The Family That Plays Together…

January 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

Out for a Walk, or Off to War?

December 29, 2010 § 3 Comments

This video is meant to illustrate one way to learn a behavior called “loose-leash walking”. There are many ways to learn this — if you have a method that is already working well for you, and doesn’t involve hurting your dog in any way, then cheers! I call the game that we play to teach this “leash dancing”. We enjoy giving our dogs some treats, and find it makes teaching easier and faster, but if you are opposed to this, then substitute affection or tug-time or whatever your dog’s assigned currency might be. While playing the leash dance game, it is important not to yank on the lash or get into a pulling contest – leash dancing is a team sport, not a contest of individual will power.

Before leaving the house, before getting fed, before getting a rub-down or anything else really good, the rule with my dogs is that they must be calm. There is no correction, no rebuke, no real negative consequence to exhibiting excitement – they just don’t get the good thing they know could be theirs with a more appropriate demeanor.  A little excitement is fine — what I object to is out of control behavior: jumping up, barking, spinning, or running around the house. If the dog does this kind of thing, just relax and wait by the door, leash in hand. Relax. Break out a book. Take long, exaggerated breaths. It may take awhile at first, but soon the dog will come to you and be relatively calm. Reward them by putting on the leash, and giving them a little treat.  I don’t require the dogs to sit at this stage; I just require them to be more or less stationary. Iggy taught himself within a couple weeks to sit down and look up when he sees the walking collar come out.  Ten months in, and Frankie comes up calmly, but doesn’t sit. That is all right with me – it is the calmness I really want.

A sidewalk will work, but a running track, a parking lot, or a field is best because there is more room and fewer distractions. After working on the leash dance game for a while – maybe 5 minutes (more if it is going well, or less if it is not) — walk the dog a couple hundred feet and let it sniff/pee/snuffle, whatever. Then go back to the leash dance for another session. Alternate 5-minute leash dancing sessions with sniffing opportunities for 30 or so minutes, but only so long as it remains fun for you and the dog.

Wait for Me, or Stay There!

December 22, 2010 § 1 Comment

Separating the two cues wait and stay is not an absolute necessity, of course. Many will just have one standard stay cue to mean “remain where you are and in that position until I release you or tell you to do something else.” This is an adequate way of doing things, but separating the two concepts will usually make each much stronger. 

After a quick display of the dogs playing on cue, this video shows a solid stay, then demonstrates wait as a cue to remain at the current location, in the current position, and with attention on the handler.  If the dog is standing, then it is all right for them to sit or lie down, but if already prone or semi-prone, then they should remain in that position.  Further, wait may be broken or modified by a recall or position- change (such as from sit to lie down) cue from a distance. Wait is different from stay in that stay will only ever be released or transitioned from within touching distance. When on stay, the dog’s attention may wander from the handler, as the dog may learn through repetition that they will be staying put until the handler is within touching distance. When on wait, the dog’s attention should remain on the handler, as a cue or release will be coming soon.

A good way to teach these is to begin with wait. Put the dog in a sit or down position, then turn your hand parallel to the ground with the forefinger and middle finger extended and give the cue wait.  When first teaching this, over-enunciate, and lengthen the vowel sound, “Waaaaaiiiiiiiit.” As in all training, speak clearly but gently and with a positive tone.  The first threshold is just one second and one step backward, then two seconds and two steps, then five, ten, etc. It is helpful to randomly alternate between returning to the dog and clicking and treating or calling the dog to the handler. Once the dog can maintain the wait steadily for a few seconds while the handler is a several feet away, increase the challenge by walking around the dog halfway, then returning to the dog’s front. Once this can be done reliably, walk a full circle around the dog. Gradually extend the distance between the handler and the dog, alternating between calling the dog and returning to the dog.

Learn stay in much the same way, but only use stay for longer periods (like a minute or more, and building up to 30+ minutes), only release or transition the dog from within touching distance. The hand signal is an open hand, palm forward, like a traffic-cop’s “STOP” signal.

Examples: cue the dog to wait when preparing to open a car door, or when feeding, or any time the dog may be called to the handler. Cue the dog stay only when the handler will be returning to the dog, and for longer periods, or when the handler will be out of sight from the dog. 

Preceding the stay and wait demonstrations, this video shows the handler cueing the dogs to play.  We didn’t really teach this in a formal way, it is just a gesture and a word that we said again and again when the dogs were encouraged to run around and be crazy – now they know the gesture and the word as a signal to start frolicking. This is a good way to help them burn off some energy, as many dogs won’t really exercise unless prompted to (which is why leaving a dog in a backyard, even a big yard, is not an adequate way to get the dog exercise).

Lie Down and Be Calm for Meals

December 5, 2010 § 4 Comments

Lie Down and be Calm for Meals

This behavior actually incorporates several tricks, and also requires the dog to exhibit a calm demeanor. This was relatively easy to achieve with Iggy, but a little challenging when working with Frankie. Frankie was slightly possessive of his food, generally more excitable than Iggy, and had a hard time focusing when he knew it was meal time. Both dogs were trained and guided for this behavior in the same way, but Iggy did not need some of the steps, so I will describe how it went with Frankie.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The first day Frankie came to live with us, following a long, vigorous walk (exercise is critically important for achieving calmness), I fed him by hand. After mixing his dry food with half a teaspoon of  canned pumpkin (helps regularity) and a teaspoon of wet food, I mashed together little bits of it and fed him off the palm of my hand. This prevents accidental nips on the end of one’s fingers, but still associates the person and the person’s hand with food: we become recognized as the provider of something good.

After a couple days of hand-feeding, I divided his meal into four portions and put one in his bowl, then as he finished that, I added more, making sure he was respectful of my hand near his food and mouth. This reinforces that people near his food bowl are the source of good things (more food), not bad things (taking away his food).  In separate sessions, I also started teaching Frankie three specific tricks: sit, wait, and lie down. Training these will be the subject of a different post, but as in everything when teaching a dog, it is helpful to exercise them first, so they are more able to focus and relax. 

As soon as Frankie was comfortable with the general concepts of “sit”, “wait”, and “lie down”, we began working them into meal time. He learned sit before wait, and wait before down, so the progression went like this:  before setting down his bowl, Frankie would sit, and then receive his meal.  After he learned the general concept of “wait”, he was asked to sit, and then asked to wait; his food was put down, but he was required to wait until released, or the process started over again. No correction or punishment was given: the reward was his meal and the consequence for not waiting properly was the delay of his meal.

Frankie was good at lying down and waiting when we practiced as part of our training routine, and he was good at sitting and waiting for his food, but he seemed unable to control himself enough to lie down and wait at mealtime.  The problem turned out to be not the inability to resist the food, but the coldness of our tile floor.  It was October when we were putting all these steps together and the kitchen floor was quite cold. Frankie has very little hair on his underside.  A yoga mat was sacrificed, and Frankie became a very polite diner.

Target Stick and Platform Practice Video

December 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

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