Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Collaboration in Dog Training

"What sets you apart from the competition?"

It's a question I've been asked numerous times, minimally veiled, and it's one I'm rather uncomfortable answering.

Because the only competition I have is from trainers who put something before you and your dog: ego, money, or even blind adherence to a "philosophy" that shuts down dialogue instead of remaining open to constructive discourse.

Simply put, my competition is your failure because I define my success as an improvement in a dog family's overall quality of life, resulting from increased understanding and mutual respect between your dog and all family members. That means picking the best service, at the most convenient location, at a feasible time...for each and every one of your specific dog training or enrichment needs. If that's ME for every single one of your dog-related activities, then stop reading this and just give me a ring, Mum.

So what makes me who I am as a dog trainer?

I listen. I strive to understand your current thought process, as well as your dog's. I distill what I hear to determine your primary, feasible goals and discuss with you a plan of action, carefully considering all available services, including collaboration or direct referral. This is not what makes me "different". This is the approach that allows all of us to bring you so much more than one person's expert opinion. This is how we leverage the massive knowledge base of generations of progressive, collaborative, ethical dog training providers and scholars.

This is what sets us apart from the competition.
Sunday, July 2, 2017

Four tips for the Fourth of July

This annual celebration of freedom is, unfortunately, the day when most pets go missing. Here are four quick tips you can take to ensure your dog's safety and comfort.

Dog relaxes in muffled crate with music playing and a bully stick tripe KONG Extreme dog toy.

1. Safety First: Secure Your Pets

Make sure that your pet is indoors and secured before opening any exterior door, even to take a peek outside. This can be in the pet's bedroom or in a crate or kennel. Be mindful of open windows, and definitely don't trust your backyard fence or your drunk best friend to contain your dog, no matter how trustworthy they normally are.

2. Muffle with Music

In addition to covering your dog's crate with a sound-dampening moving blanket or acoustic foam, leave the television, radio, or a music track running on a loop so that the blasts aren't as prominent. Tchaikovsky's famous 1812 overture is a favourite around here because it includes volume and texture changes (including cannons) and is heard enough throughout the year that we can be certain it won't provide any startling of its own. Start playing the music while nothing else is going on (i.e. not immediately before or after crating your dog).

3. Freedom Festivity Foods

Pair the festivities with the long-lasting treats your dog loves best. Decrease the difficulty level from what your dog will normally tackle, and consider providing a variety, especially if your dog will be alone for awhile. Some of our favourites:
  • Extra thick, braided bully sticks
  • Frozen KONG toys filled with peanut butter, canned or fresh tripe, tinned sardines, and something stinky sticking out (e.g. bully stick, tripe stick, dehydrated chicken foot)
  • Dinner in puzzle toys or a snuffle mat
  • Himalayan Yak Chews
  • A new Tuffy or other soft toy to destroy

4. The Vet Knows Best

Dogs with genuine anxiety or fear of fireworks may go into a state of panic no matter how pleasant and protected you try to make the environment. Talk to your vet about medication options, as well as a long-term treatment plan to reduce anxiety for subsequent years.
Thursday, February 2, 2017

Closing the Economy on Food

A shelter dog learns to relax in a home environment with the aid of a meal toy.
Motivation is the key to positive reinforcement based training, and finding your dog's can be a real challenge in some cases. But in every healthy animal, the need to seek food is a primal driving force that we can harness as a currency. Many dogs are bottomless pits, literally eating themselves to discomfort and even danger when afforded the opportunity, but others simply stop when they're full. These dogs don't want more food, they want enough food, and that's actually a blessing for those of us forgetful enough to leave dangerous amounts of food out. These are the dogs we'll be talking about in this post, those frequently labeled "non food motivated" and considered potential candidates for aversion-based training.

When NOT to Close the Economy

I recently worked with a shiba inu who was a classic example of a dog who was not ready to have the economy closed on food. Originally purchased from a pet store and already of a primitive breed, Makkuro was fearful in new situations, particularly without her family. Her first time away from home was not the appropriate time to close the economy on food. She would simply refuse to eat out of anxiety, even with no demands placed on her, so this was a time to simply let her adjust, come out of her shell, and eat whenever she felt safe enough to do so.

