Friday, March 28, 2014

Sit Happens

You know what's awesome? A dog who can sit on command. You know what's even better? A dog who sits on command the FIRST time no matter what's going around- it's magical to see this happen. 
Want to know a secret? 
   It's not magic. 

It's the product of good training technique, practice, patience and PROOFING the behavior. Proofing is the process of practicing cues/behaviors a number of times (thousands) with different levels of distractions, distance and time (it's also called generalizing in some circles). Some service organizations will require a dog to practice a cue up to 8,000 times before they are considered proficient. 
The other criteria, aside from sheer number of times of practicing the cue includes: 

-Distance (distance from you when performing the cue/behavior, like a long distance recall or down-stay)
-Duration (duration of time that the behavior is held, like a stay)
-Distractions (pretty much anything that can distract your dog)
-Speed (how long it takes the dog to perform the behavior, like how long it takes him to come to you for the recall once he starts moving to you)
-Latency (how quickly your dog responds to the cue once you give it)
-Precision (this is a bit more advanced and generally only for performance/competition- it's how accurately your dog performs the behavior, like putting a specific toy in a specific place on command)

How can you do this with your dog? Start with baby steps. Below are my instructions for the sit command, straight from my curriculum. 

The sit position is a natural behavior for the dog.. which makes teaching it easier (yay!) A sitting dog is not jumping or demanding anything from you, just waiting for whatever will come next! It is also a precursor for many more behaviors your dog will learn in time.

-pocket/pouch full of treats
-hungry dog
-leash, attached to a collar or harness
-quiet, comfortable area

  1. Bait your hand and place it in front of the dogs nose.
  2. Gradually move your hand back over the dog's head towards his/her tail.
  3. Most dogs will default to the sit at this point since it is more comfortable to follow the food lure from a sit than look around while standing ... some take a little more coaxing
  4. The instant your dog's bottom touches the ground say “sit” then click and treat.
  5. Release your dog from the sit position ('ok')

-Move your hand up and over your dogs head so they have to look up and back to follow your baited hand and help them do default to the sit
-If your dog backs up with the lure, try next to a wall so that your dog cannot go anywhere
-Be sure to move your hand at a pace that keeps your dog's interest- too slow and they stop paying attention, too fast and they get lost
-Once your dog gets it.. make them sit for everything- breakfast, dinner, going outside, getting leash on.. this helps them to look to you for direction and to practice a little self control when there are exciting things going on!
-You can add a physical cue to this behavior once they begin to understand the verbal cue, I usually hold out my hand palm down and turn my palm up as I say “sit”
-Any time your dog is sitting at home.. give a click and treat or at least some love and attention!! The more a behavior is rewarded, the more it will be offered by your dog!

As your dog gets better with the sit cue, you can add the focus behavior to the sit so that you have a sitting dog who is looking at you (everyone will be really impressed by this one!)
The faster your dog sits, the better the reward.. this creates a quick compliant dog!

What's next? Once your dog is about 90% consistently responsive to the food lure, drop the food lure and use the hand signal. Once your dog is 90% consistent, fade the use of food treats and switch to real life rewards, random reinforcement, and only rewarding the best behaviors. 
Next, go outside and practice- be prepared to lower your expectations a little. You may need to step up the treats, you may need to start all over again with the food lure. That's ok. Your dog is in a different environment and needs a little patience from you. It will not take as long for him to generalize the behavior to this new(ish) place as it did for him to learn it in the first place. 

Every time you change something about the environment (where you are, what the distractions are in the environment, if someone else is giving the command, this list could go on for paragraphs). You can also add in those other things we talked about earlier (distance, duration, distractions, speed, latency, precision) as well- just make sure you only change one thing at a time so your pooch doesn't get too confused. 


