Archive for September, 2009
Many pet owners wonder if they can retain control while walking their dogs and still allow at least some running in front, sniffing, and playing. You might worry that allowing your dog occasional freedom could result in him expecting it all the time, leading to a testy, leash-straining walk. It’s possible for both parties on the leash to have an enjoyable experience by implementing and reinforcing well-thought-out training techniques.
Begin by making word associations you’ll use on your walks. Give the dog some slack on the leash, and as he starts to walk away from you say “OK” and begin to follow him.
Do not let him drag you; set the pace even when he is being given a turn at being the leader. Whenever he starts to pull, just come to a standstill and refuse to move (or refuse to allow him to continue forward) until there is slack in the leash. Do this correction without saying anything at all. When he isn’t pulling, you may decide to just stand still and let him sniff about within the range the slack leash allows, or you may even mosey along following him. After a few minutes of “recess,” it is time to work. Say something like “that’s it” or “time’s up”, close the distance between you and your dog, and touch him.
Next say “let’s go” (or whatever command you want to use to mean “follow me as we walk”). Turn and walk off, and, if he follows, mark his behavior with “good!” Then stop, squat down, and let him catch you. Make him glad he did! Start again, and do a few transitions as he gets the hang of your follow-the-leader game, speeding up, slowing down, and trying to make it fun. When you stop, he gets to catch up and receive some deserved positive reinforcement. Don’t forget that’s the reason he is following you, so be sure to make it worth his while!
Require him to remain attentive to you. Do not allow sniffing, playing, eliminating, or pulling during your time as leader on a walk. If he seems to get distracted – which, by the way, is the main reason dogs walk poorly with their people – change direction or pace without saying a word. Just help him realize “oops, I lost track of my human”. Do not jerk his neck and say “heel” – this will make the word “heel” mean pain in the neck and will not encourage him to cooperate with you. Don’t repeat “let’s go”, either. He needs to figure out that it is his job to keep track of and follow you if he wants to earn the positive benefits you provide. The best reward you can give a dog for performing an attentive, controlled walk is a few minutes of walking without all of the controls. Of course, he must remain on a leash even during the “recess” parts of the walk, but allowing him to discriminate between attentive following – “let’s go” – and having a few moments of relaxation—“OK” – will increase his willingness to work.
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“Stay” can easily be taught as an extension of what you’ve already been practicing. To teach “stay”, you follow the entire sequence for reinforcing a “sit” or “down”, except you wait a bit longer before you give the release word, “OK!” Wait a second or two longer during each practice before saying “OK!” and releasing your dog to the positive reinforcer (toy, treat, or one of life’s other rewards).
If he gets up before you’ve said “OK,” you have two choices: pretend the release was your idea and quickly interject “OK!” as he breaks; or, if he is more experienced and practiced, mark the behavior with your correction sound – “eh!” – and then gently put him back on the spot, wait for him to lie down, and begin again. Be sure the next three practices are a success. Ask him to wait for just a second, and release him before he can be wrong. You need to keep your dog feeling like more of a success than a failure as you begin to test his training in increasingly more distracting and difficult situations.
As he gets the hang of it – he stays until you say “OK” – you can gradually push for longer times – up to a minute on a sit-stay and up to three minutes on a down-stay. You can also gradually add distractions and work in new environments. To add a minor self-correction for the down-stay, stand on the dog’s leash after he lies down, allowing about three inches of slack. If he tries to get up before you’ve said “OK,” he’ll discover it doesn’t work.
Do not step on the leash to make your Labrador Retriever lie down! This could badly hurt his neck, and will destroy his trust in you. Remember, we are teaching our dogs to make the best choices, not inflicting our answers upon them!
Rather than think of “come” as an action – “come to me” – think of it as a place – “the dog is sitting in front of me, facing me”. Since your dog by now really likes sitting to earn your touch and other positive reinforcement, he’s likely to sometimes sit directly in front of you, facing you, all on his own. When this happens, give it a specific name: “come”.
Now follow the rest of the training steps you have learned to make him like doing it and reinforce the behavior by practicing it any chance you get. Anything your dog wants and likes could be earned as a result of his first offering the sit-in-front known as “come”.
You can help guide him into the right location. Use your hands as “landing gear” and pat the insides of your legs at his nose level. Do this while backing up a bit, to help him maneuver to the straight-in-front exactly facing-you position. Don’t say the word “come” while he’s maneuvering, because he hasn’t! You are trying to make “come” the end result, not the work in progress.
You can also help your Labrador Retriever by marking his movement in the right direction: Use your positive sound or word to promise he is getting warm. When he finally sits facing you, enthusiastically say “come”, mark again with your positive word, and release him with an enthusiastic “OK!” Make it so worth his while, with lots of play and praise, that he can’t wait for you to ask him to come again!
