Factors that Predict Success in Dog Behavior Therapy and Training

For some dog owners, the question of how much their dog can learn is a challenging but exciting one. They envision fun possibilities in agility, advanced obedience, therapy dog work, or just the ever-expanding repertoire of fun “parlor tricks”. For these owners, it’s a question of how best to motivate their dog, to set up new and achievable learning challenges, and to put their dog into situations where he or she can earn positive reinforcement for acquiring new skills.

For many of the dog owners who contact board-certified animal or veterinary behaviorists for help, however, the question is posed with less enthusiasm. For those owners whose dog has bitten someone, is fighting with other dogs, destroying property, or driving himself frantic with anxiety, that same question of how much their dog can learn, or how much his or her behavior can be changed, has quite different implications. If no change can be made, some of these owners fear that they are facing dire outcomes, including rehoming or even euthanizing their dog. 

Fortunately, improvements often can be made in even the most severe behavior problem cases. And these troubled owners in fact face the same set of challenges as those training their dogs for fun. Specifically, to ameliorate behavior problems is also a matter of figuring out how best to motivate their dog, how to set up new and achievable learning challenges, and how to put their dog into situations where he or she can earn positive reinforcement for acquiring new skills. The difference is that, rather than teaching a pole weave or a cute roll-over response, we are teaching these troubled dogs how to be calm, confident, and attentive in situations that have provoked problem behavior in the past.

Owners whose dogs have serious behavior problems often have already spent much more money, time, and heartbreak on their dogs than they had expected, so it’s a perfectly reasonable question for them to ask of a pet behavior professional: “Can you fix this?”, “What are my dog’s chances of full recovery?”, or “Can you guarantee improvement in my dog?” Of course, there can never be any guarantee of sustained behavior change in any animal (or human for that matter). Behavior is controlled by many things and is sensitive to ongoing changes in the environment, so guarantees of permanent change should be taken with caution. Instead, to best answer the question of “prognosis”, it’s important to point out those variables that are associated with more or less successful outcomes. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, I will describe some of these factors here:

1) How long has the behavior problem been occurring? Behavior patterns that have been in place over long periods can be more difficult to address than those that have popped up recently, primarily because longer-lasting behavior problems tend to have a more complicated history of producing various consequences and becoming more “entrenched” or habitual over time.

2) How much is the behavior problem related to the dog’s breed or his or her individual genetic or dispositional tendencies? For example, dogs who are genetically prone to fearful or timid responding can take longer to respond to behavioral interventions designed to reduce fear. Or, dogs who are highly visually oriented by breed (e.g., herding breeds) may be inclined to track stimuli in their domestic environment and develop misplaced herding, circling, or repetitive tendencies.

3) How flexible can the family be in changing the way that they train, teach, or interact with their pet? For many families, the owners’ behavior is intimately related to the behavior problem of concern and their behavior must change if the pet’s behavior problem is to be resolved.

4) How much can environmental triggers be managed or controlled? For example, if the dog is barking wildly at the bay window all day and the behavior problem is resolved by closing the curtains, then voila! If the dog, however, is tearing down those curtains to get to the bay windows, then we have a more challenging situation to address.

5) How well does the dog respond to positive reinforcement that can be delivered by the owner? If a dog is highly motivated by consequences we can dole out to him or her, such as toys, treats, or physical affection, we are much better able to guide his or her learning and compete with environmental distractions and triggers.

There are many other, more complicated factors that determine how an individual dog will respond to behavioral intervention. These complex critters bring their own individual learning history to every situation and pet behavior professionals must take into account this individuality in developing a behavior plan that is suitable to the pet and the family. Luckily, there is an impressive arsenal of strategies, supported by a vast scientific literature in animal learning and behavior, that can be applied to help these families and their dogs make positive, sustainable behavior change.



Perfect Pooches in Public Places

My husband and I were out for dinner recently when we noticed a couple next to us on the restaurant patio with their perfectly behaved dog laying at their feet under the table. I commented to my husband that I wished we could bring our dogs out with us like that. He laughed and replied, "Only in your dreams – Finn and Kiwi will never be well-enough behaved for restaurant dining!" I think he’s right, and sometimes I feel like I’m the only dog owner who can’t enjoy her dogs publicly because of their behavior. Am I alone?

Annie W.

Knoxville, TN

Ah, the inevitable comparisons we make when we see wonderfully behaved dogs in public and think of our own dogs at home. We see these “perfect” dogs bounding off-leash around the park with their families, trotting through street fairs by their owner’s side, or, as you observed, in gentle repose at their owners’ feet at an eatery. Our minds flash to our own dogs and bad memories of that time they knocked down the bicyclist, ran into the side of a moving car while chasing a squirrel, barked at that small child, picked a fight with an innocent Pug, or myriad other embarrassing or even dangerous experiences we’ve had. This comparison is natural and common, but I hasten to assure you that you are far from alone, Annie! For every well-behaved dog in public, I would guess there are many more left at home because their behavior would make them unsuitable, disruptive, or just a nuisance to their owners.

