If you’ve followed us for a while, it should come as no surprise to you that we don’t support the use of punishment or aversive tools (shock, prong, choke collars or anything designed to create pain or discomfort in order to discourage behaviour). There is a growing body of research supporting the reasons to move away from these tools and methods but that is not actually the point of this post. If you do want links to some of the current research, jump onto the AVSAB website and click on the button below their current position statement: Based on current scientific evidence, AVSAB recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems. What I actually want to address is the dog training community’s response to that position statement - specifically those who are supposed to be positive-based and talk a bit about my personal journey as a dog owner & trainer. Following the release of that position statement, I saw number of memes flying around berating balanced trainers basically calling them stupid or uneducated and it really annoyed me. It’s taken me some time to process my feelings on the issue and find a way to articulate why it annoyed me, why I think it’s a problem, and what we can be doing better.
My family dog was a really laid back rottweiler named Carl, and we walked him on a prong collar for many years (this would have been mid 1990s). We never ran into problems using it, and he seemed perfectly happy to see the leash and the prong collar come out because it meant we were going for a walk. My dad had done a really great job socializing and training him the best he could with the knowledge he had (don’t ask me what trainer he followed; I have no idea but I do remember it was VHS tape tutorials that came with a long line) and he was a fantastic family dog. Some of the games we played with Carl are games I still recommend (one was basically Look At That but back then we didn’t know it as LAT) but looking back there are certainly some things we did that I would not recommend now (eg. kneeing the dog in the chest for jumping up, yelling at the dog for peeing in the house, setting mousetraps on the garbage to prevent him from stealing it, taking his food away and giving it back, etc) but that dog was incredibly resilient and happy-go-lucky and we didn’t see any fallout from using punishments. As an aside, Carl actually figured out how to set off the mousetraps without getting hurt and still proceeded to get into garbage until we finally learned to put it under the sink with a child-lock on the cupboard door.
Later in his life (probably 2001 or 2002), I started working for a vet that sold head halters (I don’t even remember if it was a Gentle Leader or Halti). I read up on it and it seemed like a much more humane alternative to the prong collar. I followed the instructions to get him used to it and switched him over to it and he quickly got used to walking with it instead. I do remember him pulling less on it but I think other than that there weren’t any major differences between using the two. He’d put his nose in the loop for a cookie and off we’d go the same way he’d come to me for a treat to get the prong collar put on.
Fast forward to my next dog in 2008, who was a much more sensitive and nervous dog - a rescue Doberman named Dexter. He was okay with wearing the head halter for walks but he would still pull and he started to rub some fur off of his nose. A friend’s dog was on a sensible harness, so I asked about it and got one for Dexter. That was a game changer for us and our walks started going better. Dexter had a separate issue though, and that is fear-aggression with strangers coming to the door. This was something I had zero experience with and yelling at him wasn’t working so I reached out to Puppy Power (then owned by Norma Jeanne Laurette) for help. Greg Ceci was teaching their private lessons and he came to to my home to teach me how to change Dexter’s behaviour.
Greg did a phenomenal job of explaining how dogs think and learn and demonstrating effective training techniques to do proper desensitization and counter conditioning to triggers for Dexter. Not once did he make me feel guilty for mistakes I’d made, belittle me, or tell me that I was uneducated (I should add that at his point in my life, I already held a B.Sc. in Animal Biology with a minor in Psychology - I had lots of education but not yet learned how to properly apply it to dog training). He effectively replaced the old strategies I’d been using with more effective strategies and we moved forward using those strategies. A few days before this, I also went to a workshop with Melissa Millett of In Dogs We Trust who introduced me to Control Unleashed games, which was all in line with what Greg was saying. We didn’t need to spend time hashing out mistakes I’d made, we just had to learn how to do things another way.
This, my friends, is how positive reinforcement works. We don’t need to punish our learners for mistakes made and this applies to our human learners as much as it does our dogs. The more time you spend telling someone they are wrong (especially if you’re degrading them), the more defensive they get and the less receptive they are to learning new strategies. There is just no sense in doing it, and it needs to stop.