It is important to note that we absolutely did not consider using aversive tools to take advantage of the dog's desire for safety. My goal was to help my friends in their journey toward a happy, mentally healthy dog before making obedience a priority, rather than establish the illusion of control prematurely at the expense of the dog's well-being. Makkuro has since blossomed into a prime candidate for a learn to earn programme in which every morsel of food is viewed as an opportunity for reinforcement.

Working for Food is Natural Canine Behaviour

Our dogs arrive pre-programmed to work for their food, and this primal need doesn't vanish with the twice daily magical appearance of food in their dishes. Just ask anyone who has had an energetic adolescent puppy take it upon herself to redecorate while home alone! Most dogs enjoy keeping busy and winning prizes - if they didn't, then their ancestors wouldn't have lived long enough to create them! Giving dogs simple jobs, from puzzle feeders to obedience tasks, is a healthy, constructive way to fulfill their desire to work for their food.

How Much is Enough?

I've had several students express concern that their dogs don't eat the recommended amount of food and therefore should not have their intake limited. However, every dog whose owner has said this to me has had a body condition score in the overweight category: most dogs simply don't need to eat as much as what the bag says. The bottom line is that a healthy dog, who isn't too terrified or excited to eat, will not starve himself if regularly offered the chance to perform easy work, for the exact same amount of food he's been getting.

In the case where the dog is essentially being free-fed, with food left out all day for her to nibble at until she's done, your dog is probably eating too much and very difficult to motivate with food. Try putting the food down for 10 minutes twice a day, and measure how much she actually eats. If she's not losing weight to an unhealthy degree, then this is probably how much she should be eating.

View every Morsel as an Opportunity for Reinforcement

Every time you give your dog free food, you've wasted an opportunity to help your dog learn to love coming when called, walking nicely on a leash, or otherwise engaging his mind. If you don't have time for a training session, then simply put his food into a puzzle feeder instead of a dish.

Steps to Closing the Economy

  1. If your dog is nibbling throughout the day, move to scheduled feedings, 10 minutes apiece.
  2. If you are spiking your dog's food, then stop. If your dog consistently eats other types of similar food but rejects her own for days, then it's possible that you have essentially trained your dog to avoid her food. In this case, consider switching foods to one she likes, but don't ever spike it.
  3. Once your dog is eating regularly from her dish, begin putting it into feeding toys. The easiest way to start is by filling a KONG with nothing but dry kibble. She'll be immediately rewarded just for interacting with the toy at all.
  4. Once your dog is cleaning out each easy KONG at almost every mealtime, she's ready to start working with you for her regular food. Go back to basics, asking for very easy behaviours with a very high rate of repetition:
    • Attention games: click when she looks at you, drop a single kibble in front of her or throw it for her to chase, and repeat as she will look back at you for more.
    • Ping pong recalls: call the dog between family members who each hold a portion of her meal.
    • Scatter recalls: a similar recall game for only one person, scatter a handful of kibble, hide, call her as she's finishing the kibble, scatter more kibble as her reward, and repeat.
  5. Now that your dog is used to working for her regular food inside the home, you're ready to reinforce manners in your everyday walks and outings. Play the same games on a long line outside, using diced ham, liver, dog food rolls, FreshPet refrigerated dog food, air-dried ZiwiPeak dog food, or other highly appetizing bite-sized morsels.
  6. As your dog becomes eager to work both inside the home and in public, you can begin to cut back from reinforcing every behaviour, to approximately every other, and so on, and you'll also be able to switch from high-value foods to other types of rewards, such as toys, engagement with you, and lower-value foods.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Partially Automated Place Training

When you think about volunteering with shelter dogs, you probably envision strolling along a scenic boulevard or throwing a ball in a fenced field. At Paws4ever, the shelter dogs do enjoy regular walks on 2+ miles of wooded trails and three spacious playing fields, in addition to advanced obedience and sports training. However, it's just as crucial for kenneled dogs to learn to relax in a home living environment, so staff and volunteers utilise the Home Space room to practise place training with the dogs.