Broadly speaking, a dog’s behavior is determined by a combination of his or her genetics, early socialization experiences, lifelong learning, and current environment. Only some of these variables are under our control. In a perfect world, breeders could emphasize and select for desirable behavioral traits. Those interested in purchasing a puppy could research breed characteristics and carefully select the breed or breed mix most likely to match their own lifestyle, and they could ensure that they meet the pups’ parents and find their behavior appealing. Puppy owners could carry out flawless socialization programs over the first 12 months of a pup’s life and continue to implement sound strategies for dog training and behavioral wellness for all the years thereafter. Alas, like your own dogs, Annie, the world is not perfect and these elements rarely come together as described. In fact, many of us own rescued dogs of unknown backgrounds altogether!

Now that we have established you are in good company, Annie, let’s address some strategies for you moving forward. First, you can always teach an old dog new tricks. That is to say, dogs who are neurologically sound are capable of learning and behavior change at any age and after any set of past experiences. However, this is not to say that you can turn your dog into anything you want her to be through training or behavior modification. This is one reason I am always skeptical when a dog trainer or pet behavior professional claims to “guarantee” behavior change results. Because behavior is, by definition, determined by many variables as described above, and because each owner brings his or her own experiences, skills, and expectations to the table, there are no training or behavior modification strategies that can meet every owner’s expectations in every case.

Your best bet is to delineate both short- and long-term goals for your dogs and to begin with some goals that are easily achievable. Beginning with easy tasks allows both you and your dog to be successful and thus reinforces your behavior and hers as you move forward with more challenging exercises. For example, if your long-term goal is to have Finn and Kiwi behaving politely at a dog-friendly restaurant, begin by taking stock of where they already can be polite. For example, are they polite in other public situations? Are they manageable and attentive to you on walks when greeting new people and encountering new things? Or are you in the position many are of walking them at odd hours or not at all to avoid social situations due to their behavior? We must start where Finn and Kiwi show strengths and develop pinpointed goals for moving forward from there. Signing on to a behavior modification or dog training program is like joining a gym – the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. And let there be no doubt that it will take time, repetition, persistence, and patience, and often the guidance and coaching of a qualified trainer or pet behavior professional.  

Assuming you agree to begin a behavior plan for your dogs, how will you know how far you can get with them or how much work it will take? Certainly, some of these “perfect pooches” you see behave as they do through extensive training by their owners while others were just naturally easy, attentive, relaxed, and social from the outset. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of one-time assessment tools that can predict with precision a dog’s response to behavior therapy or training over extended periods of time. In next month’s column, I will review some of the factors correlated with a successful outcome for dogs in behavior therapy and those associated with failures to progress. For now, Annie, enjoy Finn and Kiwi for everything they bring to your home, consider signing up for work with a qualified pet behavior professional, and enjoy those dog-free date nights with your husband!    



Frogger the Food Guarder

Frogger was a sleek and energetic German Shepherd puppy. His case exemplifies many food guarding cases I have seen so I will use his story to bring to light some of the causes of, and intervention options for, food guarding in dogs.

Frogger was purchased from a breeder by a young couple who had little experience with dogs. When they put Frogger’s food bowl down on their first night home, Frogger ate voraciously, gulping the food in seconds and sliding the bowl frantically across the floor as he did so. He was not underweight and had eaten just hours before at the breeder’s house so Jack and Sara were surprised to see Frogger eat this way. In fact, many puppies eat very rapidly, especially when they have been raised and fed with littermates. Social competition over food, even when food is plentiful, leads puppies to eat more food overall and more rapidly when eating with other puppies.

Jack and Sara had heard that they should make sure their puppy allowed them to “mess with its food” and that they should prevent food guarding by showing the puppy that “they were in charge” of his food. Without being completely sure what this meant, they set out on a well-intentioned but misguided plan of making Frogger step away from his food so that they could put their hand in his bowl and take it. They would offer Frogger his food and let him start eating. Then they would march over to the bowl and command “Leave It!” as they reached in and placed their hand over the kibble or picked up the bowl. At first Frogger tried to eat around their hand or push his head deeper into the bowl and the owners scolded him. Over several weeks, Frogger began to stiffen and growl as soon as he heard the “Leave It” command and saw them approaching his bowl. Jack and Sara incorrectly assumed he was being more dominant and thus needed more punishment so they began to reprimand him loudly and remove his bowl for longer periods. After two months, Frogger bit Sara when she approached to take his food. He retreated into a corner and snapped at Jack when he came to reprimand and try to take Frogger by the collar. The owners were completely distraught by Frogger’s behavior and called me in to assist them.