Maybe I’m more sensitive about this because I started out using those tools and methods too. I think early in my journey if someone had said something negative about using them, I would have just got more defensive about using them and less inclined to try something else. Instead what happened was I was presented with alternatives to try, found that they worked and just had no reason to go back to using those tools & methods. To this day I’m still continually researching to find the best tools and methods to solve various behaviour problems, and if I’m being honest I don’t even recommend the sensible harness anymore because the most current research suggests that a front-attaching harness that keeps the shoulders free (no horizontal strap across the shoulder) is best for the dog. A few years ago Oakley injured his shoulder jumping down off the couch wrong and we couldn’t use a harness on him at all - I had to rely 100% on our training using a regular collar to keep him walking beside me and he did so without issue - which goes to show that once your dog is reliably trained to do a behaviour, the tool you were using to help you get there actually becomes unnecessary and should just be there as a backup for when you come across a situation you haven’t yet proofed with your training.
All of this to say that we must continue to evolve our strategies as research gives us more information about what is best for our dogs. It doesn’t have to mean we were wrong before, I would argue that it’s in the past and it doesn’t actually matter how we want to view it. I truly believe every one of us loves our dogs and is doing what we think is best for them with the information we have. I do think we owe it to our dogs to keep upgrading our knowledge and finding the best options for them, but we all have our own journeys and its nobody’s job to judge who is doing it right or wrong. We can set rules for what we allow in our own training schools and for our own dogs but outside of that, it is not our place to say what other people should do whether we agree with them or not. Obviously if you are witnessing outright abuse, speak up - I’m not saying walk away while someone is beating their dog in the street.
If you’ve made it this far, what I’d like to do a present a challenge - whether you’re a dog owner or a trainer - and that is to spend less time trying to convince other people that what they’re doing is wrong, and more time just flooding the internet with examples of ways you’ve changed behaviour using positive reinforcement methods with your own dogs. If you want to mention methods you tried before that didn’t work, that’s totally fine, but do it in a compassionate way that doesn’t bash another owner/trainer - there is no need to crap all over trainers who use methods you disagree with/no longer use. I firmly believe that the more we can show people how to use positive reinforcement-based strategies to solve behaviour challenges, the more it will become mainstream to default to those methods, and the less people will find the need to use aversive methods and tools.
Here’s how it’ll work: Post a picture of your dog and a behaviour struggle you’ve solved (or are solving) using positive reinforcement. Use the hashtag #puppypowerpositivitychallenge and tag us on Facebook or Instagram (or both to double your chances of winning). I will screenshot and share the entries on the same platform you shared it on so you know it worked. Email me if you don’t see this happen so that I can fix it. I’ll do a random draw for both Facebook and Instagram entries for a Nina Ottosson Dog Brick puzzle on November 19th, 2021.
I’ll start: Shown in the pictures is my current Rottweiler, Oakley. We built up a reliable offleash recall for him using positive reinforcement and there were many months when he was a teenager that he had to drag a long line to prevent him from taking off when I called him. Once we’d built up enough reinforcement history for coming when called, he earned his offleash freedom, but I am still careful about where I allow him to be offleash and would use a long line on him in any new place where we haven’t built that reinforcement history for reliably coming when called yet. He also used to really struggle with chasing our cats so we trained a place behaviour and now if I see him look at a cat, all I have to do is say the word “office” and he’ll immediately run into the laundry room and wait for his treat instead of chasing the cats. Half the time when he sees the cats now, he’ll interrupt himself and look at me waiting for me to tell him to go the the office so he can get his treats. If he sees them on walks, we stop and play the Look At That game from Control Unleashed and he does not chase them on walks. Again he usually interrupts himself and looks at me, waiting for me to acknowledge the fact that I saw him see it and start playing the game.