Building a Better Recall
Practice, practice, practice. Now, practice some more. Teach your dog that all good things in life hinge upon him first sitting in front of you in a behavior named “come”. When you think he really has got it, test him by asking him to “come” as you gradually add distractions and change locations. Expect setbacks as you make these changes and practice accordingly. Lower your expectations and make his task easier so he is able to get it right. Use those distractions as rewards, when they are appropriate. For example, let him check out the interesting leaf that blew by as a reward for first coming to you and ignoring it.
Add distance and call your dog to come while he is on his retractable leash. If he refuses and sits looking at you blankly, do not jerk, tug, “pop”, or reel him in. Do nothing! It is his move; wait to see what behavior he offers. He’ll either begin to approach (mark the behavior with an excited “good!”), sit and do nothing (just keep waiting), or he’ll try to move in some direction other than toward you. If he tries to leave, use your correction marker – “eh!” – and bring him to a stop by letting him walk to the end of the leash, not by jerking him. Now walk to him in a neutral manner, and don’t jerk or show any disapproval. Gently bring him back to the spot where he was when you called him, then back away and face him, still waiting and not reissuing your command. Let him keep examining his options until he finds the one that works – yours!
If you have practiced everything I’ve suggested so far and given your dog a chance to really learn what “come” means, he is well aware of what you want and is quite intelligently weighing all his options. The only way he’ll know your way is the one that works is to be allowed to examine his other choices and discover that they don’t work.
Sooner or later every dog tests his training. Don’t be offended or angry when your dog tests you. No matter how positive you’ve made it, he won’t always want to do everything you ask, every time. When he explores the “what happens if I don’t” scenario, your training is being strengthened. He will discover through his own process of trial and error that the best – and only – way out of a command he really doesn’t feel compelled to obey is to obey it.
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Teach your dog an important new rule: From now on, he is only touched and petted when he is either sitting or lying down. You won’t need to ask him to sit; in fact, you should not. Just keeping him tethered near you so there isn’t much to do but stand, be ignored, or settle, and wait until sit happens.
He may pester you a bit, but be stoic and unresponsive. Starting now, when you are sitting down, a sitting dog is the only one you see and pay attention to. He will eventually sit, and as he does, attach the word “sit”—but don’t be too excited or he’ll jump right back up. Now mark with your positive sound that promises something good, then reward him with a slow, quiet, settling pet.
Training requires consistent reinforcement. Ask others to also wait until your dog is sitting and calm to touch him, and he will associate being petted with being relaxed. Be sure you train your dog to associate everyone’s touch with quiet bonding.
Reinforcing “Sit” as a Command
Since your dog now understands one concept of working for a living—sit to earn petting—you can begin to shape and reinforce his desire to sit. Hold toys, treats, his bowl of food, and turn into a statue. But don’t prompt him to sit! Instead, remain frozen and unavailable, looking somewhere out into space, over his head. He will put on a bit of a show, trying to get a response from you, and may offer various behaviors, but only one will push your button—sitting. Wait for him to offer the “right” behavior, and when he does, you unfreeze. Say “sit,” then mark with an excited “good!” and give him the toy or treat with a release command—“OK!”
When you notice spontaneous sits occurring, be sure to take advantage of those free opportunities to make your command sequence meaningful and pos¬itive. Say “sit” as you observe sit happen—then mark with “good!” and praise, pet, or reward the dog. Soon, every time you look at your dog, he’ll be sitting and looking right back at you!
Now, after thirty days of purely positive practice, it’s time to give him a test. When he is just walking around doing his own thing, suddenly ask him to sit. He’ll probably do it right away. If he doesn’t, do not repeat your command, or you’ll just undermine its meaning (“sit” means sit now; the command is not “sit, sit, sit, sit”). Instead, get something he likes and let him know you have it. Wait for him to offer the sit—he will—then say “sit!” and complete your marking and rewarding sequence.
“OK” will probably rate as one of your dog’s favorite words. It’s like the word “recess” to schoolchildren. It is the word used to release your dog from a command. You can introduce “OK” during your “sit” practice. When he gets up from a sit, say “OK” to tell him the sitting is finished. Soon that sound will mean “freedom.”
Make it even more meaningful and positive. Whenever he spontaneously bounds away, say “OK!” Squeak a toy, and when he notices and shows interest, toss it for him.
I’ve mentioned that you should pet your dog only when he is either sitting or lying down. Now, using the approach I’ve just introduced for “sit,” teach your dog to lie down. You will be a statue, and hold something he would like to get but that you’ll release only to a dog who is lying down. It helps to lower the desired item to the floor in front of him, still not speaking and not letting him have it until he offers you the new behavior you are seeking.
