Jan 282011

I was discussing with a friend what I believe are the primary activities to maximize puppy development, and he asked me for a list, so…

In my opinion, your goal is NOT to have a perfect puppy; rather, it is to have a perfect dog.  The reason I stress this difference is that many people try to achieve adult goals quickly, and unintentionally overshoot the mark as their animal matures.  You need to think of your puppy as a sapling: not yet a tree, merely a potential tree.  It is your job to nurture, prune, bend, and otherwise create spaces and pressures so that as the puppy grows and develops it will become the best dog it can.  For example: let’s imagine that you have a puppy who is playing too enthusiastically, so you discourage play at every opportunity.  A year later, this dog begins to mature, and naturally reduces his playfulness by a significant percentage.  This natural reduction, coupled with your modification, yields a dog that has NO interest in playing.  Instead, you need to look at your puppy’s play drive, and his personality and breed, and make a best guess at where his play drive is likely to be in a few years, and then apply training techniques to increase or reduce that end-point rather than to modify the current behavior.

This article is not about socializing (which I discussed here).

This article is not about teaching “behaviors” to your puppy, although in the first few months I generally teach the basics: name recognition, sit, down, stand, come, stay, wait, spin, twist, speak, rollover, foot, other foot, feet up, feet off, head down, lift, mark, take, hold, give, get, hup, cover, shake, touch, press, sit-up, rise-up, left, right, easy, over, under, on-your-side, back, agility obstacles, etc.

This article is about core skills, attributes, and attitudes that will allow your dog and you to have a great relationship for decades to come.  These are the things that, without even really thinking about it, we start doing with every puppy the moment they arrive, and are always surprised when we meet dogs do not seem to have spent time developing.

  1. Attention:  I spend a huge amount of time rewarding simple eye contact.  Teaching my dog to look at my eyes, to look to me for cues, to look to me when distracted, to look to me when nervous. Without attention almost no training is possible.
  2. Drive: I spend lots of time building the drives I want, diminishing those I do not, and refining them all to mesh with my preferences.
  3. Playing the game: virtually every training session I ever have with my dogs is based on the notion that we are a team working together to achieve a shared objective.  My dog needs to understand that I am the leader in our team, but that I am there to help him succeed.  That in every transaction, there are paths to success and reward.  That if he can figure out what I want, I will give him praise and play and treats and whatever else he enjoys.
  4. Response contingency: I want my dogs to understand that they can control their worlds.  I set up lots of situations in which they can make choices to be in the wind or not, in the light or not, on the bed or not.  I want them to learn that their actions can alter and define their world.
  5. Problem solving:  almost every day I set up problems for my puppies to solve.
  6. Curiosity: I regularly introduce new items, and make sure they are fun or yummy when investigated, so he learns that novel items are worth investigating.
  7. Patience/self control: I want my puppy to understand delayed gratification. We do lots of Premack exercises in which I put a reward 10 feet away, but he cannot go get it until he does what I ask.
  8. Calmness/thoughtfulness/non-reactiveness in stimulating situations: this is closely related to socialization, but is not identical. I spend lots of times rewarding a thoughtful attitude in a challenging environment.
  9. Comfort in restraint: I want my puppy to be comfortable being held down, carried, or otherwise restrained.  We play lots of games in which he is held, and gets released and rewarded only when he relaxes.
  10. Confidence: I mostly work on this when socializing, but I almost always want my dogs to be confident, so I spend a lot of time rewarding this attitude.  It is MORE important to me that my dog be confident than that he has “manners” which I can always train later.  So In the first year, I reinforce confidence, even if he is putting his feet up, or chewing on something or doing something that I will ultimately not want…
  11. Respect: I want my dog to yield to me spatially, to release things when I ask for them, etc.  But training and earning respect in a young puppy must be very subtle or it will erode his self-confidence.  If he is extremely self-confident, then you may spend more time on respect, if he is less confident, you may not work on respect much at all…
  12. Settling when asked: I want my dog to understand that there will be times when I want him to go lie down.  Not play, not get into things, but just go settle.  So we work on this for brief periods right from the start.
  13. Look where I point.
  14. Body awareness: I want my dogs to be aware of their rear feet, their tail, where their bodies are.
  15. Connectedness: I want my puppy looking for me as the center of the universe.  This requires that, for many months, I be fun and interesting and warrant his focus.  It also requires that I give him focus, because if your dog is looking to you for cues and you are not paying attention, he will quickly learn not to look to you.
  16. Enjoy a wide variety of foods.
  17. Play with me: I want my dog to LOVE to play, so we do it often and joyously, and we end before he gets bored.  I particularly work on tug and fetch.
  18. Play with other dogs: many people do nothing to teach their dogs “how” to play with other dogs and are then surprised that their dog learns a style that they do not like.  I spend a lot of time teaching my dogs what is preferred: lie down with small dogs, do not go harder than a certain threshold, etc.
  19. Bite Inhibition (for details on how I train bite inhibition, look here)
  20. Body position matters: sit, down, heel, on-your-side, and many other behaviors are built on the notion that the position of a dog’s body matters.  So early in life I start instilling the notion that it matters whether the puppy goes under or over something, or on the left or the right, or sits or downs…
  21. Relationship of the dog’s position to my body or another object matter.  So I play games where it matters whether the puppy is on my left or my right, is looking at me or not, is looking at a particular object, etc.
  22. Swimming is fun. (not merely tolerable, but FUN!)
  23. Weather tolerance.  Wet grass, cold floors, rain, snow, heat, all are fun.
  24. Bathing/drying/nail-clipping/toothbrushing/ear-clearing are fun: it is amazing how much more pleasant life is with a dog that genuinely enjoys standing for a bath, so spend a few hours now making it fun and pleasant, and you will thank yourself for years to come!
  25. Car rides are fun. (not merely tolerable, but FUN!)
  26. Crates are fun, moving crates are fun, loud crates are fun. (not merely tolerable, but FUN!)
  27. Cats and other prey animals are not to be injured.
  28. Collection: I really want my dogs to be able to be running and quickly collect themselves to turn or jump or transition if necessary.
  29. Using your nose to find things: while most dogs are naturally very scent oriented, this skill can be significantly developed in their early months.  And the idea can be instilled that they need to use this skill when asked…
  30. Objects have names:  I do not need my dog to know 500 different items by name, but I want him to understand the concept that a specific word can be associated with a particular toy.