We all love our dogs, which is all fine and good, but I think what our dogs need from us more than love is to be understood: for what they are, what they need, and what they want; not what we want from them. When I became a dog trainer, I knew I’d be helping dogs by teaching people how to understand the way their dogs think & learn and how to use that knowledge to change behaviour. What I didn’t realize initially was just how big of a challenge it would be to get people to really understand their dogs’ needs, which is a huge piece of the puzzle that usually needs to be figured out before asking for any further behavioural changes.
I find that often people want a recipe to follow to make the dog in front of them match the perfect prototypical image they thought their dog would be without the need for ongoing management, when in reality that dog doesn’t really exist. (Although somehow a lot of people seem to think their last dog matched that image, but that’s another rant for another day). I also find that people read too much into the phrase “it’s how they’re raised” and assume we can over-ride genetics with enough training, and I think we do a huge disservice to our dogs when we believe this assumption.
For those of you who took and remember genetics: P = G + E (Phenotype = Genetics + Environment). I won’t go into details of all the ways environment can affect gene expression as an organism develops, but I will cut to the chase and say this:
Every dog we meet is the result of a number of interactions between the dog’s genetic makeup and the environmental factors that influenced it as it matured (in utero, in critical developmental stages, and beyond), and the way it thinks & acts is constantly influenced by its genetics, the environment and the associations the dog makes on a day to day basis.
That doesn’t mean how they are raised doesn’t matter (it is absolutely part of the equation); it means good breeding matters and it also means having the right environmental conditions for your dog to thrive in matters.
It also means that sometimes training can’t make a square peg fit into a round hole. We might be able to modify the peg a bit, but a bigger part of my job as a trainer is to help the dog owner modify the hole so it will accommodate that peg. Sometimes we find out that it’s not a fit, and there’s no shame in admitting that and finding a better fit for the dog if that’s the case. But if we’re willing and able to accommodate our dogs and we want to get the most out them, we need to change the environment to meet their needs. And that starts by seeking an understanding of what those needs are.
I don’t know about you but whenever I get a dog, I have a pretty big list of things I would love to do with them. I won’t bore you with the extensive list of all the things I’ve ever dreamt of doing with my dogs, but I will say this: where I am now is not at all where I thought I’d be as a little girl going to dog shows with my dad, dreaming of someday having my very own dog to show. I’m not complaining one bit because the path I am on has really opened my eyes to understanding dogs in a way I think every dog deserves to be understood. I’m thankful for this because I truly believe it’s really important to have this bit figured out before starting to explore all the amazing but potentially stressful things we can do with our dogs.
My first dog of my own ended up being a foster-fail - a dog with fear-aggression that I actually didn’t have a lot of goals for aside from to help him be comfortable living in this crazy human world. What followed was the realization that this is the most important thing we can do for our dogs regardless of the age at which we get them and what our long-term plans for them may be. It’s unfair to ask them to do more when they aren’t comfortable where they are in the first place. My current dogs all have better lives because of this. It’s funny but really not surprising that there are a lot of parallels between good parenting and good dog-ownership. Much like I never want to be that parent nagging & pushing my kid to do activities just because I want for them to be able to do it, I have never been a person to get fixated on what my goals for my dogs were and I have never pushed them to do something just because I wanted it. My utmost goal is to provide them comfort and security, and I constantly look for feedback from them that indicates they are enjoying something new before I commit to signing them up for more.
If I could, I would ask every single one of my dogs the same thing we often ask kids: “What do you want to do/be when you grow up?” This is obviously not a practical thing to ask our dogs but what we *can* do is give our dogs opportunities to explore various options at their pace and see if they like it/how far they get with it and constantly look for feedback as to whether they are enjoying it. What I’ve learned I *can* ask my dogs is: “Are you in?” And the incredible thing that usually happens is the more often I step back and wait to see if they opt in for more, the more into it they get, and the more they seem to enjoy it.
