Is Positive Reinforcement Training Just “Tricks for Treats”?

I had a client recently that I had to part ways with due to so many things, but at the top of the list was the fact that she was stoned or passed out while I was at her apartment trying to train her dog. It was a very sad situation as the dog actually made wonderful progress with me the first week, but I never was able to show that to his owner. I had to end things before she got to see the training in action as it was just a very bad environment.

Through text I went over all the commands the dog had learned and offered to send her handouts so she could maintain the training that was done. She refused and told me that all I did was “tricks for treats” and that if she had known that she wouldn’t have hired me. Wait. What?! All I did was tricks for treats!??

Did she not understand that positive reinforcement training relies heavily on using lures, such as treats or toys, and food reinforcement? I sat there for a while trying to process what she had just said. If you read my website you learn everything there is to know about my training methods and my reliance on positive reinforcements and food lures. But clearly she never looked at my website. And foolishly, I never explained to her my methods when we first met. Now, part of that I blame on the fact that the reeking stench of pot smoke and cigarettes was making it hard for me to actually breathe when we first met. Then when she went into telling me that she used to get her dog high until she realized it was turning him into Cujo, my head was spinning. Every fiber of my being was telling me to get the hell out, but her dog, the cutest pit mix (aside from mine) I’d seen actually smiled at me, with his teeth. He may have been high.

Positive reinforcement training does rely heavily on food rewards and lures. Since food is one of the biggest motivators for dogs, rewarding him for doing the right behavior with a treat pretty much guarantees that he will perform that correct behavior again and again and again … Just like giving a gold star to your toddler for doing something correct, food is like the gold star for dogs. But some people think its the lazy way of training. They see it as a bribe. Or they worry that they’ll have to carry around treats forever just to get their dog to behave. My former client told me she never had to use food to train her dog and that I was messing him up by using treats. I did try to explain the concept of food luring and reward to her, but it was a lost cause at that point.

There are drawbacks to using treats as lures and rewards and any trainer who does will tell you that the hard part is getting the dog to perform the desired behavior without the treat. But it’s a crucial part of positive reinforcement training–its called fading the lure. So if you train your dog to sit by putting a treat to his nose and moving it over his head until his bum hits the ground, food is the lure. (Just an aside: you can teach any behavior without using a food lure, but most positive-only trainers choose the lure over other methods. I use lures and other methods as not all clients want to take the time to fade the lure.) And if you reward that sit with a treat, food is also the reward. If your dog is food-motivated, he will perform that behavior again as long as the food is part of the process. So then you have a dog that will sit, but only for food. Meaning training is nowhere to being complete. If you never get past this point, it is just “tricks for treats.” And then it becomes a bribe.

When I’m thinking straight and don’t have a contact high, I explain the lure method and the other methods of teaching a sit or down so the clients know ahead of time how training will look. As a trainer, it’s up to me to explain this process to my clients so they know upfront that the heavy lifting will come when we start fading the lure and treat rewards. When the dog is suddenly not getting his gold star every single time he sits, he may not sit at first. He knows how to do it, but the picture has changed for him. I explain to my clients how to get around this so they’re not just stuck with a dog with a killer down-stay who has to be treated every single time. I teach them how to get to the point where they can ask for the behavior and get it without doling out more than some verbal praise and a head scratch. It takes time and a commitment from the owners as I can’t always be there to do it for them, but it’s magic when you get there.

National Train Your Dog Month: What is the Best Breed for Me?

National Train Your Dog Month: What is the Best Breed for Me?

Choosing to add a dog to your family is such an important decision and can be very exciting. But it can also be ill-advised if your lifestyle is not consistent with meeting the needs of your new pet.

As a trainer here in Wilmington, Delaware, I’m often asked by friends and others what breed of dog would be best for their family. There’re so many things to consider and the decision can be tough. But there’re a few basic questions you can ask yourself before heading off to the shelter or breeder.

Is your lifestyle really conducive to having a dog? If you frequently work late or long hours and can’t have someone else take your dog out for potty breaks, then having a pooch may be something to put off until a better time. You need to be available or able to pay someone else to be available to be sure your dog gets outside, gets proper exercise, and gets proper socialization. If you’re immobile or not healthy enough to meet your dog’s needs, another pet may be appropriate.