Those are the top things that I work on with a puppy in the first few months.  I did not really discuss the details of “how” to work on each of them since that would have made this much, much longer, but if you want specific exercises for any of these, let me know!  If you have favorite things you work on that I did not mention, let’s hear them!

 January 28, 2011  Posted by at 1:32 am
Aug 082010

Pavlov: we fed the chicken on the opposite side of the road each day at 4pm until the chicken’s autonomic system actually began causing the chicken to cross the road at 4 pm without even questioning the “why.”

B.F. Skinner: on prior occasions when the chicken voluntarily crossed the road, this behavior was followed immediately by a reinforcing consequence.

Cesar Milan: I bullied, chased, poked, and intimidated the chicken until it raced across the road, because I am a strong leader…

Barbara Woodhouse: You just say, “Walkies” with the right accent and place a crumpet on the other side of the road…

Karen Pryor: by associating R+ with road crossing and P+ with standing still, with a VR schedule, and offering a reward in keeping with the Premack principle, we increased the intensity and frequency of the road crossing behavior.

Victoria Stilwell:  Who cares?? The important question is,  do these pants make me bumm look fat?

Bill Koehler: a few well-timed pops on the choke chain and the chicken was happy to cross the road.

Nicholas Dodman: I gave the chicken fluoxetine, sertraline, paroxetine, carbamazepine, and azapirone and then it was happy to cross the road.

Patti Ruzzo: I crossed the road, pausing every step to spit a treat out of my mouth like a human pez dispenser, and the chicken followed along catching the treats.

Electric Collar Advocate: whenever the chicken does not cross the road I give it an electric shock. But do not worry, the shock is no more than you would feel if you walked on a carpet wearing socks and it does not bother the chicken at all. The feathers standing up and the smell of burning flesh mean nothing. In fact, they are happier having nice clear communication than they would be otherwise.

Yuppie: chickens are just like little people in feather jackets, and if you love them and give them diamonds and feel sorry for them all the time, they will be happy to cross the road for you.

Paris Hilton: Because I put it in a Gucci bag and carried it…

Shelter director: Any chickens that do not cross the road will be euthanized for their own good, and the others we will “adopt” out tomorrow for only $200 each. Please send us money so we can keep doing more of this important work!

HSUS member: I do not know anything about animals, I have never been around animals and am not really fond of animals, but we passed a law mandating that chickens be kept without cages because animals belong only in the wild and cannot be happy coexisting with man, so now they are walking wherever they want.

PETA member: chickens have the right to live in world without roads. Any chicken that lives within a hundred miles of a road is suffering an inhumane existence and might eventually be hit by a car so we should kill it today to ensure that it does not die tomorrow.

 August 8, 2010  Posted by at 2:39 pm
Dec 052009

Our Flint turned 16 a few weeks ago, and we cut together a quick video of some of the many great moments we shared with Flint which you might enjoy.  Flint is a fabulous dog, half Malinois, half border collie, and has been one of the great gifts of our lives.

 December 5, 2009  Posted by at 10:27 am
Oct 152009

Sometimes in training we seek not only to teach a new behavior, but also to modify an animal’s mental state.  Often this can be achieved simply by choosing to reward the animal only when it is in the desired state–reward when the dog is working calmly, or when the dog is happy and enthusiastic.  This is one significant difference between advanced dog training and novice dog training: beginners think in terms of teaching a behavior, advanced trainers think in terms of shaping attitudes. It is straightforwardseqinnertube to train a dog to walk at your left side, the elegance lies in training a dog to do so with enthusiasm and joy.

I still remember how badly I messed this up with my first trained dog, many years ago-Tillie was an exuberant Newfoundland, and I was an easily embarrassed teenager.  On our first night in obedience class, Tillie seemed to me to be the least-well-behaved puppy there, barking and dragging me around, and I resolved not to look like a fool the next week. So before the next class I took her on a huge hike: we climbed mountains and swam rivers and ran in sand and chased balls, and by the time we went to class she was happily exhausted.  She calmly walked behind me at a glacial pace, and I felt that we had made great progress.  For the next 10 weeks, every Thursday I repeated this routine, and never again was Tillie hyper in obedience class…  A year later I decided it was time to try our hands at competition obedience, so I entered another class, and discovered that my bright, energetic, happy dog turned into a slug the moment I started doing obedience.  She lagged behind, and did everything slowly and without any enthusiasm.  It took me a while to realize that I had trained her to be that way… I had actually conditioned her psyche to enter into a particular state whenever certain cues were presented.

One particular situation where training mental state can be extremely beneficial is with a dog who gets too stimulated.  Whether it is when another dog approaches, or during play, or when the doorbell rings-if your dog reacts with excess energy, you face the challenge of not only modifying the behavior, but also modifying the underlying excitation.  One of the best techniques for this is training your dog to “cap” its own emotional response with an incompatible behavior before an undesired outcome.  This morning, one of my dogs did a lovely job of illustrating that principle, and I thought I would share it:

Sequel is a young border collie rescue.  He is very intelligent, but even more than most border collies, he has some behavioral quirks.  Primarily they all center on a tendency to become over-stimulated rather easily.  That tendency is present in his littermates, and is quite extreme, despite considerable work on reducing both the underlying causes and the specific manifestations.  He sleeps right next to me in bed, and while he is an excellent sleeper, he tends to wake with much exuberance when the alarm goes off, which leads to his jumping on my head and then escalating frantic and annoying behaviors until I get up and take him outside to play.  (I on the other hand wake grudgingly, and try desperately to hide under the covers.)