So what’s the point of this post? It’s not to say you can’t have hopes/dreams for what you want your dog to do/be - but it IS to say it’s important to meet them where they are and get their input at each step of the way. Sometimes the dog in front of us isn’t the dog we thought they would be, and that’s ok. If you start by meeting their needs and providing them with opportunities to try things, while making sure to be their safety net, ensuring they feel safe & secure and building confidence at each step along the way, they will often surprise you with the things they actually *can* do. And usually you’ll be pleasantly surprised that the path you end up on is better than the path you’d originally planned.
I used to be one of the people who would avoid virtual classes at all costs and opt for in-person learning. I paid thousands of dollars every year to travel across North America to do in-person workshops & also paid extra for working spots because I didn’t think I could possibly grasp everything I needed without actually DOING the exercises in-person with my own dogs and getting real-time feedback from my instructor(s). While my dogs actually handle travel & living in a hotel extremely well, they still don’t decompress as well between training sessions in a hotel room as they do being able to hike offleash and sleep in their own bed at home. If I’m being honest, neither do I.
Tonight was a hard night... Maybe it is because this is the first time in over 2 years that I have said goodbye to an imprinting puppy without rushing home to a few other puppies depending on me to teach them how to succeed in this crazy human world that is so full of daunting expectations that even the smartest child struggles to meet. Maybe it's because I know it's harder on you because you can't understand that your family made the difficult decision to have me take care of you during a critical socialization period, fully entrusting me to give you the best possible start to life, and that it is now their turn to take the leash, so to speak, and do everything they can to continue your training and earn the same level of trust with you that we spent countless hours building over the last 4 weeks. Knowing that you waited by the door for me to come back after I left breaks my heart, and I can only hope that you don't think I could have possibly just walked away and forgotten you.
While experience tells me that you will get through this and that you'll be starting your life with the best doggy social skills and a much easier time learning how to communicate with your family with respect to going outside to potty, walking on a leash and responding to basic cues, I can't help but worry about how stressful the next few days will be for you. I can only hope that a) you can quickly learn to trust each member of your family and fall in love with them as much as they have been falling in love with you through the updates, pictures and videos they have been receiving over the past 4 weeks; and b) that I have prepared your family well enough through reading material, videos, hands-on training, and can offer enough support to help make this transition as smooth as possible. If I could tell you anything it would be that you are so loved and that all of us want more than anything for you to be a happy, confident, well-adjusted puppy.
And now it is my turn to anxiously await updates. While I know there will be bumps in the road as you grow up, I hope and pray that it won't be long before you have bonded strongly with everyone in your family and they are taking you on many new adventures to exciting places and that you have made many new friends (2 and 4-legged) who will love you as much as my family has in the short time we got to know you.
You will be missed and forever a part of my heart,
Your Imprinting Trainer
Happy Halloween everyone! Please remember that there are LOTS of things about Halloween that are scary for our dogs. Be fair, be realistic and be understanding about anything your dog seems unsure about. Be it walking past Halloween decorations and/or people in costumes or dealing with the amount of extra activity and noise a the front door as trick or treaters come by. One thing I'm going to touch on in more detail right now is dressing your dog up. This is something that applies to far more scenarios than just Halloween, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to do a video outlining how to take things slow and let your dog set the pace if you choose to put a costume on them. Also I want to note that if your dog is really resistant, ask yourself how necessary it is to dress them up tonight? Is it worth breaking your dog's trust by forcing it on them? In my video, Taya is already quite comfortable putting on clothing so this wasn't too difficult for her. Sometimes it can take weeks to properly desensitize a dog to wearing clothes, so if you pet really dislikes it, I recommend opting for a cute collar or bowtie instead for tonight. See my video below on making sure your pet's costume is comfortable for them and also letting them set the pace with putting it on:
I will post another video with more detail on desensitizing your dog to having its paws handled soon. Taya can be a bit hard to read because she will also lick her lips when she is anticipating food, but as a general rule if you aren't sure - give your dog some time! It may take longer, but it is worth it in the long run. You can see how quickly Taya comes back to try again because she trusts me :)
One of my biggest burdens as a trainer is trying to educate owners about the importance of early socialization (before 16 weeks) for puppies, while at the same time doing everything in my power to minimize the risk of exposure to parvovirus (aka parvo). Since starting to run puppy classes in 2013 under the name Paws ‘N Effect, I had never had a puppy with parvo come through any of my facilities (I currently run classes in Elora, Cambridge and offer an in-home board and train service from my home outside Kitchener). That changed this summer with a little Rottweiler puppy named Bear. At 8.5 weeks old, Bear had a case of diarrhea, which was tested and confirmed to be giardia. It appeared to resolve with treatment, but 3 days after treatment ended, it would end up progressing to a very sick 10 week old puppy. Bear was very lucky to survive thanks to excellent care from Beaverdale Animal Hospital and a night at the Emergency Vet Clinic of Waterloo.
