Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Some Changes Within.....

Lately Gaci has been exhibiting some new strange behaviours that I have not seen before. Someday I will share on the blog her story, but to make a long story short Gaci came into the world with a bang (her dam died during the c-section her litter was born from), and as she grew up developed some different issues as she matured. She has not been an easy dog, but she has been a blessing to me and she is definitely my heart dog. So I feel it important to share her continued journey.

The first of two changes is a recent anxiety-overreaction to when my partner comes home. Up until a few weeks ago, her normal reaction would be to alarm bark when she hears the door open, bark one or two more times, and then resume with a happy, wiggly greeting. Lately she can't seem to calm herself down nearly as quickly. She continues to alarm bark for a few minutes, and will not approach him right away when he bends down to greet her (ignoring her doesn't do anything different). She does an approach-and-retreat behaviour that almost indicates fear, however once she calms down from the greeting she displays no fear to him whatsoever, she really likes him and seeks out affection, attention, and is otherwise quite her confident self. If he is home before me and greets her in the bedroom (where she stays when we are out), she does not experience that reaction.

Along those lines, though, she has on a few occasions gone to the door at night barking when there is nothing there. Other times I have found her watching the door on alert, even though she is quiet, or lets out a low grumble from deep in her chest, as though she believes there is a threat present. I can call her away easily, but if I don't distract her onto something specific she may stand there watching for some time, or goes back to check now and again *just to be sure*.

The other issue I've been noticing is that she is developing a sensitivity to certain sounds. She's never been sound-sensitive, but it was seemingly triggered not that long ago by two events - the power going out in the middle of the night and the smoke detector going on the fritz, and my partner's new Blackberry alert. But she has started to become frightened of other noises as well. The timer on the toaster oven has bothered her - one morning we were making breakfast and I was on the computer checking emails in the office and I heard the "ding" of the toaser oven. About three seconds later I felt Gaci jump up against my lap, and she was shivering quite mad. I invited her into my lap but otherwise ignored her while I finished with my emails. She calmed down within a few minutes but when I went to the kitchen she visibly sat under the table (she never used to do that), although she wasn't shivering.

I'm admittedly not super comfortable with her recent hypervigilance about the door and sounds, and I'm keeping an eye on things. I don't know what has brought these recent behaviours on, and I have a plan I'm going to set in place when my partner comes home to try to recondition her greeting to him and bring it back down to normal. Her annual exam is coming up soon so I'll be having her checked out to make sure there's nothing wonky going on with her health. She is turning seven, and I realize that sound sensitivity is age-related and age-triggered, but I'm hoping to get a handle on it sooner than later. Her hypervigilance at times has me concerned as those were some of her youth symptoms when I had ended up using Clomicalm during retraining to help ease her anxiety. It's been four years since she's been on Clomicalm, and I'm going to do what I can to avoid that route, but I know in my heart she's not enjoying herself during these times either, and I'll do what's best for her needs.

She's always been a special needs dog, but we had been on a great routine for so long now I almost forgot that she once experienced the high anxiety that she did when she was young.

A Happy Gaci

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Target Training - a How-To

So you've got your clicker and treats, and you've taken some time to familiarize your dog to the sound and meaning of the clicker. It's time to start teaching some things!

What is targeting?

Targeting is the name for many different behaviours in which your dog uses a part or all of its body to target (touch) something else. Your dog may use its nose, paw, or whole body. An example of targeting is a nose-touch to your palm, which I will describe how to teach below.

What are the uses of targeting?

The uses are endless!! First and foremost, it's a really easy starter skill to teach your dog as you learn about clicker training. Dogs love this game, and will gain a lot of joy from it. It is useful for teaching your dog to come to you, for complex tricks, to go to a mat and lay down, to help redirect your dog in distracting areas, and more.

Here I will describe how to teach a simple hand-touch.

• Have your clicker, lots of small treats, and a quiet room. Get down to your dog’s level.

• Hold out your hand close to your dog so that your palm is facing your dog. About 6" away to start is best.

• When your dog sniffs or bumps your hand, C/T.

• Repeat until you notice that your dog is obviously seeking out your hand to bump it with his nose when you offer your hand. When you see this, you are ready to name the behaviour.

• To name the behaviour, give your cue word, then offer your palm, and then C/T when your dog touches it.
        "Touch" --> Offer palm --> dog touches --> Click! --> Reward

• Begin practicing in different positions – sitting, standing, kneeling, both hands, etc.

• Play “hard to catch” with your dog. Walk a step or two away from your dog, get your dog’s attention and use your recall cue to get your dog to move to you to target your hand.

• Slowly increase the distance until your dog will come to you to target your hand from a few feet away.  Practice it in the backyard and at the park, until your dog can do it absolutely anywhere.

So, your dog is now targeting reliably from a distance, no matter where I am, now what?