Knowing that one day while half asleep I might fling Sequel out the window, I decided that I should find a remedy. Given that I would be largely asleep, the solution needed to be fairly simple. So I put a large fabric crate in the room with the door permanently open and a comfy bed inside, and every morning when he jumped on my head I sent him into the crate and told him to wait there.  I then waited for him to settle back down, and once he was relaxed I got up and took him outside.


He easily and effectively learned this, and for 6 months we had this routine-he sleeps soundly until the first noise, then wakes, gets excited, gets sent to lie in his crate, we both snooze for 10 minutes, then we get up.

Today, the phone rang early, and Sequel stood up, looked at me, stretched, hopped off the bed, went into the crate, and lay down and immediately went back to sleep while I talked on the phone.

On first blush this seems trivial-big deal, the dog learned to go into a crate.  But look more closely. What is interesting about this is not that Sequel learned to go into a crate-he learned that perfectly within a day or two and did it reliably every morning.  It is not even that he learned to go into the crate without my telling him.  What changed this morning was that he stretched, did the behavior, and went back to sleep.  He never got excited! An autonomic response changed.  He would normally have had a surge of endorphins at that point, and would have sprinted into his crate and obediently waited.  What was different was not that he did what I wanted, he always did what I wanted, it was that his nervous system actually skipped the excitation phase of the process. The crate behavior was an operantly conditioned, trained, behavior, but through enough repetitions, Sequel became classically conditioned to have a different emotional response.


 October 15, 2009  Posted by at 4:09 pm
Apr 142009

We got a call for a project that needed an antelope lifting his head suddenly on cue.  Easy enough… gambleriver

But they had previously hired another company who had failed because getting to the studio required riding in an elevator and the antelope would not get on the elevator.  According to the producer who called us, they had tried to push and pull their antelope onto the elevator, and he had bucked, kicked, flailed, and generally had a frightening fit! The producer was understandably very concerned that the same thing not happen again because they had wasted a LOT of money that day having the entire crew waiting…

I said, “No worries, we need a week to train.” He argued that it was a really easy scene, and I explained that the week was to train him to enjoy the elevator, and that I would not take the job with less. 

I got the job, and for the next five days we took our antelope to town to play on elevators.  For the entire first day we never asked him to get on an elevator, but he got treats and praise for approaching the elevator and had a great time, and we practiced walking him over a piece of carpeting in a doorway.  We moved his feet all over and around the elevator entrance and released pressure whenever he got near to the elevator. The second day he learned to trot into the elevator over the same piece of carpet and right back out.  The third day the door closed and then opened right away, etc…  By the end of the week he was leading perfectly onto several different elevators and happily riding up and down, and a lot of people thought we were crazy… 

We went to the soundstage the next week, where we met with the producer and went up to the studio.  Of course, Gamble led onto the elevator and rode perfectly and walked into the studio and nailed the shot.  The man smirked at me and said, “I can’t believe you charged me for a week of training when obviously your antelope has no problem riding the elevator.” 

I tried and tried to explain to him that IF I had shown up the week before and attempted to force Gamble onto the elevator he would have behaved exactly as the other animal did, but no amount of arguing would convince him.  I had taken some video of the prep, so I could have shown him the hours of work, but at no point during the prep did we try to force Gamble, so there was never a confrontation, never a moment that looked like there was a problem, never a moment in which Gamble was not having a good time.  Because, as in most animal training, the best path to success was for me to be smart enough to manipulate the situation so that Gamble was able to succeed without ever really knowing that there was even an issue.

If we do our jobs well as animal trainers, it creates the absolutely untrue illusion that we are doing nothing–animal trainers generally only look like heroes when they have allowed something to fail and then appear to be saving the day…

 April 14, 2009  Posted by at 7:51 pm
Feb 282009

Obviously I cannot cover all of animal training in a single article.  In this post, I am going to discuss the basic idea of training.  What it is and basically how it works.  In later posts we will go into much greater depth on training specific behaviors.  Training animals can be challenging, but is also immensely rewarding, and the dividends for both you and your animals will grow dramatically as you put more time into their training.skate

What is animal training?

      In broad terms, everything you do with an animal is training.  Animals are always learning; therefore, you are always teaching, even if you do not mean to be.  In a more formal sense, animal training is a series of procedures you follow in order to alter an animal’s behavior.  All animals possess certain natural behaviors which you shape into specific behaviors or chains of behaviors that you want the animal to perform on cue.  You increase the frequency and intensity of desired behaviors and decrease the frequency and intensity of undesired behaviors.

What are the goals of training an animal? 

  1. Teach specific boundaries
  2. Teach specific behaviors
  3. Refine social relationships
  4. Refine working attitude
  5. Habituate usage of the thinking portion of his brain
  6. Develop his character

       Many trainers focus at the top of this list, believing that training is primarily about boundaries and behaviors.  Over time, good trainers tend to shift their focus more and more towards the bottom of the list, realizing that teaching specific behaviors and boundaries is easy and that the real skill is to use your training time to develop your animal’s character and attitude and the relationship you want with him.

      Refining social relationships means that you are constantly aware of the relationship you have with your animal and use your training time to polish this dynamic.  You use training to make sure your animal respects and enjoys your leadership.  That he trusts your decisions.  That he wants to please you.  Each time he performs as requested and the outcome is positive he becomes more confident in your leadership.

      You must constantly be aware of your animal’s attitude, energy, and focus: you need to induce the state that you want, and only train while you are able to maintain your animal in that state.  If you want a bright, enthusiastic animal, do not train when he is tired and flat.  For me, training is always the best part of the day: we have a great time, and we are always engaged in a fun game.  My animals love nothing more than figuring out what they have to do to get the reward.

      Animals are reactive.  Many of their responses naturally occur without thought.  One of the central objectives in training an animal is to develop the habit of thinking before acting.  “Thoughtfulness” works much like a muscle-the more it is used the stronger it becomes.  So in training we rehearse mindfulness: we present a stimulus and facilitate our animal’s thoughtful response.