Are you a high-energy person looking for a high-energy dog? Or would you rather have a lap-dog? If you want high energy, a Standard Poodle or Border Collie may work for you. But if you want to chill out with your pup snuggled up to you 24/7, a Bulldog or many of the toy breeds would be best. Research the different breeds and be sure to settle on something that is a great match to your energy level. One resource I’ve found is a site called Dogtime. You fill out a form and you can get matched up with the best breed for your lifestyle.

Do you want a puppy? Raising puppies is great fun, but boy is it hard work. If you meet the puppy’s parents and find a reputable breeder, you can get a good sense of what the temperament and disposition may be for your new puppy. But be prepared to spend as much time with your new puppy early on as you would raising a human toddler. If you find a puppy at a shelter, be sure to ask when the puppy was separated from its mother and see if you can meet other pups in the litter if they’re still at the shelter. Check on the health history and get as much information as you can. In the shelter, you’re more likely to find a mixed-breed puppy then a pure-bred one, but don’t let that turn you off. Mixed breeds can be wonderful pets.

Do you want an adult dog? You can certainly find an adult dog at almost any shelter. But breeders sometimes have adults available that they no longer wish to use for breeding. As someone who has adopted both a puppy and adult dog, I can’t tell you how much I’ve loved having my adult Pitbull. I went to the shelter with all intentions of getting another puppy, but I met a few of the adult dogs and fell in love. If they are owner-surrendered, the dogs typical are house trained, have been raised with a family, and know most of their basic commands. They can transition easily into another family. If the shelter doesn’t know the dog’s background, you’re going to have to spend as much time with the dog as the shelter will allow. Be sure the dog’s temperament has been tested, ask if the dog gets along with kids and other pets, and go with your gut. And whether you’re adopting an adult dog from a shelter or breeder, make sure that the pup is cleared by a vet and not already developing any age-related issues that you will immediately be paying for.

Do you want a shelter dog or a pup from a breeder? When you adopt through a reputable breeder, you will have access to a wealth of information about the dog and the dog’s lineage, its health, the environment in which it was raised, and much more. This may be ideal for someone who has their heart set on a particular breed or someone who wants a service dog or therapy dog. There’s no shame in adopting through a breeder as you’re still giving a home to a dog that needs one.

If you choose to adopt from a shelter, unless the dog is an owner-surrendered dog, you won’t have all the information that you’d get from a breeder. My own shelter dog, Maggie, was found emaciated wandering the streets. I had no information except for that and the opinions of the shelter staff about her disposition. I spent about an hour playing with her at the shelter and decided that she was a sweetheart that needed to come home with me. I wasn’t a trainer at the time but knew that professionally training her would be an investment I would have to make (which should be the case with all dogs).

There are many other considerations when deciding to add a pooch to your family, but being educated is the most important thing you can do. Having to return a dog to the breeder or shelter because you chose one that wasn’t a good fit for your family can be devastating for both you and the dog. Do your homework so you can make the best decision for you, your family, and your new furry friend.

National Train Your Dog Month: Is it Okay to Punish Your Dog?

National Train Your Dog Month: Is it Okay to Punish Your Dog?

In honor of National Train Your Dog Month this January, I thought I’d tackle a topic that I’m asked about by almost every client–Is it okay to punish your dog? Well, that depends on your definition of “punish.” In our punitive, hierarchical society, punishment is doled out carelessly all the time. It feeds our need to dominate other groups of people and makes us feel more powerful and more in control. Sadly, people don’t realize how detrimental punishment, when used incorrectly, can be to a person or animal.

Many years ago, and even still today with some dog trainers, trainers taught people to dominate their dogs and break their will in order to have successful relationships with their pets. Harsh methods of training, such as lifting your dog up off the ground by their cdog training and punishmentollar, alpha rolls (pinning your dog to the ground until they submit), aggressive leash pops, yelling, hitting, shoving a dog’s face in their feces … these were all part of the training techniques owners were taught by well-meaning, yet totally uninformed trainers. Punishment through force and fear was used all the time. Sadly, few dog owners questioned these tactics as it feeds into a human’s need to be the at the top of the food chain.

Thankfully, research started telling us that these training techniques weren’t appropriate or even necessary. A dog could be trained in the same amount of time through something called positive reinforcement training. Imagine a small child in class who gives the correct answer to a question–they get a gold star and swell with pride. And if they give the wrong answer, they aren’t smacked or made fun of, they’re given another chance. In the canine world, we call this setting your dog up for success. When they’re learning, make it as easy as possible for them to choose the right behavior. And if they don’t, try again or ask for something a little easier then build back up again. So no hitting, yelling, leash pops; just praise and reward. Let me say that again, praise and reward. When your dog gets something right and earns himself a hunk of cheese, you will see the happiest dog in the world.