Now you can start to fade the clicker out, as the clicker is used during the teaching phase only. To do this, you will present your cue word, and when your dog touches your hand, instead of clicking simply reward your dog. And then you have it! You have taught your first behaviour! It will still need to be practiced, but you can now move on to teaching something new!

Happy clicking!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Clicker Training: The Basics

Continuing on from the last post, where I introduced clicker training, you might now be wondering - How do you get started?

First, you go out and pick up a clicker. I always get questions on where to get reasonably priced clickers. If you are in the Charlottetown area, my two favorite places are the Atlantic Vet College (about $2) or the PEI Humane Society, as I don't believe you need to spend a fortune on clickers. You can also check your local vet clinic, as many of them sell clickers too.

So, now you have a clicker and are ready to start teaching!

The basic recipe for clicker training is as follows:
- Get the behaviour
- Mark the behaviour (Click!)
- Reward

How do I "get the behaviour"?

There are three main ways to get the desired behaviour: Capturing, Luring, and Shaping.

Capturing: As the name implies, capturing works by looking for and marking behaviours that the dog is offering freely, ones that come naurally to the dog (such as sitting). Capturing is a great way to teach simple behaviours, or to promote general good manners.

Luring: This is generally used to teach those behaviours that can't be captured because they don't occur naturally (like a Spin) or they occur infrequently so that capturing is not very effective.

They key to using luring effectively is to fade out the lure as soon as possible so that your dog doesn't become dependent upon it to do the behavior. So you might lure a couple of times and then stop and see if the dog will then offer it on its own. More on that later.

Shaping: Shaping is generally used when teaching those tricks or skills that are more complex, and that would never be offered naturally and are made up of many smaller behaviours. An example would be teaching your dog to pick up toys and put them in a basket. Shaping requires breaking the finished product down into many finer parts and rewarding successive movements toward the final goal. It's a little more complex than luring or capturing, but it creates some fabulous, strong behaviours.

So, you've chosen what you want to teach, and how you are going to teach it - now what?

Let's take a step back. First you might want to practice with the clicker and teach your dog that the CLICK sound has a meaning, which is that a reward has been earned. This is simple to do. You will simply gather your clicker and 20 or so tiny little treats. (Note: Tiny means tiny! Just a little nibble, enough so that your dog knows it won the prize, but not so big as to fill your dog up with treats!)

So you have your clicker, your treats. Now get your dog, find a quiet room with minimal distractions, so your dog won't wander away and do something else, and sit or stand with your dog. All you are going to do is click your clicker, and give your dog a treat.

Click, then treat.

Make sure there is a small delay between the click sound and the delivery of the treat. If you treat while you click, your dog may not hear it and little to no association may be made. The treat must come after the click.

So, you will click and give a treat until you have given ten treats. Take a 30 second break or so, and then repeat with the other ten treats. After you do that, your dog will have a basic understanding of what the clicker means. Now, you can get to training!

In the next posting, I will describe how you will teach a fun, useful, and good starter behaviour- Targeting. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dogs Remind Us......

Every day, dogs remind us to stop, take a moment, and enjoy the little things in life. Here is Zipper doing his daily Doga routine.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What is Clicker Training?

Clicker training, or operant conditioning, is becoming more and more widespread throughout PEI, but in some ways is still grossly misunderstood. In this post, and over the next few posts, I will work to describe the essence of clicker training and what it's all about, and most especially why it is so effective (and fun!)

What is a clicker?

A clicker is simply a small plastic box with a metal tab inside of it and a tab or button that you can press. When you press it, it makes a "clik-clik" sound.

How is it used?

A clicker is used as a marker to mark a specific moment in time. More precisely, it marks a specific action of your dog at a certain moment in time. This sound tells your dog that it has done something that you like, and is going to receive a reward for that behaviour. A reward always follows a click.

If you click/reward the same behaviour multiple times (for example, your dog sitting), your dog will begin to perform that behaviour more often. That is how they learn new skills.

A good way to think about a clicker, to help understand it, is to look at it like a camera. You are trying to *take a picture* of a desirable behavior, and then reward your dog for performing that behavior.

But can't I just give my dog a treat?

One benefit of the clicker is that it helps you tell your dog precisely what it did right at the moment it did it. Often training problems are due to poor timing of rewards, so this helps your dog to catch on quickly to new skills.

Picture this: you are teaching your dog to sit. Just as your dog sits, you say "good boy" and reach to give him a treat. As you do that, he jumps up to get the treat. Congrats - you have just rewarded jumping up! With a clicker, however, if you click as soon as he sits, he will understand that it is the sit that is being rewarded, even if he does get up from sitting - because you have marked the precise behavior that he did right!

Okay, but why do I need to click? Can't I just tell him he's a good dog?

You can, and should, use verbal praise when you are interacting with your dog. In reality, though, we talk to (and at!) Our dogs. A lot. And sometimes, they start to tune out some of the things we say and it becomes background noise. The clicker makes the same distinct sound every time, it doesn't change due to moods, it doesn't get angry, and dogs quickly learn because it is consistent. Dogs understand consistency, and they come to really love the clicker.