When I met Frogger and observed a meal, I saw how tense he was throughout, even when we were across the room. His body and neck were stiff, his head lowered over the food with frequent furtive glances over the side of the bowl. His tail was low and stiff, with some puffiness in his fur at its base. Its tip quickened into a nervous wag when we moved or talked to him. At this point, any approach within several feet triggered growling and continued approach triggered snarling with teeth exposed, all while Frogger continued eating at breakneck speed.

After conducting a behavioral assessment, I reviewed with the owners where things may have gone wrong. While it is important to prevent food guarding in our dogs, we must go about it in a different way. Jack and Sara had tackled the problem with a “do it or else” mentality. That is, they expected Frogger to give up his food as they stole it from him, without arranging positive consequences for Frogger when they did so. This notion that our dogs should automatically do what we say simply because we are “in charge” reflects a widespread and persistent misunderstanding of dog behavior.  What is missing from this notion is a fundamental feature of learning: behavior that produces no positive consequences will not persist while behavior that provides positive reinforcement will be strengthened. Frogger learned quickly that when he allowed Sara and Jack to take his food, he lost access to it, which was unpleasant. They praised him but this was no match for the rewarding effect of keeping his meal. When he began to use aggression, Sara and Jack backed off, at least momentarily, and Frogger kept his food a little longer. Sara and Jack had in fact strengthened the precise behavior they were hoping to prevent!


Our goal in the treatment of Frogger’s food guarding was to teach him that the BEST thing that could happen while he was eating was for Sara and Jack to approach him and ultimately to reach for his bowl! We started at Frogger’s current level of tolerance. From about 10 feet away, Frogger ate with few signs of tension and no aggression. From this distance, I had Sara and Jack take turns calling Frogger’s name about once a minute while he ate. (We moved Frogger to a slow-eating bowl to prevent his wolfing down his food and allow us more training repetitions per meal.) When Frogger looked in our direction, they tossed him a piece of chicken breast from across the room. Soon, Frogger was looking up each time he heard his name.

In addition to a look in our direction, I wanted to see that Frogger began showing signs of relaxation and happy anticipation. I was monitoring for reduced body and facial tension, softer eyes, and more relaxed tail swishes. When he was showing these signs reliably, we moved one foot closer and practiced again. Over two weeks, I had the owners move in after repetitions at each distance and after teaching them the signs of relaxation and happy anticipation to look for. When the owners could stand right next to Frogger while he ate, they began hand delivering the chicken when he looked up at them.  I then had the owners crouch down next to him, then sit on the floor next to him, while practicing the training protocol. Finally, we taught Frogger to look to his owners as they placed a hand on his bowl or even picked it up.

Importantly, we were able to accomplish this process in stages such that aggression was not triggered throughout. We concluded the intervention by moving to an intermittent reward schedule, which meant that they continued the exercises on a maintenance level (less frequently per meal and then not at every meal) and ultimately with chicken delivered only occasionally while praise and petting served as ongoing rewards for Frogger’s successfully looking away from his food bowl on cue.  

Coco is Crazy in the Car!

Coco was a Standard Poodle I worked with several years ago. Spunky yet regal, Coco was a delight to her owners. She had excelled in her basic obedience class and was responsive in the home and community on a variety of commands. She was friendly with strangers and dogs alike and enjoyed the attention of the many people who couldn’t help but be drawn to meet her.   

All of Coco’s calm and composure, however, went flying out the window as soon as she got into the car. Coco’s owners were active and wanted to share outings with Coco – to the park, friends’ houses, the pet store, the woods. Coco loved all of these outings as well, perhaps a little too much! As soon as she heard her owners’ car keys jingling, Coco began prancing like a stallion. By the time they were headed out the front door, she was whining and sprinting toward the car. Once she hopped in and they were headed down the driveway, things reached a fever pitch that was maintained all the way to their destination. Coco would fly from one side of the back seat to another, whimpering, yipping, pacing, and spinning like a whirling dervish. Once she arrived at her destination, she continued with some excitement for a few minutes but then quickly settled into her more typical calm self. The ride home was always a bit easier, because Coco was usually tired from her day’s activities and she would sit or stand in the backseat “without all of the histrionics”, as her owners put it.

Coco’s owners had tried to calm her by talking to her, putting baby blinds on the windows, and reprimanding her, all to no avail. They were finding themselves reluctant to take her with them because her behavior was so disrupting and distracting while they were driving.