      You must also remain aware of the character you want to develop in your animal. What you rehearse regularly in training you will see blossom in his daily demeanor.  You may spend time developing patience, independent problems solving skills, confidence, and attention span.  You may work to get him more focused on you, or less.  Balance is essential here. Constantly evaluate your animal and your relationship and structure your training sessions to approach your objectives. 

Origins of modern animal training

      Humans have been training animals for over 3,000 years, but modern training techniques have developed primarily in the last century.  Bypassing the complex history of behavioral psychology, two key concepts have largely defined modern animal training:

       Classical conditioning, made famous by Ivan Pavlov (Russian physiologist and physician, 1849-1936): if you pair a neutral stimulus (say, the ringing of a bell) with a positive stimulus  (say, a valued treat) you can condition the animal to respond to the neutral stimulus in the same manner as he responds to the positive stimulus. (Or the converse-pairing a negative with a neutral stimulus)

       Operant conditioning, commonly associated with B.F.  Skinner (American psychologist 1904-1990): an animal will repeat with increasing frequency and intensity those behaviors which result in positive consequences, and will repeat with decreasing frequency those behaviors which result in negative or neutral consequences.  Almost all of animal training derives from that simple notion!

What skills are required to train animals well?

  • Responsibility: animals behave naturally; all training is up to the trainer, not the animal.
  • Body language: animals are very aware of your body. In many ways they will listen more to what your body says than to what your mouth says. So always be mindful of what your body is saying.
  • Excellent observational skills: see everything the animal is doing and note all the factors contributing to what the animal is experiencing. See when to bolster, when to stop, when to encourage, etc.
  • Imagination: always see how things look to the animal.
  • Understanding of the science underlying behavior and behavior modification.
  • Mastery of the mechanical skills required.
  • Great timing and reflexes: praise at the right moment and you increase the behavior you like, praise a second early or late and you get something else entirely.
  • Ability to trust and to engender trust in animals
  • Creativity and flexibility: something is not working; what else can you do to get the behavior?
  • Calmness and emotional self control: reactions in training must always be dictated by the desired effect and outcome, never by anger or frustration.
  • Acting ability: you need to be able to act unhappy or disappointed or ecstatic as needed.
  • Consistency: the more you can repeat your patterns identically, the more easily your animal will be able to learn.
  • Patience: sometimes it seems like simple things take forever to train. Breathe, relax. It may take a little while, but he will get it…
  • Energy: you will generally get from an animal what you put in, and if you need a high energy behavior, you need to be energetic. And you need to be able to play games and keep your animal’s attention at all times.
  • Training Intuition: the art comes in knowing which technique to use when, and in subtly blurring the techniques together to respond to your animal’s mood and state.

How to train a new behavior

      There are many different techniques to train an animal, and there are countless variations on these techniques depending on the individual animal and the precise behavior being trained.  However, the underlying process is surprisingly constant.  Without being present I do not know your animal, so you need to determine which techniques are effective and safe in training him. If you understand these basic components of training, you can modify them to teach almost anything:

 Evaluate your animal’s drives and reinforcers: before you can do anything else, you need to get to know your animal.  What motivates him?  What does he find rewarding?  When does he have energy? Does he have a strong opposition reflex?  Is he easily bored or overstimulated?  Everything you do in training is predicated on your knowing his prefences and attitudes so you can manipulate them.

Condition a secondary reinforcer: all this means is that before you start training, you must teach your animal a special signal that means, “Yes, that was what I wanted and I am going to give you a reward!”  This secondary reinforcer can be a word like “yes”, a sound, a click, whatever you would like.  And all you do to condition this reinforcer is make the sound and give a reward, over and over.  Use a valued reward like a yummy treat, and do this many times each day until your animal understands that the sound means a treat is coming!

Determine the behavior precisely: You cannot effectively communicate your desire to your animal until you know exactly what you desire.  If you want the animal to come when called, does that mean come close or come and sit in front?  Does it mean he must run or just come at any pace?  If more than one person gives the animal commands, make sure you all agree what the commands are going to be and what they are going to mean.  Do not use these commands except when training until they are well understood.  Even when they are understood, these should be sacred words that you expect your animal to always react to.  Do not use these words to mean other things.  If you are teaching that “Come” means run to you and sit in front, then do not say “Come” when you really mean ignore the squirrel and keep walking down the trail with me.

Induce the behavior: In this phase you use your creativity to get the animal to perform the desired activity.  You are not asking or telling the animal what to do.  You are luring him into it.  For instance, if you want a sit, you can hold food so that the animal lifts his head and naturally sits.  There are many different ways to induce the animal.  You can lure with food or a toy.  You can use props, a piece of tape behind an ear, for example, to teach the animal to scratch.  You can use the environment: walking along next to a wall so the animal has to stay close to you when heeling.  You can even wait until the behavior occurs naturally.  During this phase do not say “No” or correct any behaviors your animal offers.  He does not know what you want and is trying his best to please.  This phase is best done away from all distractions so your animal is focused on you.  Be calm and patient and try to enjoy the challenge of communicating with your animal.  Set him up to succeed.  Over time, as your animal begins to understand the behavior, gradually reduce the lure until he is doing the behavior without any help. 

Bridge: In traditional usage, a bridge is a tool used to tell the animal that you like what he is doing and that a reward is coming.  I suggest a slightly different technique: using four distinct bridges.  While this may sound complex – and will likely take a few days for you to master – it can significantly improve training results.  You can use whatever sound or sight you prefer for each of the bridges.  Here are the ones I use:

  • Terminal positive bridge: “Yes!” This is the secondary reinforcer that you conditioned at the beginning. It tells the animal that he did it right and that the behavior is over. It is almost always followed by a primary reinforcer. (Timing is critical when giving this signal because the animal will tend to repeat whatever he was doing at the precise moment this occurred.)
  • Intermediate positive bridge: “Good!” This tells the animal that you like what he is doing and he should keep doing it or even increase the intensity of what he is doing. It can be repeated indefinitely until it is followed by a terminal positive bridge, and is like saying “warmer” when playing “hot-cold” games.
  • Intermediate negative bridge: “Aaatt.” Not strictly a bridge, this is a way of telling the animal that what he is doing at the moment is not going to get him to the reward. It is like saying “colder” when playing “hot-cold” games.
  • Terminal negative bridge: “Nope.” Not strictly a bridge, this is a way of telling your animal that what he did was not what you wanted and the behavior is over and you are going to reset and start over.