He may offer a sit and then wait expectantly, but you must make him keep searching for the new trick that triggers your generosity. Allow your dog to experiment and find the right answer, even if he has to search around for it first. When he lands on “down” and learns it is another behavior that works, he’ll offer it more quickly the next time.
Don’t say “down” until he lies down, to tightly associate your prompt with the correct behavior. To say “down, down, down” as he is sitting, looking at you, or pawing at the toy would make “down” mean those behaviors instead! Whichever behavior he offers, a training opportunity has been created. Once you’ve attached and shaped both sitting and lying down, you can ask for both behaviors with your verbal prompts, “sit” or “down.” Be sure to only reinforce the “correct” reply!
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Before you begin training your dog, let’s look at some equipment you’ll want to have on hand:
– A buckle collar is fine for most dogs. If your dog pulls very hard, try a head collar, a device similar to a horse halter that helps reduce pulling by turning the dog’s head. Do not use a choke chain (sometimes called a training collar), because they cause physical harm even when used correctly.
– Six-foot training leash and twenty-six–foot retractable leash.
– A few empty plastic soda bottles with about twenty pennies in each one. This will be used to impersonally interrupt misbehaviors before redirecting dogs to more positive activities.
– A favorite squeaky toy, to motivate, attract attention, and reward your dog during training.
Allow your young pup to drag a short, lightweight leash attached to a buckle collar for a few supervised moments, several times each day. At first the leash may annoy him, and he may jump around a bit trying to get away from it. Distract him with your squeaky toy or a bit of his kibble and he’ll quickly get used to his new “tail”.
Begin walking him on the leash by holding the end and following him. As he adapts, you can begin to assert gentle direct pressure to teach him to follow you. Don’t jerk or yank, or he will become afraid to walk when the leash is on. If he becomes hesitant, squat down facing him and let him figure out that by moving toward you, he is safe and secure. If he remains confused or frightened and doesn’t come to you, go to him and help him understand that you provide safe harbor while he’s on the leash. Then back away a few steps and try again to lure him to you. As he learns that you are the “home base,” he’ll want to follow when you walk a few steps, waiting for you to stop, squat down, and make him feel great.
So Attached to You!
The next step in training your dog – and this is a very important one – is to begin spending at least an hour or more each day with him on a four- to six-foot leash, held by or tethered to you. This training will increase his attachment to you – literally! – as you sit quietly or walk about, tending to your household business. When you are quiet, he’ll learn it is time to settle; when you are active, he’ll learn to move with you. Tethering also keeps him out of trouble when you are busy but still want his company. It is a great alternative to confining a dog, and can be used instead of crating any time you’re home and need to slow him down a bit.
Rotating your dog from supervised freedom to tethered time to some quiet time in the crate or his gated area gives him a diverse and balanced day while he is learning. Two confined or tethered hours is the most you should require of your dog in one stretch, before changing to some supervised freedom, play, or a walk.
The dog in training may, at times, be stressed by all of the changes he is dealing with. Provide a stress outlet, such as a toy to chew on, when he is confined or tethered. He will settle into his quiet time more quickly and completely. Always be sure to provide several rounds of daily play and free time (in a fenced area or on your retractable leash) in addition to plenty of chewing materials.
Dogs don’t speak in words, but they do have a language – body language. They use postures, vocalizations, movements, facial gestures, odors, and touch – usually with their mouths – to communicate what they are feeling and thinking.
We also “speak” using body language. We have quite an array of postures, movements, and facial gestures that accompany our touch and language as we attempt to communicate with our pets. And our dogs can quickly figure us out!
Alone, without associations, words are just noises. But, because we pair them with meaningful body language, our dogs make the connection. Dogs can really learn to understand much of what we say, if what we do at the same time is consistent.
The Positive Marker
Start your dog’s education with one of the best tricks in dog training: Pair various positive reinforcers – food, a toy, touch – with a sound such as a click on a clicker (which you can get at the pet supply store) or a spoken word like “good!” or “yes!” This will enable you to later “mark” your dog’s desirable behaviors.
It seems too easy: Just say “yes!” and give the dog his toy. (Or use whatever sound and reward you have chosen). Later, when you make your marking sound right at the instant your dog does the right thing, he will know you are going to be giving him something good for that particular action. And he’ll be eager to repeat the behavior to hear you mark it again!
Next, you must teach your dog to understand the meaning of cues you’ll be using to ask him to perform specific behaviors. This is easy, too. Does he already do things you might like him to do on command? Of course! He lies down, he sits, he picks things up, he drops them again, he comes to you. All of the behaviors you’d like to control are already part of your dog’s natural repertoire. The trick is getting him to offer those behaviors when you ask for them. And that means you have to teach him to associate a particular behavior on his part with a particular behavior on your part.
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