Aside from treating Bear immediately, the first thing I did upon finding out he had parvo was contact all the owners of puppies in my care and the 2 puppies he had met in classes to notify them and ask them to watch for signs and boost their vaccines ASAP. All puppies in my care were given their next booster shots (most were 11 weeks and given their 2nd shot 1 week early) as a precaution and were closely monitored for symptoms and tested a week later – all 7 dogs in my care tested negative, and the 2 puppies he'd met in class were also clear. I firmly believe the biggest 2 reasons that all the other pups were clear were 1) keeping up to date on vaccines and 2) my strict policy on isolation and cleanup/disinfection when dealing with giardia, which also helps to prevent the spread of parvo. I don’t know exactly when or where he got the virus (the incubation period can vary between 3-14 days). Initially, I blamed myself thinking he got it when we went to get him a life jacket at a pet store (3 days before symptoms), but it could have also been during his first vet visit at 8 weeks (14 days before symptoms) or sometime in between. I will never know, especially since he’d been on medication for giardia, which would may have helped to manage any symptoms if he’d had it earlier. Regardless, I covered the expenses as I didn’t feel right passing them on to the owner. I now require imprinting puppies to be signed up for pet insurance ASAP.
As for disinfecting of the facilities, I followed vet recommendations to bleach (I used a 20% solution) every hard surface – walls, floors, cupboards, xpens, crates, etc – and we steam cleaned any soft surfaces. Bear was isolated to a separate yard and a room with a hallway between he and the other pups so he could still see and hear regular household activities, but we had to change clothes, shoes, and wash our hands when crossing the hallway to handle him. To continue his socialization during this time, I would drive him places to people watch from the back of my RAV4, and had people drop treats into his crate to interact with him without touching him. As soon as we got a negative stool sample for him (2 weeks later) we did as much socialization as possible to make up for lost time. Bear is now a very happy and healthy, well-socialized little guy, who is excelling in his puppy classes at PetSmart in Sault Ste. Marie (Sadly there is no Puppy Power there).
Despite me having cleaned and disinfected everything, I have made the decision to wait until January to board any pups without their 2nd vaccine because puppies are at higher risk before their 2nd vaccine. Although I did saturate my kennel area with a 20% bleach solution, it is much harder to disinfect outdoor areas, and the virus could potentially live in outdoor environments for 5-7 months. Any owners who have contacted me for imprinting during this time have been asked to start their imprinting with one of my other trainers, and can have their puppy come to me after receiving their second shots if they so choose.
Okay – so why am I telling this story?
Up until this summer, I had probably trained/boarded over 1000 puppies, giving them an incredible start to life with positive socialization in a controlled environment. I check the vaccine status of every puppy coming into classes or boarding, and have any new puppies coming into my home tested for giardia & other parasites. There is no guarantee with anything you do that your puppy will not contract the disease no matter how careful you are. You could have a breeder have a puppy tested for parvo before you get it, and it wouldn’t test positive until it is symptomatic. You could step through an infected area and bring the disease into your home on the bottom of your shoe, or wildlife could track it into your backyard – it is considered by vets to be “ubiquitous, meaning that it is present in every environment unless regular disinfection is applied” (Pet Assure, 2017). I want you to think about that for a second and then think about places you could take your puppy to socialize that are regularly disinfected with bleach or steam cleaned (pretty much the only ways to kill the virus). I can assure you that myself and any trainer to whom I recommend you take your dog is doing this, and that the low incidence of parvo infection compared to the places the virus is likely present speaks volumes about the efficacy of the vaccine. That said, even with proper vaccination, “a small percentage of dogs do not develop protective immunity and remain susceptible to infection” (American Veterinary Medical Assocation, 2017). This includes adult dogs. There are no guarantees with anything you do.
