begging (this is what we do). Teach your dog that he should be on his dog bed when you eat or laying down in another room. This method takes time because it is actually a duration stay with a food distraction.

You can also use simple management and crate your dog or relocate your dog to another room when food is being served to avoid begging. If we were to have a dinner party someday, I probably would relocate the dogs so I didn't have to wonder if they were holding their down-stay.

The last method is the one I hate the most, and the one my husband prefers to use. He taught the dogs (mainly Lucy) that the word "beggar" and a lifted fork is an aversive. When he says "beggar" in a "you are a naughty dog" tone, she slinks off. Same goes for if he points his fork at her. I personally hate this because I can see that it makes Lucy uncomfortable and it really doesn't work for long. She eventually sneaks back over to try again for a morsel. I suppose I don't have to worry about this anymore since Lucy is at my dad's and thankfully, he uses the down-stay method for Lucy and his dog, Harley. That is, when he cares that they are begging!

Bottom line is that begging is either something that bugs you, or something that doesn't. Unfortunately, if your household is split on this it can be hard on the dog receiving mixed signals. The best thing to do is work on a good down-stay so it can be used when the person who hates begging is around.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Last Thursday I was lucky enough to attend a meeting with a group I was invited to join, the East Bay Dog Trainers. The group is invite only and consists of positive trainers that train in the East Bay. While only a few were able to attend that meeting, it was great to meet some inspiring trainers.

The group decided to do something new to them and have group members teach a special training topic that not all of us may be aware of. The topic of that meeting was canine freestyle AKA doggie dancing.

I will admit, in the past I have been on the fence about freestyle. Half captivated and half embarrassed for the people, I never gave freestyle a chance. At one point I almost signed up Lucy and I for a class in Oregon with the express interest of teaching her the "moves" but not linking it to music, and certainly not dancing with her. Turns out there is a lot more to freestyle than fancy tricks and dancing around with your dog.

What I learned
Freestyle isn't about trick after trick, it is about moving with your dog and transitions (which are the tricks) and then more movement. The dogs that do freestyle are very well trained in heeling/moving with their owners and seem to heartily enjoy the sport and the attention that comes with it. Freestyle is about the bond between the owner and the dog. Watching freestyle done correctly, is like sneaking a peak on a private moment between owner and dog.

I also learned that music isn't randomly picked. The music should actually fit the dog's natural gait and movement. We did a little exercise of heeling/moving in a circle for each dog and handler while someone played a variety of music snippets until there was this "ah-ha" moment that that song was MEANT for that dog. Lucy's song was a lively Celtic song with a fast tempo almost difficult for me to keep up with! Then again, that has been the theme of every dog sport I do with Lucy. Her flying through agility courses while I struggle to spit out the next obstacle and her nearly pulling my arm off tugging during flyball, so much in fact that while pregnant with Elsie, I had to have someone else handle Lucy during flyball while I continued to handle Lex well up till my 8th month! For Lex, the music was a bit slower with less high notes and a more deep, powerful tone with some fun flares here and there. I have to say, that describes Lex. He can be very serious when working and is a very well grounded dog and powerful for sure when confident. There is also a goofy, silly side of Lex that periodically makes an appearance, depending on his mood.

The other thing that we learned was that handlers doing freestyle don't just walk about the ring in circles, they have a pattern in mind they are walking and it is really easy to pick a letter of the alphabet as your pattern to walk and do multiple letters for longer routines.

What is the point?
So what is the point of freestyle? It is another activity to do with your dog, but unlike agility, flyball, dock diving etc. the dog doesn't really need to be that athletic. With Lucy having been retired from hard sports, freestyle is a really good option for her. It can keep an older dog's mind and body fit without all the stress. Another great thing about freestyle is that YOU don't have to be athletic! In fact, there are several different organizations that put on the freestyle competitions and while one is focused on the owner fully participating in the dance, the other puts the focus on the dog, meaning you don't have to even be on the beat, just be helping and cuing your dog. I wish the lady I would have talked to about this years ago would have mentioned that to me! Freestyle is also wonderfully positive. Some obedience and rally competitors (another sport for the less athletic dogs and humans), use traditional training and can suck the fun out of the event. Not saying all are like that, but that is the core reason I have stayed away from obedience competitions.

Cool Stuff to Teach
After watching some freestyle videos and seeing a mini live performance by our presenter, I am once again fueled to teach my dogs some new things. Since Lucy doesn't live her anymore, that means my primary focus is on Lex. This is so great because Lucy has always been my go-to trick dog and even though I have taught Lex many of the same tricks, I always got frustrated with his different learning style and would abandon some tricks. I have learned that Lex is quite awesome at learning new things as long as I don't push him too fast and keep a level head. For some it may seem silly that I had to get inspired to teach something new, but honestly, my dogs know so many complex behaviors and tricks that I run out of ideas! Aside from all the obedience commands, I have taught my dogs to spin, roll-over, high-five, wave, dance on hind legs, open and close doors and drawers, blow bubbles in their water dish, open a suitcase and lay down and let it close, fetching specific objects, nose targeting, "talking," walking backwards, the list goes on.

The newest thing that I am working on with great results is a high step. Basically I want Lex to literally "march" and lift his front legs high like a high-stepping horse would. At first, I was very experimental in figuring out how the heck to teach this! There is nothing online or on youtube with any tips. I tried setting up obstacles for him to lift his legs over but he either walked normal, or jumped over it if I increased the height. Then I tried having him to walking high-fives. That worked, but it was only one paw and very exaggerated and my hand needed to be there. I actually e-mailed the presenter on tips for this behavior and turns out I guess right, that doing the high-five is a way to teach it, but of course, I had moved to fast (something I tend to have issues with training my own dogs). So I took a step back and have focused on getting either paw while he is in a stand. I had to start with my hand lowered and after 3 days of 1-2 short (meaning 5 minutes) sessions per day, he can now lift his right paw on cue (I say "lift") without me touching him. I created a hand signal that he will do it for as well. The left paw still needs more help, but that is fine. Once I get the left, my goal is to have him alternate them in a stand, then put it into motion. All of this was done with clicker training, so if you haven't tried clicker training, please do.