But what about punishment? Does positive reinforcement training mean we can never punish our dog? No. Some positive only trainers will tell you that punishment will look a lot different. So when you’re playing with your puppy and she starts nipping, you don’t hit her or yell at her, you remove yourself from the situation and deprive her of anymore play time until she settles down. When your dog starts jumping on you when you get home from work, you ignore her until she stops. She doesn’t get your attention until she sits. When she pulls you down the street on her leash, you plant your feet like a tree and prevent her from getting to what she wants to get to until she stops pulling. See how much different this form of punishment is than from what I described in the beginning?

Having said that, I see no problem in teaching a dog the word “no.” Some positive only trainers will disagree with me, but a stern “no” when the dog is nipping painfully, or jumping up and overpowering you, or about to knock you down is not based on wanting to frighten the dog; it’s based on common sense. You can still turn away from the dog or refuse your attention, but I would pair it with a negative verbal marker, such as “no.” Nobody gets hurt. You don’t have to act like a monster to train your dog. And your dog is still learning. But most importantly, everyone can have fun with training.

Is Your Dog Okay to be Boarded When You Go Away for the Holidays? Read this Before You Make Your Reservations

Is Your Dog Okay to be Boarded When You Go Away for the Holidays? Read this Before You Make Your Reservations

We’re lucky here in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, in that we have a lot of choices available to us when it comes to where the family dog will stay when we go on vacation. But just because we have all these options doesn’t mean that every dog is “boarding” material. Yes, boarding a dog is easy … gather up her bed, a few toys, and bag of food and you can drop your dog off at one of many boarding facilities and be reasonably assured that she’ll be well taken care of. But not all dogs adjust very well to being away from home. And you’re going to want to figure this out before you split for a week or more. I learned this the hard way. I dropped my two dogs off at my vet hospital in Wilmington that I have been going to for years. They have a huge boarding program that is well priced and well staffed. I loved them there and while I knew my dogs didn’t like the idea of being away from home based on weekends that they had boarded, I never realized just how hard two weeks would be on them. golden retriever

I got emails from the kennel per my request and was assured that my pups were eating and drinking and doing fine. Per a suggestion from a vet friend, I suggested that if my pit bull got stressed being around so many other dogs that she could be mildly sedated. Again, I was reassured that all was well. At the end of two weeks when I went to pick up my girls, I was left stunned by what I saw. They had both lost quite a bit of weight and their noses were dry as pumice stone. I had tears streaming down my face and asked the tech what in the heck had happened. She didn’t know what to say and I was on the verge of having a serious meltdown, so I left. The next morning I took the dogs to another vet because I was concerned that they were dehydrated. My poor pit bull was given IV fluids; my Boston Terrier was sent home with me. My pitty had lost 5 pounds and my Boston had lost 3 in two weeks. The new vet was diplomatic, but shocked by what she was seeing. I can’t say for sure what happened to my dogs while at the kennel, but I know their health was negatively impacted by their stay and that they are just not boarding material.

I’ve since talked to others who have dogs that also don’t do well when boarding away from home. The stress can just be too much for some. My girls took weeks to get their energy back; they clearly didn’t sleep well while boarding and spent the better part of the first week home just sleeping. When I think of my first dog as an adult, a yellow Lab, I’m reminded that she had no trouble boarding at all. But for dogs that don’t do well away from home, there are plenty of options. Rover.com and Dogvacay.com are just two sites that I know a lot of people use when looking for pet sitters. The members are vetted and comprise a great selection of sitters who can stay at your home overnight or come by multiple times a day to walk your dog. Camp Bow Wow, which is a doggie daycare and boarding facility in Newark, Delaware, has a program called Home Buddies in which you can hire walkers or overnight sitters for your dog. Since my experience with the vet hospital’s kennel, I’ve used Home Buddies with great success. My girls were walked 4 times a day, fed, and loved during my last vacation. Since I live in a condo, I wasn’t worried about leaving the pups alone overnight as our building has 24-hour staffing. When I got home, they were in great shape and happy to see me.