The place behaviour is a simple one, yet tedious to teach. The dog is first taught, via luring or shaping, to lie down on a bed or in a crate. Once the dog has a basic idea of going to place on cue, we gradually build duration, distance, and distraction, singly and in that order. This is where things get tedious, and where the Poor Man's Pet Tutor App is able to partially automate the process, freeing up the (human) trainer to actually do another activity, such as read or use a computer, while loosely supervising. For the technically inclined, here's the Git.

Before the video, I manually spend 5 minutes teaching the shelter dog the basic idea of going to the mat and lying down. Then, I set the feeder to dispense at an interval of 5 seconds, soon enough that he hasn't yet thought about going anywhere. I then get up and do my own thing! In this case, that happens to be making a video of me doing my own thing, which is making a video of...okay, you get the point. As Kobe builds a reinforcement history with barely any input from me, I am able to occasionally increase the duration between rewards until he's happily lying there while I do my own thing, which is ultimately what most dog owners want their dogs to do the vast majority of the time.

Of all the behaviours I teach my dogs and my clients' dogs, the one I emphasize the most is immediate and undivided attention when requested to look at you or recall to you. However, a close second is its polar opposite, the ability to disconnect from you and be content doing nothing while you knock yourself out on World of Warcraft or something stronger. Let's face it: even if you buy every new enrichment toy upon release, the majority of your dog's time will be downtime. Mat training is a straightforward, algorithmic way to build this crucial life skill that doubles as a useful puppy parking behaviour for romantic dinners out on the town. And now, your computer can do it for you.
Saturday, April 30, 2016

Resource guarding: teach your dog to enjoy sharing instead

Resource guarding is a normal canine behaviour.
In order to effectively deal with resource guarding, we must acknowledge that it is a normal canine behaviour, essentially a built-in loss prevention technique. Our dogs exist in part because their ancestors were careful to maintain possession of hard-earned resources. So let's get this straight: from the canine perspective, there is nothing inherently wrong with asking someone to leave your stuff alone.

But my dog shouldn't be aggressive toward me.

Forget that we're talking about dogs for a moment. Who is the aggressor when one person quietly approaches another and takes his wallet despite verbal protest? Verbal protestation, or growling in the case of the dog, is a distance-increasing behaviour whereas true aggression is more accurately characterised by distance-decreasing behaviours.

Now imagine parents with a long-standing history of taking their teenager's wallet, adding funds, and giving it right back. How do you think the teen will feel if his dad occasionally borrows money from his wallet? By doing this with young puppies, we can proactively prevent resource guarding, and by doing this more slowly with dogs who already guard, we can effectively change their entire view on loss prevention.

Start small

If you have an established conflict over resources, then don't start by giving your dog a bone and taking it away with the intention of smearing peanut butter on it. Start small:
  1. Close the economy on food, toys, and other resources so that all encounters are well controlled.
  2. At mealtimes, approach your dog's empty bowl, drop in a small portion of his meal, and walk away. Once he has finished, approach with another portion, and repeat.
  3. Once your dog is clearly relaxed and happy every time you approach his bowl, bend down a bit to drop in the portions. Progress slowly until you are touching his empty bowl, then picking it up to fill it.
  4. Your dog will start to look up in eager anticipation every time you walk toward his bowl, even while he is eating. It is now time to put boring kibble into his bowl and approach with a high-value treat, such as steak, while he is eating. You are ready for this stage when he happily looks up from his bowl, even momentarily, without showing any sign of stress or body tension. Toss the steak into his bowl and walk away.
  5. Proceed in increments as small as the above until your dog loves it when you take away his food bowl and come back with something better several minutes later.
  6. Once your dog is practically begging you to take his food away, you are ready to slowly work up to more and more enticing resources until you are able to safely dive into his jaws and pry out a dangerously small bone while he's thinking "sweet, she's probably about to smear peanut butter on it!".

Put it on cue

You can also teach your dog to willingly hand over objects on cue. If you are struggling with the concepts, then instead of using a command like "drop", "out", or "give", use "bonus!" or "upgrade!" to signal that your dog is about to get something better than what he has, in addition to usually keeping his existing prize.