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chasing Tail: Canine Body Language Part 1

My post last week about dog parks inspired me to discuss something too many puppy parents know all too little about- tail wagging. We've all heard someone say it, there have been times we've even said it about a dog: "if his tail is wagging, he's happy". The truth is that it's not always true. A dog's tail is just one part of his body used for communication, and just one thing we as puppy parents need to be able to decipher so we can understand our dogs.
Dogs communicate with their whole body, we simply aren't always good at putting all of the pieces together- I want all puppy parents to be better at that, if nothing else. With an understanding of what your dog's body language you can be armed to help your dog feel comfortable and keep everyone safe. So, this is part one in my series on canine body language. There will be a bunch of parts to this series... It may go on for months to be perfectly honest with you. It's that important. I'll try to include pictures as often as I can because I'm a visual learner and I like pictures of doggies (you know you can't argue with that logic).
Where was I? Tails- that's right. A dog's tail is one of the most easily noticed part of his body (unless your dog is a breed that is docked or has a naturally short tail) which is used constantly in communication with you and the world around him. For now we'll focus on just the tail- not everything else that's going on, because it's easier to start you in the shallow end than toss you in the deep end of the pool.
-You have probably heard that a dog whose tail is wagging means he is happy. This is true if his tail is wagging LOOSELY and EVEN with his backline. Picture a golden retriever wagging his tail. It's pretty level with his body, and is waving gently back and forth. This type of tail wag is a happy tail wag. If the rest of his body is pretty relaxed you're probably safe to pet this one. Here is a video of a past client, her name is Sydney and she is a sweet, loving girl who pretty much loves everyone and everything. This is a clip from one of our training sessions where we were working on less rambunctious greetings. As you can see, she is wagging relatively even with her body, loosely and she is otherwise pretty happy. If you were to pet Sydney, she would lick you all day long as a thank you. 

-A dog whose tail is wagging, but with the tail positioned up as opposed to level with his body can indicate a dog who is excited or on alert for some reason. Some breeds tend to always wag this way (pugs, huskies and other curled up tail dogs), but if your dog can relax his tail, look out for this. It's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means your dog is a bit more excited than normal. If you know your dog gets over excited or reacts to other dogs, cats, people, or anything and you see the tail go up and wag stiffly, it's time to redirect and prevent a sticky situation. In this picture Roxie's tail is almost straight up and stiff. If it were to wag, it would look like a little flag being waved back and forth. Hee ears are also up and back, indicating her interest in something. What you can't see here is the cat that just caught her eye- she thinks cats are great things to chase.

-A dog whose tail is down is unsure, and possibly nervous. The further tucked his tail is between his legs, the more pressure he feels from the situation. If your dog's tail does this, he needs a break from the situation or stimulus that is pressuring him. Please allow him a safe 'out' here, with you to support him. Dogs who are unsure, nervous and feel cornered are so scared that they can and will lash out at just about anything, especially anything new or scary. In the two pictures below, Blair is meeting a very calm, dog savvy girl during class. If you look at Blair's tail it is low, not quite tucked, but not up much from her legs. In the second picture, you can see that she is wagging her tail in this same position. Blair has had a few overwhelming greetings from strangers and is cautious with new people. No worries though, be the last week of class, she was pulling over to play with the girl and her sister, who gladly rewarded her bravery with gentle pets and kisses (probably some treats too!)

-Wagging stiffly vs wagging loosely- generally speaking, when a dog's tail wags loosely it means he is somewhat ok with the situation. When a tail wags stiffly, they are a bit more undecided and waiting for more information from the situation.

 In addition to my experience living and working with dogs, I have read a bunch of books-and have about 20 15 more (I read some of them!) on my Nook waiting for me to read- and compared notes with my other trainer friends to get this information. One of my favorite resources is the book listed below. If you have a reactive dog, a fearful dog, and aggressive dog, heck- a LIVING, BREATHING DOG, do them a favor and pick up a copy of the books below. They are both great resources for dog owners, especially if you have a new, fearful or reactive dog. Another great thing is to take pictures of your own dog- in everyday situations and in stressful ones (as long as you have someone else to help so nobody gets into trouble). Going back and looking at pictures of moments in time can really tell you a lot about your dog!

Canine Body Language, A Photographic Guide: Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog; By Brenda Aloff
On Talking Terms With Dogs, Calming Signals; by Turid Rugaas