To address Coco’s car antics, we began with the beginning and the end of the sequence. Because Coco so enjoyed her outings, it was clear that the arrival at the destination was rewarding the behavior that preceded it. If Coco was wild and spinning when she reached the woods, the wild spinning behavior was reinforced. So we worked first on teaching and rewarding calm, quiet behavior in the car before Coco was allowed to hop out at her destination. We built on Coco’s already solid response to obedience cues and her owners began to ask for a Sit/Stay in the back seat before they allowed Coco to hop out. We brought treats out as a reward for this over the first two or three outings but quickly Coco was responding reliably and we were able to reward her by simply starting her walk (that is, jumping out of the car was rewarding enough.)

On the way from the house to the car, we had Coco follow a Heel cue. She had already been taught to target her owner’s hand in exchange for praise and treats in her obedience class, so we cued this Heel all the way to the car, required a short Sit/Stay before she hopped in, and then asked for a Sit/Stay before we closed the door and climbed into the front seat.

Dog training while driving is like doing your taxes while skiing, so I had one of the owners climb into the back seat with Coco initially while the other owner drove. In this way, the training owner blocked one half of the back seat, preventing Coco from easily spinning end to end, and also was there to cue some Sit/Stays. Here, treats were required to reward the behavior and maintain her focus. The competing excitement of passing sights and sounds was too distracting for Coco to focus for praise and petting alone. Over time we built longer Sit/Stays until the owners could drive for up to 30 minutes with Coco earning a treat about once every five minutes for sitting calmly in the back seat.

I then had the training owner move into the front seat, but position himself such that he could continue to cue Coco’s now blossoming Sit/Stay response in the back seat. She was unable to perform a Sit/Stay for him when he had tried this in the past but because we had taken the time to build her response first with him in the back seat to facilitate it, Coco was now better able to stay in her Sit for longer periods even while alone in the back seat. Within three months, Coco’s owners could drive to all of their local destinations with Coco much more calm and controlled in the car. For longer drives, they brought a special marrow bone she never got otherwise, and this held her attention for up to 45 minutes at a time without any intervention on their part. Happily, Coco could now fully share in her family’s activities without being a driving distraction!



Dogs from Animal Hoarding Homes: The Case of Bella, Part 2

Last month we met Bella, the Golden Retriever who’d been adopted from an animal hoarding home and was exhibiting fearful behavior, unable to enjoy many of the situations associated with living in a home with new people. I introduced readers to my Five P’s – five areas of intervention I recommend to owners working to address the fearful behavior of dogs who lack prior socialization. I’ll go through each of these now, elaborating on how they work and how they were used in the case of Bella.

1)      Provide a stable environment. Like humans, many animals thrive in environments in which they can predict events happening around them. In nature, animals must learn where food sources are, when food is available, and when danger is near. The more consistent and predictable the environment is, the better animals can obtain basic needs and avoid danger successfully. Dogs too, especially those who are fearful and undersocialized, benefit greatly when their world is fairly predictable and when they are treated consistently over time.

In Bella’s case, I instructed her owners to keep mealtimes and training times fairly consistent. I taught them to use consistent verbal cues such as “Hi Bella!” to announce their approach and their intentions to interact with Bella. Bella learned to respond to these cues positively, wagging her tail and peeking across the room when she heard family members call her name and talk to her. I also instructed owners to keep visitors to a minimum at first and to avoid major changes to routines when possible, so that Bella could adjust to the basic rhythms of her new household.  

2)      Pinpoint goals for gradual socialization. To bring a dog from a chronically fearful state to one that allows her to play freely, explore her world confidently, and meet new situations with ease requires many steps. Often, we push dogs too quickly into situations for which they are not quite ready and this risks making the fear and anxiety worse. Instead, we must utilize systematic desensitization.

To do this with Bella, we created a list of situations the owners hoped she would learn to tolerate well. These included going for walks on leash, allowing everyone in the family to pet her without shying away, and moving comfortably into the back yard for toileting. We then broke each of these tasks into components and created a hierarchy from least to most fear-producing. For example, with the goal of going for a walk, we had to a) introduce a leash and harness, b) teach her to tolerate pressure from the leash without balking, c) teach her to walk on leash in the house and yard, and d) teach her to walk in the neighborhood amid a gradually increasing number of stimuli (people, vehicles, etc.) Each of these components required its own training, and Bella’s progress across components depended on her ability to exhibit relaxed behavior at each prior step.

3)      Positively reinforce calm or confident behavior. To produce relaxed behavior in a fearful dog, we must use positive reinforcement to reward specific responses. Dogs respond to different rewards, and for many fearful dogs a food reward is more effective than praise or toy play at first. Specifically, because many of these dogs are too inhibited to play freely and may not be used to different styles of contact from people, food rewards such as bits of chicken breast can produce the most rapid improvement in behavior. Over time, the verbal praise and affection from owners become increasingly rewarding as well and these can soon be incorporated into a program designed to reward confident, calm, or curious behavior.

