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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Thoughts on Circles & Loose Leash Walking

Have you heard? The circling method of loose leash walking is taking the dog training world by storm! I want everyone to get and stay excited about circling and I want to learn more about it myself and find ways to incorporate it into my classes. I also want to offer an "add-on" for people who want to keep moving but may find themselves unable to circle. (Narrow sidewalks, sticker bushes and busy roads come to mind.)

When I heard about circling several weeks ago, it immediately brought a few things to mind: 1) a back-and-forth method I've often used with students' dogs and my own, 2) the effectiveness of a quick turn away (U-turn or "spin" trick) from triggers in my Reactive Rover classes, 3) the natural communication system of dogs, where turning or bending is a sign of polite manners and 4) the observed effect of a tight leash on reactivity

It's now time for me to admit that loose leash walking has consistently been one of my least favorite things to teach.

 Positive trainers have long relied upon a couple of methods for teaching loose leash walking. The first approach is to remove all rewards when the dog pulls. For example, if your dog wants to move forward by pulling, you remove his ability to continue forward by stopping in place ("being a tree"). When the dog creates slack in the leash again, you reward him by moving forward, praising, clicking/treating, etc.

Does this method work? In theory, it should. Is it enough on its own? Not from where I'm sitting. Many students find it tedious (as do I) and simply don't follow the "be a tree" rules outside of class. Furthermore, even diligent students don't always get great results. Many accidentally teach their dogs an unwanted chain of behavior: pull to the end of the leash, stop, move slightly back toward owner, receive click and treat, continue moving forward. It becomes a vicious cycle.

The second approach is to reward the dog for what he's doing right: walking on a loose leash. We encourage handlers to use forward movement, happy praise, increased speed, and clicks and treats to emphasize our desire for the dog to walk within the length of the leash (approximately 3 to 5 feet) without making it tight.

A young Foggy in his head halter and the coveted loose, "J-shaped" leash. 
But even as I explain these popular training exercises to my students, I know very few of them are going to follow through at home. (Heck, most don't even follow through from the classroom to the car after class!) I've started relying more on the use of no-pull devices (like front-hook harnesses or head halters) to address the pulling problem with students. Circling is a welcome addition to the training toolbox, but...what if you can't circle?

Rather than stop and wait for your dog to turn back to you from the end of his leash ("be a tree"), feed him constantly or circle (if space doesn't allow), you can do a 180 turn and move back over the same ground you have just covered.  

Poe and I demonstrating the "back-and-forth" approach to loose leash walking. Each time, we are able to continue farther down the sidewalk and his attention to me increases.

Walking back-and-forth over the same stretch of sidewalk or path is much more likely to create a polite walker than continuing forward toward ever changing scents, sights and sounds. No clicker, no treats no stopping. No harsh equipment or words. Just steady movement and quiet praise.

But alas, I can't conclude without dropping some hard truth. A few minutes per week of practice here and there will not override a reinforcement history of pulling --> moving forward the rest of the time your dog is walked. Get consistent about methodology and equipment and commit to trying these methods to see what sticks each and every time you walk your dog on leash.

Pro tip: Think of walks as training exercises and focus on the journey, not the destination. Walks can be quantified in terms of time spent and number of steps taken, rather than reaching a particular destination. 
Pro tip: If your leash becomes tight during a meet-and-greet with another dog, try these options: turn and walk away (U-turn or circle) as quickly as possible with as little leash tension as possible, walk quickly forward while lowering your leash hand to create slack or drop the leash (if safe to do so).

Happy walking!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Variety is the Spice of Life: Dog Treats are No Exception!

I hold this truth to be self-evident: not all treats are created equal!

Confession time: I've been getting some pretty mediocre off-leash recalls from my dogs the past couple of weeks. Yeah, they'll (usually) come when I call. At a saunter. Sniffing a few things on the way. If there's nothing else catching their eye. You catch my drift...

But how is this so? As an experienced dog handler and trainer, I know that high value treats are important in high distraction environments like outdoor adventure spots. But these were no linty Milk Bones in a forgotten pocket. No, I was rewarding them every time they came to me with at least one - if not more - of these beauties: Turkey Flavored Freeze-Dried Vital Essentials Mini Nibs! I have a one pound bag. It cost over $30. And they were loving them...