Reward the behavior: Once you have given a terminal positive bridge, reward the animal.  Be creative.  And be enthusiastic in the right proportion and at the right energy level to keep him excited and focused but not frantic.  At this point you are telling the animal that you like it when he performs the behavior, so be expressive.  Give food, praise, etc.  Throw a ball, play tug, whatever will be authentically rewarding to your animal.

Associate the behavior with a cue: Once the animal has started performing the behavior without too much luring, start associating a cue.  You are still helping the animal at this point, but as the animal performs the behavior, you say the word and/or give the signal.  Any time you give a cue and then allow your animal to ignore it, you are training your animal to ignore you.  So only give the cue once and then induce the animal to perform.  If your animal does not perform the behavior, do not simply repeat the cue: go back a step and get the animal to perform. 

Proof the behavior: During this phase you ask the animal to perform the behavior in increasingly difficult situations.  You probably started at home.  Now you may try it amidst gentle distractions.  Then at the park but away from other animals.  Then near other animals.  It should still be fun and upbeat.  Do not introduce excessive distractions too soon.  If your animal is too distracted, go back to a less distracting environment and reinforce the behavior.  Increase the duration, intensity, and distraction and then increase the distance at which he can perform. 

Reinforcement schedules: There has been much debate about the ideal schedule of reinforcement.  Should you reinforce every time? Every few times? Randomly? Only the best performance, etc.  Science generally suggests that a variable schedule will work best, but many trainers feel a 1:1 schedule works best.  There are volumes written on the topic, but here is the short answer: do what feels and works best with your animal.  Start with a 1:1, and vary it slightly from there.  Sometimes skip a few; other times give a huge jackpot for a particularly good performance.  Observe which schedule seems to most increase your animal’s motivation and do what works!

     However, one place that people err is in not varying the bridge as well.  What I mean is this: if you execute a terminal positive bridge you should also provide a primary reinforcer.  If you are not going to reinforce, also do not bridge.

Correct non-performance of the behavior: Correcting your animal for not doing what you asked is a last resort.  It means that you have failed somewhere in the preceding phases.  So go back and fix your mistake and do not hurry!

     Talking about corrections is always difficult because many people have such a strong position on the issue that they do not want to hear anything else.  However, regardless of how you feel about corrections in general, with animals corrections are generally counterproductive.  First of all, animals will often learn mistrust after a single event.  Second, the corrected animal tends to very quickly lose interest in training and become unwilling to try new behaviors.

     The solution to this is often to use “negative punishment” to reduce the frequency of non-compliance: if an animal understands a behavior and refuses to do what is asked, they lose the opportunity to get the treat or to play the game.  Generally this means they are put away in a crate and watch another animal work and get treats and praise.  This has several positive ramifications: the animal’s desire to play the training game is built up and up; they come to envy the other animal and really want to do better next time, they observe the other animal performing the behavior, etc.

Every bit as counterproductive as overcorrection is under-correction or nagging.  If you are not happy with a behavior, you need to communicate effectively to your animal.  If you allow him to continue doing the behavior you create confusion, and if you repeatedly object but do nothing about it, he will learn to ignore you, will respect you less, and will be annoyed by your nagging.  So make sure that when you do correct something you are effective.  

Put your animal away: many people finish up a training session and then give their animal dinner, or go for a walk, or sit with them and rub their bellies.  I suggest the opposite.  When you are finished with a training session, put your animal in a crate to think about what you just worked on for a little while.  You do not want them to anticipate the end of training because they get a big reward; you want the training session to be the reward-the best game possible-and  you do not want them then to become immediately distracted. 

A few secondary techniques that may help:

  • Successive approximations and increasing criteria: If the behavior is difficult, you may want to reward approximations. Reward the animal for doing something close to the desired behavior and then increase your expectations gradually. Over time, raise your criteria for successful performance.
  • Backwards chaining: If the behavior is complex, you need to break it down into parts and train them individually, starting with the last component first. For instance, if you want the animal to stop what it is doing, turn towards you, run to you, sit in front, and look into your eyes, you would start by teaching the animal to look into your eyes. Then you would teach it to sit in front and look into your eyes. Then to take a few steps and sit in front and look into your eyes, etc.
  • Pressure: animals are extremely sensitive to pressure and the release of pressure. Stepping into their space, moving suddenly, staring, forceful energy, and many other actions will create a sense of pressure on your animal. A powerful tool in your training arsenal is using pressure to alter their behavior and using the release of pressure to reward their correct behavior.
  • Premack Principle: more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. Sounds complicated, but you know it well in different language: “If you want dessert, you have to eat your broccoli.” Have your animal on leash, and throw a great treat out of reach. Make him come to you, sit, or perform another behavior that he already knows before you release him to run and get the treat. This not only reinforces the desired behavior, it develops self-control and focus in the face of distraction.
  • Select training times: if your animal works mostly for food, do not work him after a big meal. Try to train when you will be most successful, particularly at first. As he progresses, he should be able to work reasonably well regardless.
  • Exercise and environmental enrichment: make sure that your animal is getting adequate exercise and is not bored.
  • Stop on a good note: try to end your training sessions with success. Work on something he does well and praise a lot.

Behaviors to work on with your animal

      Anything you can think of! Sit, down, stay, roll over, shake, beg-up, wave, heel, etc.  They are all good exercises that provide opportunities for you to work with your animal and develop him further.  But there are a few behaviors that are particularly valuable and that I encourage every owner to practice regularly with their animal if they can be performed safely:

  1. Bite inhibition: Never apply excessive pressure with your teeth to my body.
  2. Attention: Look into my eyes and wait for a command. Almost all learning starts with attention, so this cannot be overemphasized. Play attention games every day…
  3. Hugging: lie calmly and happily while I lie next to you and gently hold you in place.
  4. Give: Open your mouth and drop whatever is in it.
  5. Crating: relax in a crate for a few hours at a time.
  6. Tie-down: relax when tied to something in the house.