In the case of Bella, we worked first to reward her whenever she looked at her owners (rather than looking away fearfully) and then whenever she left her dog bed. Owners paired a soft “Good girl!” cue with delivery of a tiny piece of lunch meat. When we saw she was happily gulping down any bite offered, owners began to keep an eye on her as they moved through the house and to say “Good girl!” and toss her an edible reward whenever they saw her looking up at them and later, when they saw her stand or move off of her dog bed. Over time, Bella began to follow her new owners, first with her eyes and then with her body, until she was easily moving through the home and gazing softly into her owners’ faces without fear.

4)      Pursue pharmacological intervention as appropriate. There are several classes of pharmaceuticals that can be used to reduce fearful and anxious behavior in dogs when used in combination with a behavior modification plan and environmental supports. Typically, the goal is to use the medication to allow the animal to respond most efficiently and fully to behavior therapy and then to reduce or remove reliance on medication over time and as long as behavioral gains are sustained.

Many dogs like Bella respond well to serotonin-enhancing medications and these drugs have received much positive attention among veterinary behaviorists in recent years.

5)      Practice patience, patience, patience! Behavior in all its varieties takes time to change. This is rarely more obvious than in the cases of dogs who were not socialized appropriately as pups. These dogs can take months, and even years, to come out of their shells and exhibit the full range of normal canine social behavior. Moreover, time alone will not do the trick in many cases. Instead, that time must be structured with gradual exposure, consistent communication, and plenty of positive reinforcement for sometimes very small steps. All of this can be understandably trying for even the most devoted of dog owners.

In the case of Bella, it was 4 weeks before she ate in the kitchen on her own, 6 weeks before she moved freely into the back yard, 12 weeks before she reliably came when called from anywhere in the house, and over 9 months before the owners reported they could walk her comfortably through the neighborhood without her startling at passing vehicles or shying away from approaching strangers. Bella was lucky because her owners were patient, persistent, and sought the professional help that they needed. And Bella’s owners were lucky in turn, because they ended up with many happy years with a wonderful canine companion.  

Dogs From Animal Hoarding Home: The Case of Bella, Part 1

As I walked into the living room, my client beckoned me to take a seat and then gestured gently toward the corner of the room. There beside the armchair I saw a large comfy dog bed and some stuffed toys and bones laying neatly beside it. “She won’t touch any of those,” the owner commented as my eyes fell upon the 18-month-old Golden Retriever mix flattened down low and still as a statue in the middle of the dog bed. Bella did not look at me or her new owner, instead keeping her gaze averted, her ears pinned back and her shoulders turned slightly away from us. “She won’t play,” the owner continued, “and she won’t eat or drink unless I hold the bowl under her nose. I have to carry her outside and then she simply drops onto the ground, pottying where she is and cowering the whole time. When we pet her, she shakes and looks away from us. My wife and I want to give this dog everything we can and our hearts are breaking to see how scared she is even after several weeks in our home.”

My clients had adopted Bella through a local shelter after she and 15 other dogs were seized from an animal hoarding home. Animal control officers suspected that Bella had been born into that home among many other litters and had lived with a single female owner who had provided no medical care or socialization. Bella’s reaction to her new home is sadly representative of many dogs born into or raised for long periods of time in animal hoarding situations. While some of these rescues rebound quite well and show resilience and quick recovery in their new home, others remain fearful over the first weeks and even months in their new environment.

Animal hoarding occurs when animals are kept in numbers that exceed their owners’ ability to provide for their basic needs, resulting in decreases to the animals’ well-being and quality of life. Although no single description accounts for every animal hoarding situation, assessments of animal hoarding cases typically show that animals are kept in unsanitary and crowded conditions, often forced to compete for limited access to food and provided with little to no medical care, training or socialization. These conditions can represent significant sources of neglect and chronic stress for dogs and can have long-lasting impacts on their behavior. A recent survey study1 compared the behavior of dogs adopted from hoarding situations with a control group of pet dogs not from hoarding situations and found that formerly hoarded dogs displayed higher levels of fear in response to people, dogs, and novel stimuli. This finding mirrors my own experiences and those of my colleagues who are regularly called in to address fearful behavior that can range from startling responses to noise, ducking away from touch, or mild submissive urination through to the near-complete shutdown of all movement as in the case of Bella.

Puppies pass through important stages of social development during their first months of life and a lack of socialization during some of these sensitive periods can have long-lasting impacts on dogs’ behavior later. For example, if dogs are not exposed to human touch or handling during their first months of life, they tend to be more fearful, aggressive, or resistant to human bonding as adults. The animal hoarder may be so overwhelmed by the number of animals or other factors in his or her life that no individual attention can be paid to puppies in the home. These puppies may not be let outdoors, let alone taken into public places for socialization and exposure to new sights, sounds, and smells. The removal of the dogs itself can be stressful when they are seized, transported, and relocated to the shelter, foster homes, or other holding locations and then into the adoptive home. These factors, combined with any medical conditions such dogs may be experiencing, can test the limits of many dogs’ abilities to remain relaxed, confident, and comfortable.