Now I’d like you to consider the number of dogs who end up in shelters due to lack of early training and the importance of socialization. According to a study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, 96% of surrendered dogs had never had formal training (Arthur, N., 2009). In a Literature Review entitled “Welfare Implications of Socialization of Puppies and Kittens” by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the sensitive socialization period is considered to be from 3-14 weeks of age, during which time puppies are most flexible to exploring new stimuli and environments. After 14 weeks of age, dogs become less flexible and may become fearful in new situations, and fearful or reactive with new people, pets or in new environments (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2015). I highly recommend you click the above hyperlink and read further details on your own, but overall the AVMA recommends thorough socialization by 12-14 weeks of age, with earlier being better and “when well-managed puppy or kitten socialization classes are available, owners are encouraged to take advantage of these as a source of information and a safe environment for socialization and new learning activities” (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2015).
Last but not least, I encourage you to know the signs of parvo and don’t hesitate to seek veterinary care if you suspect your puppy may have contracted it. Bear was extremely lucky to have had immediate treatment.
Early detection and treatment are critical to successful outcomes, with survival rates approaching 90% with proper treatment (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2017).
More information on diagnosis, treatment, and prevention can be found on the AVMA’s website here: Canine Parvovirus.
I don’t have statistics on the number of behavioural problems I see that stem from lack of early socialization, but I can tell you that the number would greatly exceed the number of parvo cases I have seen come through my facility. To say that I was discouraged by this case would be an understatement. However, every single puppy owner who I’d contacted to explain the situation was very understanding, and I thank all of you for your support and words of encouragement during a very difficult time. My apologies again to those for whom I had to cancel boarding last minute. Special thanks to Norma Jeanne, Puppy Power’s founder, who assured me that I was doing everything right, that she had been through it before too, and that the owner did not blame her. I don’t think I would have continued to train if it weren’t for the outpouring of support from other trainers and clients during this time. Thank you for your trust and for making the best choices for your dogs.
American Veterinary Medical Association. 2015, June 9. Welfare Implications of Socialization of Puppies and Kittens. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Pages/Welfare-Implications-of-Socialization-of-Puppies-and-Kittens.aspx on October 16, 2017.
American Veterinary Medical Association. 2017. Canine Parvovirus. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/canine-parvovirus.aspx on October 16th, 2017.
Arthur, Nan. 2009. Chill Out Fido!: How to Calm Your Dog. Wenatchee, Washington USA: Dogwise Publishing.
Pet Assure. 2017. Canine Parvovirus: What is it? Retrieved from https://www.petassure.com/new-newsletters/canine-parvovirus-what-is-it on October 16, 2017.
I just came across this TEDtalk and thought it'd be great to share it and put a dog trainer's perspective on it.