What you can accomplish is limited somewhat by the animal you are training and your skills as a trainer, but the single biggest factor that will determine how far you take your animal is how much time you spend working and playing with him, so get out there and teach him something every day!

 February 28, 2009  Posted by at 12:19 pm Tagged with: , , , ,
Jan 032009


jurtruck2If addressed early it is fairly straightforward to teach most young dogs to relax quietly in the car. However, I am frequently asked about fixing this problem in adult dogs that had spent years rehearsing the behavior, and it is then somewhat more challenging to resolve.  Offering suggestions on how to handle this behavior is complicated because there can be so many different reasons the dog is barking in the car and the ideal solution is so dependent on the motivation and the individual psyche involved that I am not sure a general solution is meaningful, but here are some general techniques I would recommend:


First of all, recognize that this is a behavior/training challenge and that you will need to focus on it for a while and make a genuine effort to fix the problem.  You cannot think about this problem only when it is happening and expect to solve it…


For each of the following steps, I would exercise the dog before the training session so you are not fighting excess energy.  And if your dog is getting out of control you have gone too far too fast…



  1. Figure out why the dog is barking—is it genuine aggression, insecurity, fear, a belief that you want it to bark, guarding behavior, etc. This will likely alter not only what you do, but the energy and spirit you apply—with an insecure dog you may be bolstering confidence, with another dog you may be correcting more, etc.
  2. Figure out precisely what behavior you DO want—no barking, a woof or two then silence, barking ok until you say quiet, etc.  Ideally figure out a behavior that is emotionally or physically incompatible with barking—holding something in his mouth, lying down, etc.
  3. Particularly important for many dogs is that you repeat a behavior that limits the emotional cascade—they start working themselves into a frenzy, and every time they get to a certain point you interrupt the pattern and create calmness so that eventually, regardless of what behavior they are doing, they learn to arrest their progression towards frenzy.  Often a quiet downstay works for this, but you need to be observant and start the down as soon as they get to a certain point, and make them hold the down until they have returned to a calm state—it is not productive if they simply lie down but remained frantic. Ultimately you care more about training them to maintain the correct mental state then you do about a particular behavior in this case.
  4. Train the desired behavior away from the car to a high level of compliance. For example, I would probably train a solid down and downstay and a quiet at home before I moved to working on the issue in the car.
  5. Train various behaviors in the car at home. Including the desired alternative to barking. I would include some static behaviors (eg, a ten minute downstay) and some active behaviors (eg. spin, wave, etc.)
  6. Train various behaviors in the car at home with you out of the car, you in the driver’s seat, you in the passenger seat, you in the back seat with the dog, etc.  Your dog should be able to get in any part of the car on command, stay there, and do what you ask wherever you are. Repeat with windows and doors open and closed.  Have the dog get out and do a few behaviors, then have him load back up and do the same behaviors.  He should learn that the car is another place where he has to be obedient and mindful…
  7. Have a friend come over and repeat the above with your friend nearby. Do this with several friends and have them come to the window and give a treat or toy or praise.  Have them give a command and reinforce it. Etc. 
  8. Go somewhere where the dog is likely to be slightly stimulated, but not overly so, and sit in the car and have a nice training session.  Do various behaviors with you in the car, including whatever behavior you are hoping will be the new alternative to barking. Then repeat the above so that your dog can do whatever is asked of him in the car regardless of where you are. 
  9. Have some friends come with you to somewhere slightly stimulating and have them come over out of the blue and say hello and give treats while you work with your dog.
  10. Buy your friends lunch.
  11. Gradually get closer to stimuli so that dog has to ignore more and more while doing what you ask.  Once he can handle any stimuli, start getting yourself further and further away while reinforcing the correct behavior or asking for other behaviors.  Go behind walls so your dog cannot see you and make sure they can stay quiet without you in sight but go back and praise or reward their correct behavior. Over time diminish the amount of help you provide.
  12. Once you are confident that your dog understands what you are asking, I think a water squirt bottle can be very effective for correcting inappropriate barking…
  13. Purchase a 2way radio with a built in baby monitor function so you can always know as soon as your dog barks and can either use the radio to interrupt him or can return to the car to correct him.
  14. Have the dog eat, sleep, or relax in the car at home.  In essence use the car as a crate for a while so it ceases to be novel.


Depending on the dog, and keeping safety in mind, I might also consider: 

  • Using a skilled friend as bait, opening the door just as the dog gets excited and letting them out.  (Be careful that this is not timed as a reward—bark and I let you out, but rather a sort of a shock—you think you are safe to act however you want cause you are in the car, but BOOM the door opens and you are out in the real world…)
  •  Leave them on a wait with all the doors open so they do not feel so bolstered.
  •  Have lots of people get in and out of the car giving them treats.
  •  Spend a day riding around on a bus with them.
  •  Have people get in the car and ignore them whenever they bark.
  •  Drive to a mall parking lot and take a nap in your car with your dog.  Calmly and quietly correct any noise—use your calmness to lure your dog into relaxing with you.
  •  Go to a relatively busy location and practice sending your dog to run and get into the car from a distance.  If there are lots of people around when they enter the car, it is unlikely that they will suddenly start barking, and so they will get used to the picture of being in the car with people around.

All of the above focus really on conveying to your dog a few simple ideas—the car is no different and you need to listen there, the car is a relaxed place and remains relaxed when others approach, people who do approach are friendly, you are responsible for staying in control of your emotions and behavior.  Perhaps the most important piece of advice on this topic is that it is a training issue like any other that you can work on and fix in a rational manner.  Too many people never really try to fix this behavior except in the moment when the dog is too worked up to learn anything, and then they ignore the problem until the next time.  Set aside some time to fix this problem, and you will see results…

 January 3, 2009  Posted by at 10:01 pm Tagged with: , ,
Jan 032009



In the past few years, puppy socialization has become a hot topic among dog owners and breeders.  This is a very good thing because socialization can significantly improve the life of any dog. Numerous studies have been performed on various species, and the results are consistent—actively socialized animals have greater brain mass and dendritic branching, have far superior problem solving tendencies, are friendlier and more playful, and are more confident and less stressed in new situations.   