So what is the adoptive owner of such a dog to do? I have organized a grouping of five general areas of intervention – The Five P’s - that can be put into place for dogs who are exhibiting fearful behavior in their new home. Owners must 1) Provide a stable environment, 2) Pinpoint goals for gradual socialization, 3) Positively reinforce calm or confident behavior, 4) Pursue pharmacological intervention as appropriate, and 5) Practice patience, patience, patience! While each of these goals come along with some challenges, they can be well worth their effort in facilitating the behavior therapy and rehabilitation of formerly hoarded dogs. In next month’s blog post, I will return to the case of Bella and each of these intervention options to describe how they are used in more detail.




Walking Nightmares can Become a Treat!

As spring blossoms, we all feel the urge to get outside and make use of the warm days and sunny skies. How better to share in the joy of spring than with your canine companion on a walk with you! Yet, for some people, walks with their dog are more of a nightmare than a daydream. Many dogs are reactive to passing people while they are on walks. An otherwise pleasant jaunt is quickly ruined when your dog is pulling and lunging at the end of a leash or barking and growling when people pass by. I’ve had countless owners report that they either no longer walk their dogs at all or sneak out at odd hours to avoid other people (or other dogs or vehicles, as these can cause similar reactivity in many dogs.)  

 To change this behavior successfully, you must teach your dog an alternative, more acceptable behavior for her to engage in when she sees people on walks. Begin working with her on leash in the neighborhood at times without heavy foot traffic at first. Bring along some highly valuable rewards. For many dogs, tiny bits of chicken, hot dog, or liver treats will do the trick. First, teach her to look up at you when you say her name. Say her name in a happy, upbeat voice and hold a treat up by your face. She should look up at you, and you should praise and treat as soon as she does. If she does this reliably (8 out of 10 times) when no one is around, try bringing her into view of a person at a great distance (e.g., at the end of the block). You may need the assistance of a volunteer. As soon as the person appears on the horizon, use her name as a command which really just means “Look at me”, and reward her with praise and treat when she looks up at your treat-bearing hand.

If she looks at you in response to her name over several repetitions like this, move her a few steps closer to the person and repeat, praising and treating each time she looks up at your face and hand when she hears her name. Your goal is to provide her with lots of practice on this basic response first at a distance from people where she is successful at least 8 out of 10 times. If you reach a point where she is no longer able to look at you and instead becomes focused on the other person, you have moved too close for her skill level, and you should move her back a bit to provide more practice at a distance where she can be successful 80% of the time.

If she successfully looks at you when people are moving about at a relatively short distance (e.g., the width of a street), you can begin asking her to target your hand with the treat in it as you walk past people. Say her name merrily as you have before and when she looks at you, bring the treat hand down to her nose and keep it by your side as you walk with her. While her nose is busy poking at your hand to get the treat, deliver it with praise just as you pass the person across the street and continue walking. Then turn around and try passing the person again, using the treat in your hand to keep her nose focused on your hand rather than the passerby. Practice this with a volunteer who can stand casually or walk past you on the opposite side of the street multiple times, so that you and your dog can get practice.

To use this skill on everyday walks, combine the skills of having her look up at your face when you first see a person and having her target your hand as you pass the person. When she can pass people across the street at least 80% of the time with her nose toward your hand, begin to decrease the distance even further (e.g., passing along the same sidewalk, allowing just a few feet between you and the passerby). Once she can reliably focus on you at this stage, you are ready to begin fading out the use of treats by continuing to provide the hand prompt and her name as a cue each time, but delivering the treat only intermittently (e.g., 75% of the time rather than 100% of the time) as you pass.

In doing this, you are teaching your dog, first, that the appearance of other people predicts positive things for her (praise from you and the delivery of yummy treats) and, therefore, that people on walks are something to look forward to rather than to become threatened by. Second, you are teaching her that she earns these rewards through good behavior – in this case, by focusing on your face or hand rather than on the person passing.

If your dog continues to respond aggressively during these training exercises, you should contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or board-certified veterinary behaviorist for further individualized assistance. 

Click Your Way to Good Behavior!

Clicker Training 101

 Clicker training has become an increasingly popular technique in pet training. The behavioral laws that support the effectiveness of clicker training have always governed the way animals interact with their environment but the widespread use of a handheld clicker to make training our dogs and cats more efficient and effective has really captured the public interest over the last decade or so.