You can watch it here: https://youtu.be/w-HYZv6HzAs
According to Dr. Josephe, who is a soccer coach at Ryerson University, in his TEDtalk, entitled “The Skill of Self-Confidence”, the first and most important skill to look for in an athlete is their self-confidence. Self-confidence is one’s ability to believe in themselves despite adversity and not give up. This is an important skill to have in our everyday lives, and I would argue that it's an important skill to instill in our dogs. I challenge myself daily to instill this skill in every dog handler I teach. In a world of people who are quick to point out failure and offer discouragement, it is important to remain positive and persevere to reach your goals whether you’re doing a sport, training a dog, or trying to succeed in life in general. Using the quote, “I am the captain of my ship and the master of my fate,” he reminds the audience that we are the only people who can decide if we’re going to accept failure or push through and not give up until we succeed. We also make choices about the way we influence one another or our dogs. There will be times where it is difficult, and I liked his idea of having a brag sheet to pull out to remind yourself of your successes when you’re going through the storm. Maybe you're working on reactivity and you're finding that your dog is reacting less at certain distances now or that you're able to get them calm and engaged with you faster after they do have an outburst. Celebrate the small successes, write them down and keep them as a reminder for times that you get discouraged. As well, he reminds the audience not to keep the company of people who try to tear them down. This is important because your self-confidence can be influenced by those around you. If people start to influence you enough to make you believe you can’t do something, then you won’t (this is explained by the self-fulfilling prophecy). Part of what I love about Reactive classes is seeing my clients encouraging and helping eachother. There is nothing more rewarding as a dog trainer than getting people helping one another to set their dogs up for success and see the results of their efforts week by week. You wouldn't believe how many people are scared to bring their dogs to Reactive class because they're worried that their dog will be the worst behaved dog and are concerned about what others will think. I remind them that we are all working on this together, and I am so proud of how encouraging my clients are to one another.
In keeping with the idea that self-confidence is easily influenced by others, when we are teaching or coaching others (human or canine), we need to keep in mind that positive reinforcement goes a lot further than criticism and focusing on mistakes. The goal is to teach and encourage while building self-confidence in others. Dr. Josephe mentions in a team setting that pointing out the individual who did things well and building that player up, while discussing what was right about what they did rather than singling a player out for doing something wrong is a lot more constructive. This could easily extend to parent-child relationships, relationships with a spouse/partner and dog-handler relationships as well. Most people find it very easy to focus on what went wrong and will just focus on trying to fix things. While continuous improvement is important to growth, the way in which it is encouraged makes a huge difference. Pointing out what someone did right can help build their self-confidence and put them in the right frame of mind to take on a challenge and do better. If you point out enough things someone does wrong, they will become discouraged and will want to give up. This goes for dogs as well as people.
When I am teaching families how to train their dogs, I find a big part of my job is getting the parent to help focus on the things the kids do well with their puppy and building from that rather than nit-picking all the things they do wrong. Kids are SO much more responsive to positive reinforcement and keeping it fun and light greatly improves their participation and engagement. The very same applies to training dogs. A dog who is continuously corrected learns much slower and is hesitant to try something new/afraid to make a mistake, often exhibiting avoidance behavior and an unwillingness to work with its handler. A dog who is constantly being set up to do the right behavior and has a handler who is quick to catch and reward them for doing that right behavior is eager to learn and display the right behavior more. I often challenge owners to teach their dogs the same way they would want to be taught. Find a distance your dog CAN succeed and build from there. Nobody wants to have someone come down on them for every mistake they make. It’s stressful and demoralizing. It’s much more productive to find a starting point where someone is doing something right and build from there.
If you've ever taken a class with me you have probably heard me say over and over again that we want to i) get the behaviour first and then ii) pair it with the word. I find a lot of people use the word "drop it" with their dogs without ever having done any training beforehand to teach the dog what drop it actually means.
I like to start this with a toy for a few reasons. First because I want to be able to give the object back as a reward; and secondly, I want the dog to feel like "drop it" is part of the game. It should never be taught with intimidation or by trying to scare the dog because as mentioned in Part I, this tends to make the dog defensive and you may end up causing your dog to guard. The point is to make the dog want to spit the item out happily.
Step 1 - Offer or toss the toy to entice the dog to pick it up in its mouth.
Step 2 - Once the dog is holding the toy, show the dog (let it sniff if need be) a high value (read: smelly & tasty) treat, and be ready to use your reward marker ("yes", "good", or a click if you are using a clicker) the moment the dog spits out the toy to take the treat.
Repeat Steps 1 & 2 until the dog is quickly spitting out the object as soon as the treat is presented.
Step 3 - Get your dog to take the toy again and add your cue (say "drop it") while you show the treat, still using your reward marker the moment the dog spits out the toy each time. You want to say "drop it" in a normal voice like you would say "sit" or any other cue. The point is to teach a word that can be used as an instruction; not to say it in a growly tone that might scare or intimidate your dog or be perceived as a threat.