Unfortunately,  many people have recognized that socialization is important and so they are doing more of it, but have not spent much time contemplating or researching “how” to socialize and so they are actually decreasing their dogs’ confidence through hours and hours of negative or incorrect exposure to new stimuli.  If you are doing it well, you pretty much cannot do too much socializing, but if you are causing stress or fear it takes very little to overload your dog.

This post is going to address the general principle of how to socialize a puppy from around four weeks to fifteen years old.  While earlier socialization is also very important, different principles apply.

Your goal in socializing is to show your animal that the world is not a frightening place—that it is a fun place full of delight and joy and that new sights and sounds mean good things are coming. Socializing is not a discrete activity—it is a never-ending process.  Sure, some days you will set out to socialize and others you will not, but ever moment your animal is with you he is learning how to react to the world and it is up to you to always see the people and things that might be scary and take the time to introduce him to them in a manner such that he comes to relish novelty.

There are many, many different techniques for socializing, and you should utilize them all at different times.  In fact, how I work through each socializing opportunity is slightly different depending on the stimulus, the animal, my mood, his mood, etc. The real art lies in deciding which technique to use when, and while I can offer a few suggestions on that, the truth is that it requires a great deal of intuition and empathy on your part— sometimes he is going to need your gentle understanding, other times he is going to need your strong almost forceful leadership, and you need to feel and read what your animal needs at each moment and that can be challenging. But it is a skill that can be developed!  If you are not sure about it, consider having an experienced trainer or behaviorist or even an observant friend come watch and offer a second opinion.  Or video tape yourself working with him and go home and watch in slow motion and try to see what your animal’s body language was saying in the moment…

Before I outline some useful methods, here are some general principles to keep in mind: 

  • Enable your animal to control his own destiny.  There have been some very interesting studies on this, but the basic truth is that for most animals, confidence derives from knowing they have control, so if you take away their ability to modulate distance and intensity of the stimuli you induce fearfulness. You can also work on this at home before you head out to socialize by creating as many response contingent stimuli in his environment as possible.  The more he learns that he can push, pull, dig, advance, retreat, and change the stimuli, the more confident he will be. (One of the most interesting studies on this issue involved two groups of rats raised in identical environments. Each group had levers to pull and buttons to press. In Group A, the levers and buttons caused lights, sounds, food, water, etc. In group B, the levers did nothing–their water, food, lights and sound were controlled by the levers and buttons in Group A. So both groups had identical rewards and stimuli, but only Group A could cause the changes. At 60 days, they were tested in novel environments, and Group A was interested, curious, and un-stressed, whereas Group B was stressed and did not explore. Similar studies have been done on several species with corresponding results. These studies gave rise to the now popular dog training term “learned helplessness”.)
  • Somewhat contrary to the notion of letting your animal control his own destiny is that you do not want your animal to drag you away from something in fear or panic. They key to this is not to take him too close too fast so he never gets panicked.  Let him have the option of retreating a few feet, but do not let him drag you away either. Avoid any situation in which you would have to restrain him—he needs to see you as an ally and a leader, not an adversary.
  • Be secure and calm.  You are a leader and you should exude relaxed confidence. 
  • Do not reinforce fear.  If he is afraid, support him, but be very careful that you are not reinforcing his fearful state. Do not sit there and give him treats and attention for acting fearful. Decrease the stimulus until he is not fearful and reinforce the confident behavior you are trying to achieve.
  • Do reinforce relaxed confidence.  When socializing, you are conditioning a psychological state much more than a particular behavior.  That means you need to pay attention not only to what he is doing, but to how he is feeling.  When his eyes relax, his muscles unclench, his breathing deepens that is what you want to reward. 
  • Take along a confident dog for him to imitate
  • Do not correct or yell at him for anything during this process

As I said, there are many different techniques, but most of them derive from a few basic methodologies:

1.      Expose your dog to a novel stimulus at a distance just outside the range at which you believe he might be bothered by the stimulus, and play calm but animated games with him.  Whenever he gets closer to the stimulus, reward with food or play.  You also move away (this is where many people make a mistake).  You do not lure the animal one step closer to give them a reward—you let them take a step closer and then you give the reward away from the stimulus.  By doing this, you are accomplishing two things—you are releasing the pressure to reward their choice, and you are putting the onus on him to essentially move you towards the stimulus in order to get the reward. You do this for a little while, letting the animal take you closer and closer, and you stop before the animal has a problem.  You come back the next day and start a little closer than you started yesterday, and end a little closer than you ended yesterday.  You do this over and over and over with many different stimuli until your animal will essentially pull you towards any loud noise or strange looking object or person because he wants his treat or toy or praise.   

2.      Closely related to the first method is the treat/retreat game—have a person on the edge of his comfort zone, and have them toss him a treat.  When he steps forward to get the treat, have the person step back.  He learns that as he steps forward, he gets the reward, AND the social pressure of having a person too close is relieved

3.      Almost opposite the first—you just ignore the stimulus and walk right by. The key to this technique is that you want to walk one millimeter closer than the distance at which he would not notice.  You do not want to go so close that he fights you, you just want to get close enough that he is aware, and you want to be resolute enough that it never occurs to him to balk.  You briskly and confidently walk right by as though there were nothing there.

4.      A combination of the first two—you sit somewhere at the threshold distance and you just play with your animal and possibly with another animal until he forgets all about the stimulus.  You do not try to get any closer, you just saturate his brain with the stimulus at a safe distance.

5.      Train your animal incompatible behaviors when away from stimuli that you can practice at a threshold distance. I particularly like activities like spin and rollover that require his mental, visual, and emotional involvement.

