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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.

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.