What can I teach with it?

Anything that a dog is physically able to do! It is used from simple things like manners and tricks, to teaching complex skill sets in dog sports and service dog work. You can teach your dog to sit politely, walk nicely on leash, go to his bed, and fetch a toy. You can also teach your dog to clean up its toys, retrieve a kleenex, or to get the morning paper! The things you can do are endless.

Okay, so what about when my dog does something bad?

Clicker training is used to build new behaviours. Most of us have it tightly ingrained in us that you need to *punish* bad behaviour when it occurs. With clicker training, we rephrase the question and turn it into a solution. Instead of "how do I get my dog to stop doing _______?", we ask "What would we like Fido to do instead?" And then you set about teaching it.

So....instead of "How do I get Sparky to stop jumping", we rethink - "How do I get Sparky to sit nicely when greeting visitors or strangers?". Aha! A teachable behaviour!

Or, "How do I get Sparky to stop dragging me down the street?" Quickly becomes "How do I teach Sparky to walk nicely beside me and to follow my movements?" Aha! Another teachable behavior!

90% of what we call "bad behaviour" is simply a situation in which your dog has not learned what it is you would like your dog to do. When the dog is left to figure it out, without learning what we like, our dogs will learn to do it in dog-like ways. It really is a human-behaviour problem, not a dog behaviour problem. The dog is being a totally normal dog. The onus is on us to teach, so it's not fair to jump to punishment when it is us who have failed to teach them what is desired in the first place.

When you move into severe behaviour problems especially, such as aggression, fear, and anxiety, physical or verbal punishment has no place in your training program as it is only going to increase your dog's emotional state, not calm it.  Remember - punishment can mask behaviour, and stop a behaviour at that moment in time, but it doesn't change the emotion behind it, nor does it change anything long-term. If you continue to punish your dog while in one of these states, you are in essence creating a ticking timebomb waiting to go off. Clicker training has found a very strong place in re-conditioning dogs with aggression or fear-based problems.

Do I have to use a clicker forever? That sounds like a lot of work.

No. A clicker is used to teach new behaviours. Once behaviours are learned, you can fade out the use of the clicker and just incorporate their skills into everyday life.

So, how do I get started?

That, folks, will be the topic of the next posting. Stay tuned!

If you have any questions that you would like answered about clicker training, share them here or email them to info@courteous-canine.com

Training With Puzzle Toys

As a kick-off for National Train Your Dog Month, I thought it would be appropriate to present a topic that is fitting for the season. At a time when outdoor exercise is difficult and weather is unpredictable, it's important to pick up the slack with some productive indoor activities, otherwise you may find that your dog becomes *self-employed* with some behaviours that are not quite as desirable for owners.

One such activity is teaching your dog about puzzle toys and appropriate chew training. Using puzzle toys serves many functions - keeping your dog's mind exercised when physical exercise is limited, teaching your dog to behave appropriately indoors, and gives your dog an acceptable outlet for chewing and food seeking. It can be a blessing when you have company over or need to attend to a child. The uses are endless.

Feeding dogs their food in bowls is a convenience for the human end of the leash; it serves little benefit for dogs. Usually the dog either eats its meal in 30 seconds (or less!) and is then left still looking for something to do, or it is free fed, developing into a picky eater and wasting a great opportunity to use a valuable reward for your dog's benefit.

Teaching your dogs to use puzzle toys is easy, and can be quite entertaining as well. There are many puzzle toys on the market now, for all life stages. I'll share some of my favorites, but this is not a complete list by any means.

A good starter toy is the age-old Kong - a red or black rubber toy with a big hole in one end and a small hole in the other. It can easily be stuffed with your dog's normal food to teach him to roll it around to get the food to fall out. As he gets used to how it works, you can make it harder by wetting and freezing it, or by putting in some food that won't just fall out. In no time your dog will become good at cleaning it out! A toy similar to the Kong is the Premier Squirrel Dude, also a lot of fun!

Another easy one to start with is the Premier Busy Buddy Twist n' Treat (no picture - sorry!). It basically has two halves that twist together and can be made easier or harder depending on how tightly closed you twist it.

A bit harder, but generally more fun is the Tricky Treat Ball. This bright ball will leads to hours of fub as your dog rolls it around to try to get the food out.


If your dog becomes a pro, like many are apt to do, there are some fun and engaging toys out there that are sure to challenge your dog. My favorites, as tested by the Schnauzer Quality Control, are:

The Kong Wobbler

The Premier Tug-a-Jug

And the Kong Genius (two separate pieces that are linkable for varying difficulties!

To make life more interesting for your dog, and more relaxing for yourself, get your dog a puzzle toy or two and stop feeding out of a dish for every meal. You'll see the positive effects that they wil bring!