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. and 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.



The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Dog Parks

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Dog Parks

My favorite dog park here in Wilmington, Delaware, where I live is Talley Day Bark Park off Foulk Road. For most people in North Wilmington, this seems to be the hot spot, especially on the weekends. But as a dog trainer, I may view dog parks a little differently than the average park visitor. And I don’t think I’m alone. When researching this post on dog parks, I found countless opinion pieces from other trainers on this very topic. So, suffice it to say, I’m going to add in my opinion to the mix.

Talley Park is great in that it has two separate, fenced-in sections that divide the dogs by size. That is a must for any dog park. Never bring your little dog into a dog park full of large dogs. It’s not safe and not fair to your pup. An attack, or worse, can cause trauma to your small dog that she may never get over. But I’ll get to some more park etiquette suggestions soon. First, I want to tell you about my personal experience with dog parks.image6

Before I become a trainer, I had a newly adopted female Pit Bull that was about a year old. I started bringing her to Talley Park on the weekends for some socialization and exercise. On the weekends, there can be upwards of 15 dogs in the Bark Park at any time, which can be very problematic. Maggie spent most of her time sitting next to me on the bench or behind my legs, with brief bursts of running with the other dogs that lasted maybe 30 seconds. Then she’d be right back next me. I wasn’t picking up on the signals that she really wasn’t enjoying herself at the park at all. Whenever she ran around, she was mercilessly humped by other dogs and would react by becoming submissive. About the fifth or sixth time we went, I guess Maggie had had enough of the aggressive humping … she turned on the huge Doberman mounting her and was latched on to his neck in no time. Luckily, I knew the trick of pulling up on a dog’s hind legs during a fight to break it up, so it ended pretty quickly. There was some blood and the Doberman’s owner was screaming and yelling. I apologized, assured him that Maggie was up to date on her shots, and got Maggie out of there. Sadly, there was fallout to this experience. My gentle dog suddenly became reactive. You’ve probably seen this or have a reactive dog yourself–your dog barks and lunges at other dogs or people while on leash or while in the car. Maggie had never done that, but after that one experience at the dog park, she now did.

Our lives changed pretty quickly. I had to give her brief potty breaks, then try and get back inside before we saw another dog. Long walks were out of the picture. And getting through the lobby of my condo building was torture; what if we saw another dog? The one good thing that came out of all this is that I decided to become a dog trainer so I could help my own dog get over something that had clearly traumatized her. Today, all these years later, Maggie still doesn’t love being approached by other dogs on leash, but I can control her. She’ll never be able to take a group class or go to doggie daycare, but progress has been made. About three years ago we added another member to the family, a Boston Terrier, who adores Maggie and Maggie adores back.

Believe it or not, I still go to the dog park, but not with Maggie. Ruby, our Boston Terrier, is very social and loves the park, but I only bring her when there’s no more than four dogs there. We leave when it gets too crowded and I watch her like a hawk. Which is rule number one of my dog park etiquette list:

  1. Watch your dog and know when it’t time to leave. I know the dog park can be social, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to tap someone on the shoulder to alert them to something their dog is doing and shouldn’t be. Yes, you can chat, but don’t lose sight of your dog. Put the phone away and pay careful attention to whether your dog is getting stressed or bullied. Just like the proverbial sandbox, dogs can be bullies too. If your dog is getting picked on, leave. Or if she’s showing signs of stress with her tail between her legs or she’s hiding behind people, it’s time to go. You must advocate for your dog at all times.
  2. Don’t bring young kids to the large dog side of the park. You may not like me saying this, but watching a young kid get knocked over by a pack of dogs is the parent’s fault. Even if your child is sitting on the bench next to you, when dogs get into their antics, they often jump on and off the benches and can really hurt a little kid. If you go to the small dog side, have your child sitting with you and be prepared to push a jumper down off his lap.
  3. Do not bring food to the park. This may seem obvious, but I actually watched a guy have pizza delivered to the dog park once. And while trying to get it back to the bench, he was jumped on and tackled until the dogs got the pizza. Don’t even bring a little pack of peanuts with you. This can cause fighting and you’ll find a pack of aroused dogs following you everywhere. dog-park-problems-solved
  4. Do not bring your dog to the park until she knows the recall command. If your dog does not know how to come when called, then the park is not a good place. She needs to be completely in tune with you and you have to be able to call her out of a situation where she may get hurt. You cannot be chasing your dog around a dog park; she needs to know to come to you when called, no matter what she’s doing.
  5. Do not let your dog bully or be bullied. I touched on this above but if your dog greets other dogs by ramming into them or pinning them to the ground, she is not a dog that should be at a dog park. Dogs need to be socially appropriate when at the park. That doesn’t mean that they can’t tumble around and wrestle, but those behaviors can turn into fights in seconds if you have a bully in the mix. Likewise, if you see your dog getting bullied, advocate for her and get her out of the situation.
  6. Do not just let the dogs work out their issues on their own. In my home, when my girls start playing rough, I let them go until I recognize the signals of a fight about to start. It rarely escalates, but when that happens, I redirect them to something else and it’s over. But I’m a trainer and I know my dogs. At the dog park, letting the dogs fight it out or settle their own differences is extremely risky. You don’t know how quickly another dog will take rough play to fighting. If you see that starting to happen, get your dog away from the pack. And if it happens a second time, leave.
  7. Do not go to a park during peak hours. It doesn’t matter how docile or mellow your dog may be, going to the park when there’s more than a handful of dogs there is not good judgment. People are socializing and paying less attention to their dogs and there are too many dogs to keep under control. If you’ve ever had to break up a fight where multiple dogs were involved, you’ll know that it’s better to stay away from a crowded park. Assess the situation before walking in. Are there only three or four dogs in the park who look to be playing nicely and getting along? Do you see a dog that you know to be a bully? Is your own dog too amped up to go inside and needs a walk first? Think these things through before you walk into a crowded park.
  8. Do not bring a resource guarder to the dog park. You may have a dog that doesn’t let you or other dogs take or even touch his toys. Until you get this resource guarding sorted out with a trainer, keep your pup away from the park. People often bring toys or balls for their dogs to play with at the park. If your dog steals toys and hoards them, snapping at anyone who comes close, your dog doesn’t belong at the park. Serious fights can break out because of this type of guarding. I’ve seen it and it isn’t pretty.

So can you still have fun at the dog park? Of course. But you have to pay attention to your dog’s signals and know when the situation just isn’t right. Be prepared to walk in and right back out again if the situation isn’t ideal. There’s no shame in that. I’ve walked up to the fence and turned right back around and left because there were too many dogs in the park or the local bully was there terrorizing everyone. Putting your dog at risk for the sake of a little fun is never worth it.