6.      Actively train your dog to relax on cue and practice that in novel situations.

Once your dog is doing well, repeat the process in as many places as possible—vet’s office, mall, airport parking lot, elevator, vacuum, fan, blender, loud noises, flashing lights, school playground, be creative and teach him that every new experience is fun and safe!

Jan 032009

Some dogs have difficulties with linoleum ranging from a mild dislike to an outright phobia. There are many ways to improve these issues, ranging from dragging the dog briskly onto the surface through putting treats all over the floor.  Our process requires some time and patience, but in our experience it is most effective at correcting the underlying issue than most other techniques. 


Most dogs that are uncomfortable with linoleum lack confidence in their balance, footing, and proprioception. So we focus on building that confidence and on socializing the dog to slick surfaces:


1.       Work on his balance and proprioception on a variety of non-slippery surfaces.  Wobble boards, creek beds, exercise balls, irregular stairs, waves at the beach.  Anything you can find that will improve his physical abilities and his confidence.  Particularly do these things with other confident dogs so he can model his behavior on them.

2.       Teach him to run up and down slides at playgrounds.  Make this super fun. While there, play with him on the merry-go-round…

3.       Teach him to ride on wheeled carts—shopping cart, flat cart at Home Depot, skateboard, etc.  Get him used to the feeling of having the floor moving underneath.

4.       Get some linoleum tiles and put them singly in places he likes to be.  Comfortable places where he is confident.  Play with him in those areas and ignore the tiles, but subtly try to have him walk on them periodically.  Put one under his dinner dish.  Move them around periodically.  Let him play with other dogs in the area so they can run around ignoring the tiles.  Then start adding tiles at first unattached, then in lines and squares.  Make lines of tiles in hallways, in his favorite places, around his dinner dish, etc. All the while treat the tiles as unimportant. By the end of the year your house should be tiled and your dog cured…

5.       Place a tile on the floor and sit in a chair next to it and teach him a game of putting his feet on the tile.  Entirely positive, upbeat, fun, no pressure.  Whenever he goes towards the tile throw the treat behind him so that he is rewarded by getting a treat and by going away from the tile.  Work on this over time until he is happily putting both front feet on the tile.  Now start moving the tile—toss it away and have him run and put his feet on it and reward. Drag it around and have him chase it to put his feet on it.  Make this a blast.  Work on this all over so he is totally confident about the behavior and really likes doing it.  Now, take the tile and go somewhere with a slick floor and put the tile at the near edge and play the same game.  Next day, same thing, but have him go a little further onto the slick floor before getting to his tile. Don’t get stressed and keep it fun.

6.       Teach him to go to and get onto a dog bed.  Do this all over, and then take the dog bed to a slick floor and send him across a few feet of floor to the bed.  Increase the distance gradually.  This is similar to the above technique, but gives him a clear visible safety spot to go to as well as a clear behavior to focus on. 

7.       If your dog tugs well, eventually try to play tug with him on slick surfaces.  This likely will come after the other techniques. Make a game out of sliding him around so he learns it is not scary.  Swing him around, push on him, do bitework, chase a laser pointer, chase you, whatever will get him into drive and keep him there. Many dogs are much better at overcoming their fears when they are in drive, and after some experience having fun on slick surfaces he is likely to overcome the issue even when not in drive. Tugging and bitework are particularly good because you can slide him around and keep him in drive and keep him from accidentally falling. Do not protect him from slickness; rather, help him learn how to handle it happily.



Obviously there are many others, but you get the idea.  Help him become truly confident about his balance and his ability to control the situation and he will steadily improve…

 January 3, 2009  Posted by at 9:19 pm Tagged with: , , , , ,
Jan 012009

I just had the pleasure of watching a perfect 20 minute training session using what modern trainers would call the LRS technique, and thought I would share it with the group. It is not new information or insight, just an illustration of effective use of a training method.  The animal being trained was Ansel.  He is an adolescent GSD rescue from Czech lines that is VERY intense and high energy.  He did not get socialized much in his first home, and he is very demanding and easily over-stimulated.  We have been working with him for around 6 months now, and he is getting much better, but still can be very pushy in certain situations.

        The training session was outside, I was sitting nearby watching while Ansel was bouncing and trying to get the trainer to play with him.  He ran up and barked in his face, and the trainer FROZE.  No movement, not even an eye blink.  Ansel did not know what to do, so he pawed at the trainer, then mouthed him.  No response.  Ansel tried for a minute and then wandered off.  The trainer moved, and Ansel came running back over and tried again.  This time he jumped up with both feet and licked and whined and shoved.  Again, nothing.  This cycle repeated several times, with Ansel being pushy and getting nowhere.  Around the tenth time, Ansel quietly sat in front, and immediately the trainer engaged and started playing with him.  Ansel got too rambunctious and the trainer froze, looking away and ignoring Ansel.  Again, Ansel tried demanding attention, but there was no response.  Ansel lay down, and immediately the trainer started playing with him.  This time, the play went on for a few seconds, and then Ansel got too assertive. Again the trainer froze. Ansel stepped back, puzzled.  He could tell there was a rule here that he was not getting and he really wanted to understand so the play would continue.  He lay down and cocked his head.  Again, play.  This time, Ansel was less pushy, less sure of himself.  At one point he got a little too excited, and the trainer gave a gentle verbal cue.  Ansel immediately cooled off.  Less than 20 minutes had passed, and Ansel was playing appropriately, without biting hard or jumping up.  At this point, I ended the session, wanting Ansel to have succeeded.

        The trainer in this session was Loki, a 10 year old forty pound Border Collie :))  He “knew” that if he tried to correct Ansel, a fight would start that Ansel would win.  And he “knew” that the fight would be very rewarding to Ansel. He “knew” that if he ran away Ansel would follow. So he outsmarted Ansel–he made sure that Ansel was not AT ALL reinforced for the negative behavior, and that he was not provoked.  At the same time, he made sure that good behavior got Ansel what he wanted. Simple, effective, lovely….

 January 1, 2009  Posted by at 7:18 pm Tagged with: , , ,