Dehydrated goodness in a perfect size for training.
...but let's face it: the bag has been parked in my car since purchasing it a couple of weeks ago. And although carefully sealed, its contents have lost some of their appeal via lack of freshness and too much of the same old, same old.

Enter Red Barn Chicken Recipe Premium Dog Food Roll and Tucker's Chicken & Pumpkin Carnibar, freshly purchased and reporting for duty!


Vital Essentials already come in the perfect size for reward-based treat training, but it only took a few minutes on the cutting board to transfer the above raw materials into manageable little bites. 

...& After.
 When my dogs realized I had a novel treat in tow (especially the Carnibar), recalls became an entirely different story. They were turning on a dime, kicking up dirt and barreling toward me in a blaze of glory at the mere mention of anything resembling the words "come"  or "here" or "hey you."

"Yes I know my shadow is fascinating, but the sun's in my eyes and I've come to collect payment for (recall) services (W)rendered. And no, I won't pardon the pun." ~Wren
The take away? Even high value goodies get old at times and it's important to change it up frequently.

 Pro Tips:
  • Chop your soft treats into smaller pieces before your training session our leisure outing. You'll get more treats for less money and you won't be as tempted to overfeed your dog. 
  • Tip your hand (again with the puns!) by giving your dog a good smell of the treats you're carrying before you let them off leash. That way, they know what's at stake ahead of time. 
  • Even though your dog(s) may be capable of recalls in difficult environments, it doesn't hurt to go back and practice in no to low distraction places on the regular...which I plan to do!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Rainbows & Butterflies & Puppies, Oh My!

Fragile! Handle with (Extreme?!) Care!

Having been a professional in the field of dog training since 2006 (and with shelter dogs since 2000), I have seen my fair share of trends come and go. It's really great when fun new stuff comes out, like shaping by successive approximation, Control Unleashed, Nosework and Barn Hunt to name a few. 

One recent and very popular trend is the idea of "consent" with dogs and other animals tended to by humans. The example that stands out in my mind from Clicker Expo 2016 in Portland is that of a horse voluntarily submitting his hoof to be picked. When he wanted (an understandable) break from standing on three legs, he signaled his groomer and was allowed to place his foot down and rest. Then he would reengage with the process by performing a "start button" behavior, such as nudging the handler, to indicate he was ready for his foot to be picked up again. 

As a former equestrian and lover of all animals, I thought it was fantastic! Horses might fight hoof cleaning not because they are inherently ornery or intolerant, but perhaps because it was uncomfortable to be a tripod for as long as picking four hooves takes. The creation of a communication system between groomer and horse on this matter blew my mind! There were other great examples at different seminars and workshops I attended at that conference and I came home inspired. 

This type of training is now being promoted in the pet dog field through "cooperative care" type classes for dogs and their owners. Basic medical procedures are covered and dogs learn to "opt in" to the procedures they are given.

This attitude is also spreading to the field of dog training as a whole. In some cases, it is being argued that all dogs should have choices in all areas of their lives and that "opting in" and/or "start button" behaviors must be used for all interactions, including training sessions. In addition, there seems to be a growing movement for dogs to feel absolutely no stress, frustration or other negative emotions whatsoever in their interactions with humans and other dogs, especially as part of the learning process. 

As a self-proclaimed "positive trainer," I am 100% committed to using effective force-free, fear -free behavior modification methods with dogs whenever possible (which is pretty much all the time). However, to adhere to a standard of no stress PERIOD is something that I struggle with. As we humans know all too well, stress is an often unpleasant yet necessary part of life. We simply can't avoid all of it, all of the time. And if we do somehow grow up and live in a stress-free environment, what coping mechanisms have we learned if that environment were to change? 

I worry that positive dog training is becoming so hands off and careful that we are creating fragile dogs ("dogs in a bubble," if you will) who have not learned to be resilient if and when something moderately stressful occurs in their lives.

I am all for consent. I am all for human/animal harmony and two-way communication. Heck, I don't even eat animals! But I am wary of this new trend toward all things rainbows and butterflies in regard to training dogs, especially young puppies. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!