Repeat Step 3 a few times and then try using your cue (drop it) without showing the treat right away, being ready to use your reward marker the moment the dog spits out the toy. If it does - great! That means the dog has associated the cue (drop it) with the behaviour (spitting the item out). You're ready to move on to Step 4.
Key Point: If it doesn't spit it out, don't keep repeating your cue. This means that the dog has not yet associated the cue with the behaviour yet, and repeating the cue will do nothing but make the dog start to ignore the word. You will need to practice Step 3 while separating the cue and prompt (showing the treat). What I mean by this is when you say "drop it", give the dog 1-2 seconds to think about/offer the behaviour before showing the treat to prompt the dog to drop the toy. Repeat this step until the dog starts to offer the behaviour (drop the toy) within 1-2 seconds of hearing the cue (drop it).
Step 4 - Now that your dog is spitting out the toy and expecting a treat, it's time to work on having the treat come later and from further away. You will still use your reward marker the moment your dog drops the item to mark the correct behaviour but the reward itself will start to come later. I usually start by having the treat in my pocket and practicing the drop it exercise, having the treat come out of my pocket once they have dropped the toy. Then I repeat the exercise having the treat come from the counter a step or two away from me, working up to getting the dog to drop the item with me going further away to get the treat. The idea here is to show the dog that the reward will come later or from further away. This is an important step if you want your dog to drop items when you don't have a treat in your hand!
Once your dog is doing this well, it's time to switch it up with some different variations of the game and make it more challenging. Here's where you can get creative, but here are some ideas that I've used with lots of success:
Earlier this week, Oakley (my rottweiler) disappeared into the bush for a few minutes and came back crunching on something that sounded like bone. He looked pretty proud of himself, but I knew it was probably something I didn't want him to have - and likely something I didn't want to touch! We weren't far from home anyways, so I let him carry it home so I could a) grab a really high value reward (lunch meat) to give him if he dropped it/trade for if he didn't just offer the drop in the first place; and b) grab a few plastic bags to pick the item up with after he dropped it. He spit it out willingly and scored some meat and if you want to see what he spit out, click the button below - WARNING if you don't want to see a dead animal part, don't click the button!
One thing I've found with my dogs (and dogs in general) is that they really aren't grossed out by anything; in fact, the nastier something is to us humans, the more valuable it usually is to the dog. Most of these nasty things turn up when we aren't prepared and they usually aren't things we regularly practice asking our dogs to drop, which is why it's a good idea to build your "drop it" cue with a higher value items and practice it regularly with a variety of items so it's there when you need it. I will be discussing in Part II how to get a reliable drop it cue, but for this post I am just going to say if you don't have a good drop cue, trading for something higher value is going to give you best results.
What not to do:
All of the above scenarios can be avoided by having a reliable drop it cue. You will be less likely to panic, run at your dog and shout if you are confident that your dog will drop items on command. You also won't give your dog a chance to turn it into a game of chase if you teach them to drop items on command (they younger they learn it and less chances they have to turn it into a game of chase, the better). Lastly if your dog is happy to drop items and is expecting to get something better in return, they won't be guarding items in the first place.
Any time you try to take something from your dog while trying to use intimidation you are creating a negative association with the situation, and the next time it happens you will likely see more avoidance and/or defensive behaviour, which will cause it to become harder to get items away each time. The reason I have mentioned to trade for something higher value is that you want the dog to be happy to give the item up - dogs don't guard things when they know they are going to get something better. They do appear to guard more fiercely when they are being defensive and have a negative association with having things taken away. Many owners don't realize that they actually create or exacerbate guarding behaviour by punishing or intimidating their dogs. Once again please consult a qualified positive reinforcement trainer for hands-on help if you are seeing guarding behaviour. This post is NOT intended as a fix in resource guarding cases.
Check back soon for "Drop It" Part II: How to get it!