 The clicker is a small box containing a metal lip that makes a clicking sound when pressed. Some clickers today are sold with wristbands attached so that they are always handily available. Others have modernized designs but the key feature is simply that the device make a clear, distinct noise when pressed. (Some trainers even prefer to use a clicking pen or bottle cap to the same effect.)

 The sound means nothing to most animals when they first hear it. We must teach them that the click sound predicts the delivery of food or other rewards for a job well done. When we have a clear way to “mark” good behavior – that is, to tell our dog, for example, that we like the behavior he just performed and now he will earn a reward, or reinforcer, for it – we have opened up a line of communication that is highly effective in a variety of training situations.

 To transform the click from a neutral, meaningless sound to a positive, communicative one, we begin by associating it with food. Get a pocketful of tiny, high-value treats. Click the clicker and immediately provide a treat from your other hand. Wait 10 seconds and repeat. Provide about 20 click-treat pairings in this way. Then repeat from a different room or chair of your home. Over the next several days, provide several sessions a day like this, in various locations in and outside your home. 

Throughout this initial training, you must remember to provide a treat EVERY TIME you click the clicker, and to always click BEFORE you treat. You also must provide the treat IMMEDIATELY after you click. In this way, the clicker soon becomes a conditioned reinforcer, meaning it will reward whatever the dog is doing the moment he hears the clicker.

 Some reinforcers are called primary reinforcers – these are things that animals work for because they are biologically prepared to find those things appealing or satisfying. For example, food and water serve as reinforcers for all animals because these things are necessary for survival. If animals were not motivated to obtain food and water, they would not last very long and would not have survived to produce offspring. Other reinforcers are learned within our lifetime. For example, money means nothing to a baby. Yet soon we all learn to work in exchange for money because we learn that money provides us access to other things, including primary reinforcers like food, water, and shelter. At that point, money has become what’s called a conditioned reinforcer. In the same way, we teach our dogs in clicker training that the click promises access to food, and thus the click becomes a reinforcer in itself, rewarding whichever behavior produced it.

Praise also works as a conditioned reinforcer with many dogs. Yet praise can be less useful than a clicker in training for several reasons. First, we talk to our dogs all the time, both when we are happy and when we are angry with them. We may talk to them before we provide positive things (like treats or belly rubs) but we also talk to them before providing negative things (like nail clipping or leaving them home alone). In this way, our dogs have learned that our words can mean many things, both good and bad. The clicker, on the other hand, is used in only one specific way and thus is less ambiguous. Second, the click stands out more distinctly from ambient noise in the environment than does our voice. Because it is a short, crisp noise, it easily garners a dog’s attention against the din of other noises that may be present in any given training context. Its short and distinct quality also makes it ideal for marking and rewarding responses that occur very quickly in time. Good timing is essential in all areas of dog training and behavior modification and the clicker can mark a behavior more precisely than praise or even a one-word human utterance such as “Good!” Third, the clicker sounds the same every single time – although some owners/trainers are very good at using a verbal praise word in the same way every time, for other owners this can be difficult to do. The clicker is a highly consistent stimulus from one use to the next.

 For more information about clicker training, visit www.clickertraining.com






The Teachable Cat

Many pet owners are surprised to hear that their cats can learn new behavior in a manner similar to the way that dogs learn. The common stereotype is that cats are independent, stoic, and comically unimpressed with our attempts to train them. While it is quite true that cats and dogs have their own distinct species-specific sets of behavior, there are also distinct commonalities in how dogs and cats learn and thus how we can teach and train them.

Both dogs and cats respond to positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when an animal’s behavior produces a desirable consequence and thus begins to happen more often. For example, a cat may come into the kitchen and meow, causing the owner to serve the cat his food. If this happens repeatedly, the cat may continue meowing for his dinner in the future.

In some cases, we unintentionally reinforce our pets’ unwanted behavior. For example, I’ve had many clients who are in a real pickle by the time they call me to describe how their cats persistently wake them in the middle of the night. The cat will jump into the bed, meow, walk over them, and even bat them in the face. When I ask owners how they have responded to this, they sometimes explain that they will wake up and feed the cat. Eventually feeding the cat becomes the only way to make the night-time harassment end. Now the cat and the owner have entered into a vicious reinforcement cycle – the cat’s pestering behavior is rewarded with a nighttime snack and the owner’s snack-giving is rewarded by being able to get back to sleep!

In other cases, we use positive reinforcement intentionally to teach a cat a trick or to strengthen other desirable behavior. Owners may use a cat treat or pinch of tuna as a lure by holding it just over a cat’s nose and moving it slowly over the cat’s head until the cat sits, at which point the owner can praise and deliver the bite to reward the Sit. When this starts happening reliably, the owner might put the behavior on cue by saying “Sit” just before the cat’s rear end hits the floor. Soon, the owner can raise an empty hand in a Sit gestural cue, say “Sit”, and then praise and treat the cat, who has now learned how to sit on command. This process is accomplished in the same way many dogs are taught to sit. Cats can learn all sorts of parlor tricks using positive reinforcement. In fact, cats used in commercials and movies are taught using positive reinforcement in the form of treats, often with the added help of a clicker to mark and reward desired behavior. (A discussion of the use of the clicker in animal training will come next month.)