For dogs that do well at daycare or being boarded away from home, Camp Bow Wow and Dogtopia in Wilmington, Delaware, are great options. You may pay a bit more per day than you would for a kennel without a daycare option, but your dog gets out of the kennel and gets to play all day. Plus, both of these facilities have webcams so you can watch your dog play and make friends when your away. Your dog will have to pass a “meet and greet” to make sure she gets along with other dogs, but it’s so worth it if your pup doesn’t mind being away from home.

So before you make your holiday travel plans, make sure your dog is going to be well taken care of. Whether she gets to stay at home with a sitter or head off to doggie daycare and boarding, make that decision well ahead of time so you can ensure that it’s the best decision for your pooch.

Can You Give Your Dog a Time Out? This Dog Trainer Says Yes!

Can You Give Your Dog a Time Out? This Dog Trainer Says Yes!

I’m one of the few people in the world who never gave my child a “Time-Out.” But I can remember my niece and nephew often being sent to the stairs or a special chair for a few minutes to chill out. It’s not that I didn’t agree with them, my daughter just never did anything that warranted punishment … when she was little. But with my dogs, a very mellow Pit Bull and a very precocious Boston Terrier, things are a little different. A time-out is a very powerful tool when training. It’s not exactly the same as the time-out you put your child in, but it can certainly diffuse a situation and give the trouble maker time to rethink what she’s doing.

To dogs, a time-out is a punishment in that it briefly takes away the dog’s opportunity to engage in something she likes … being around the family, being around other dogs, being able to run around the house. For example, I worked with a very large Standard Poodle that liked to greet everyone by jumping up on them. Since he’s very tall, he could jump up and look you in the eye, and knock you right over. When he did this, we started using what’s called a “no reward marker,” which basically means we’d say “No” and turn our backs on him depriving him of our attention when he jumped to greet. I instructed the owners that they should never greet the dog until he had four on the floor–all four paws were on the floor. Until then, he got zero attention. The owners would keep going about what they were doing and turning away from the dog when he jumped. This is a form of a time-out in that you ignore the dog and give him a few seconds to rethink what he’s doing. We added a lot of exercise to his daily routine and taught him basic obedience commands so we could ask for other behaviors when he started to get revved up and jumping was looking like a possibility. But because of his size, we needed to take the time-out option one step further.scolding-dog

With smaller dogs, turning away from their jumping then rewarding them when they get four on the floor isn’t as difficult as it is with a dog who can knock you over. So when the owners came home and he started jumping without getting four on the floor pretty quickly, they said “No” and he was leashed and tethered to a spot away from the action. This was done calmly and quietly … no yelling or pulling. You’re just letting the dog know that what they’re doing isn’t acceptable so they don’t get the reward of your attention. The time-out only lasted a minute or so, but it gave the dog the chance to settle down and try the greeting again. Eventually, he realized that four on the floor got him praise and treats, which is pretty much all dogs want in life.

You can use a time-out in training for just about any situation, but can you use a dog’s crate for time-outs? A lot of trainers say no, but I don’t have a problem with it. As long as it’s done correctly. If your dog hates her crate or you have to drag her in by her collar and slam the door behind her, then absolutely do not use the crate for a time-out. Give time-outs quietly and calmly since the point isn’t to upset your dog but just not to interact with her. Keep the time-outs brief. Also, when your dog’s being crated for a nap or because you’re going out or for other non-time-out reasons, you can help her distinguish that from a time-out by giving her a toy or stuffed Kong in her crate and praise her.

With my two dogs, I’ve also used time-outs to help them settle when they get too rambunctious. If my daughter has her friends over and they start running around and the dogs get worked up and forget their manners, I’ve had to bring the dogs to their crates. Again, it’s not done with anger or force, its just done to let my dogs know that jumping up on the kids isn’t going to be rewarded with attention. They may spend a few minutes in their crates until they get settled, then we try again. It usually takes one time-out to let them know that if the want the attention and praise, they need to be good.

So if you decide to use a time-out with your dog, remember to stay calm and think of it as an opportunity for your dog to come back and make a better decision. It should last anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute or so and should remove the dog from the environment that she wants to be in. Even if it’s just you ignoring your dog until she gives a better behavior or putting her in her crate, it’s a time-out in that you’re depriving the dog of your attention. Keep it short, don’t feel guilty, and remember it’s a very powerful training tool.