Disclaimer: the information in this post is not intended to substitute for consultation with a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT), canine behaviour consultant, or veterinary or applied animal behaviourist. At no point should you ever provoke your dog to exhibit resource guarding behaviours, and if you are unable to do these exercises completely conflict-free, then please consult with a professional instead.
Friday, April 29, 2016

Ask to Pet

"May I pet your dog?"

It's so simple, courteous, and commonsense that you'd think everyone would be doing it, but most people compulsively approach and pet dogs without asking.

This isn't another post about reactive dogs. It's about a common human behaviour that's downright rude and potentially dangerous.

Aipa takes a break from demo dog duties.
Those of us who have trained and handled pet visitation therapy animals know that asking even the friendliest of dogs to be unconditionally affectionate with hoards of strangers for even an hour or two can be both rewarding and stressful. Both the dog and handler need breaks! Imagine a well-trained but non-therapy dog accompanying her owner to a full eight-hour work day and receiving that kind of attention from the public. It simply isn't reasonable to expect both dog and handler to serve double duty as a pet visitation team. Aipa's role while I'm instructing classes at Petco is to serve as a model for Canine Good Citizenship. While she is capable of immense self-control, it is incredibly taxing for any dog, let alone an aloof one with stringent behaviour standards. Almost daily, she is asked to heel for long periods or stay while I chat with the owner of a dog who is thrashing about wildly to get at her. Many times each day, she is expected to ignore people cooing, beckoning, and petting because I require loose-leash manners and composure from both a demo dog and an off-duty working dog. Think of a dog's tolerance level as being fluid. Training can help build a higher tolerance level while unwanted social interaction or simply too much social interaction erodes it. When a kid runs up to Aipa and lifts her tail, I expect no reaction from her, but I also expect it to erode her tolerance level, making it necessary for me to spend hours of my personal time arranging tolerance-building exercises with children all over again. When an adult approaches and pets her without asking, it erodes my tolerance level!

There are so many other reasons why a handler may or may not want his dog to be petted at a particular time: perhaps the dog or handler is ill or in pain; perhaps the dog is experiencing vision or hearing loss; perhaps the dog has been recently adopted; perhaps the handler has specific behaviour standards he wants to instill or maintain in his working or pet dog; perhaps the dog or handler simply doesn't want social interaction in the same way that you might not welcome a hug from every single stranger you encounter. Thankfully, there's a super simple rule that will never fail you: ask to pet, and don't probe indignantly if the handler smiles, "no, thank you for asking".

Lucy's owner insists upon non-consensual greetings
The concept of asking for permission extends to dog greetings as well. When we visit Falls Lake, we regularly encounter a loose dog whose owner responds to requests for space with "she's friendly". During our first encounter with Lucy, Aipa was on a short lead, and I did not feel comfortable being charged by an unknown dog with an unknown vaccination and behaviour status. Moreover, it was a negative experience for Aipa either way because had I allowed her to play, she might have hit the end of her leash in gleeful zoomies after a play bow, so I instead made her exercise great self-control by heeling beside me with a strange dog's nose glued to her rear until we got off of the main road and onto a trailhead where I could let her off leash to frolic through the woods and into the water. Lucy may be friendly to most people and dogs, but she has disrupted search and rescue training exercises, caused drivers to slam on their brakes, and frightened many a pet owner with her rapid approach and cheerful rumble. I hate to think what might happen if a vision-impaired hiker crosses that section of the MST with his guide dog!

Please just ask to pet, to interact, or to let your own dogs interact with someone else's. Many - not all - dogs have plenty of love to go around, but that doesn't make you entitled to it. No one should need Do Not Pet patches, yellow ribbons, or Give Me Space shirts. No one should need to back up and beg for a stranger to stop running toward him and grabbing his dog. There is a way to solve this, and it isn't about the dogs or their owners: please just ask to pet!
Saturday, April 16, 2016

What goes UpDog must come DownDog: how high-intensity training can help your crazy dog find his inner calm

Photo credit: Lindsay Thompson
Last weekend marked the beginning of my first dog sport competition. I'd always wanted to dabble in dog sports but had never mustered up the initiative to muddle through the process of finding, entering, and showing in an event. This past weekend fell into my lap in an unlikely series of events that began with a shelter dog and a rule: no toy play with volunteers.