The most common behavior problems I am called in to address in cats are aggression (between cats or toward people), house soiling, fearful behavior, and obsessive behavior. In almost all of these cases, there are new responses we must teach to replace the problem behavior. Here again, we use positive reinforcement in a manner identical to that which we use with dogs. For example, if an owner is being ambushed by his cat, who hides under a cabinet and leaps out to bite his ankles, I instruct the owner to reinforce a new behavior in place of the ankle biting. I might have the owner toss a cat toy ahead of himself as he walks through the hallway, so that the cat’s pouncing is targeted onto the toy instead. To address the night-time harassment described earlier, I might first have the owner wake by alarm to feed the cat earlier in the night, before any pestering has begun, so that quiet behavior is rewarded with a snack. Over nights, I would have the owner wake earlier and earlier until the owner is providing that bed-time snack conveniently before he goes to bed.

There are many ways in which cats and dogs differ. They have different social structures, they respond to different types of consequences, they alert to different stimuli in their environment, and they respond to the world with different forms of behavior. Yet there are some common laws of learning, such as the way by which positive reinforcement works, that apply across species and allow us to teach and train our cats and dogs using some similar processes and tactics. 

New Beginnings

With the dawn of a new year often comes the embrace of new personal or professional goals and an extra dose of determination, so it may be helpful to seize this time and apply some of this New Year’s resolve to start or refocus on some strategies for training and raising your pet to the best of your ability and in line with the best available science and practice. Last month, I reviewed some important beginning tips for raising a puppy. This month, I follow up with a training and rearing strategy that is important throughout the lifetime of your relationship with your pet.

The “Nothing in Life is Free” program, also referred to as No Free Lunch or integrated compliance training, has been a well-loved and oft-recommended strategy of dog trainers and animal behaviorists for decades. The science and philosophy behind this tactic are straightforward: by requiring your dog (and even your cat!) to Sit for privileges throughout the day, you are finding opportunities to reward this calm, deferential, and attentive response using natural positive consequences such as being let outside, having the food bowl put down, or throwing the ball or cat toy. In the same way that parents require their toddlers to say Please or to ask for things without whining, pet owners can require their pets to “ask politely” by sitting for access to those things that they love and that we deliver.    

Many owners find that it’s relatively straightforward to teach their dog (again, and even their cat!) to sit for a treat initially. Many basic obedience or puppy kindergarten classes can be a great help in this regard if your dog doesn’t yet know how to sit. Board certified animal behaviorists recommend the use of positive reinforcement to teach this response, so be sure to find a dog trainer who systematically embraces the use of food treats, joyful praise, and toy play as rewards in obedience training. Once your pet knows how to Sit for a treat, you should begin practicing in those natural contexts in which you would ultimately like her to Sit for other rewards. For example, get her dinner ready in her bowl and place it on the counter next to you. Bring out your training treat and have her Sit for the treat, using the same style and cues you have been using in your treat-based obedience training. When she sits, immediately praise her and put her food bowl down in front of her so that you are transferring from the treat as reward to the food bowl as reward. Similarly, when you are about to open the door for a walk or to let her into the yard, have her Sit with treat in hand at first, luring her as you initially learned in puppy kindergarten, then praise and open the door as the natural reward for sitting in that context.

This tactic of having a dog sit before being let outside highlights the common misunderstanding that dogs who walk outside ahead of their owners will become dominant or aggressive. There is no evidence to suggest this is the case. Instead, it’s important to have your dog sit before being let outside so that you are rewarding calm behavior rather than hyper or reactive behavior by letting a dog barrel out into the world with abandon. In the same way that you would teach your child to look to you (or at least carefully look both ways) before running into a street, it’s safer and demonstrates responsible leadership to ask your dog to look to you and then to sit or stand calmly and politely in order to be let outside. Especially for dogs who are aggressive on leash toward other dogs, people, or small animals, rewarding calm behavior before the walk has even begun is an essential first step.

Similarly, studies have clearly shown that toy-tugging with your dog does not create dominance aggression, but having your dog sit before tugging or for his ball throw is a great way to use a behavior your dog loves - playing with toys - as a natural reward for behavior you love - being calm and being a good listener. By using natural positive events and items in your pet’s life as rewards for gentle, calm, and attentive behavior, you are setting you and your dog or cat up for behavioral success in the new year and beyond.

(If you’re still not so sure your cat could learn like your dog can, read next month’s column on this very topic!)