Mild-tempered Stuart arrived at Paws4ever Animal Sanctuary in October 2015. Cuddly, calm, and extraverted, he seemed like the perfect potato to grace a television fanatic's couch. But there was one exception: toys. Once a toy appeared, Stuart's mind disappeared. His teeth would chatter in anticipation, his eyes would go wide, and his mouth would grab desperately for the toy without any regard for people or objects in the way. With zero impulse control around toys, our affable powerhouse was quickly deemed unfit for toy play with volunteers. Meanwhile, staff began slowly working with him to teach him from the ground up how to engage in appropriate play.

I started with a boring metal dumbbell and his mealtime kibble. I used free shaping and back chaining to teach a formal retrieve-to-hand. Instead of a clicker, I used the word "drop" to cue the delivery of a reward. Once Stuart was performing perfect retrieves with an enthusiastic "drop", we moved to a wooden dumbbell, then a metal dish, and then - big step - a durable ball. Each time he dropped the ball for me, I reinforced with high-value treats, affection, and play with an identical ball. In other words, we conditioned "drop" to mean that he was getting something better in addition to not losing whatever he already had. Once he was on the ball with this game, we moved to discs rolling on the ground, then flying in the air. Eventually, we incorporated tugging on cue into his repertoire of behaviours that he could perform while thinking and communicating. Stuart still got excited over appropriate toys, but it was a controlled frenzy. And then came the arrival of UpDog - a new disc dog venue - not only to North Carolina, but to Paws4ever itself! Needless to say, we entered.

Stuart relaxes while another team competes.
As Stuart was now able to engage in structured play with a handful of people, I was able to focus on calmer behaviours, such as teaching him to not only go to place but to settle there and truly relax. We were conditioning him to separate intense work and play from just chilling, which he was already fairly good at to start with. We also worked extensively on incorporating low-arousal toy play into his basic obedience, especially heelwork, while also rewarding with food. This is an important bit: arousal refers to activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which depresses the digestive system, so an over-aroused dog will not eat. Conditioning Stuart to switch seamlessly between toys and food was an integral part of that essential on/off switch. We again started with balls and high-value treats until he was able to happily accept food while in the presence of balls, then rope tug toys, then more enticing tug toys, and finally (pictured right) while another dog is catching flying discs behind him. Stuart still cannot accept food during an actual play session with discs, and this is something that we are working on, but I am already quite happy with our current results: he can relax and accept food while a disc rolls or flies past him, or when he's playing with literally any other toy. In other words, his toy craziness hasn't been diminished, but it has been channeled into a very specific type of toy, only when it's his turn, and only in a very structured, safe game that doesn't just happen by accident: Stuart has achieved a balance and well-defined separation between controlled crazy and calm companionship.

What goes UpDog must come DownDog.
What goes UpDog must come DownDog. Well, sort of. We could have just turned Stuart into an adrenaline junkie. Many working dogs cannot settle down. They're always up, and they never come down, spinning in their indestructible crates while other dogs work. But channeling your dog's Up gives him the outlet he needs in order to be taught to chill Down. Both sides of training are equally important, and both sides of life are beneficial to both your dog's well-being and your sanity. You can't take a crazy dog and teach him to be chill all the time, and you can't expect him to naturally chill at home just because you exercise him regularly. But train the Up and train the Down, and you'll find that your crazy dog might just have a calm side that can be cultivated into the perfectly versatile canine companion.

If you have any questions about fostering or adopting Stuart, please contact Paws4ever directly at 919-241-8438 or

About the Harenbergs

Audrey, Aipa, and Steve Harenberg on the Blue Ridge Mountains

We build strong working relationships between dogs and handlers through the use of modern learning theory and the development of technological aids.

Audrey has been involved with numerous non-profit organisations, as foster mom, therapy dog handler, and obedience instructor. In addition to teaching private lessons, group classes, and in-home training, she's busy creating free blog articles and books to help make progressive dog training accessible to all.

Steve is finishing his PhD in computer science and will be taking over technological development once he is freed from academia.