Monday, 17 July 2017

How to Resolve Resource Guarding

Resource guarding...It sounds serious right? But did you know that resource guarding is actually a natural behaviour for most animals? If an animal let someone else take his food all the time, he wouldn't survive, so it is a survival instinct to guard what is his. And whilst food, shelter and mates are what most animals will guard instinctively, (humans included!) in domestic dogs we can see this instinct transfer over to other valued items such as toys, water bowls, or even favourite people.

Unfortunately, many people can create a resource guarding problem by frequently taking items away from their dog, whether it's food, toys, or something else. What this does is teaches your dog that people approaching their resources means they will take it away, and this encourages them to guard it.

Another common occurrence is that people will view their dog's growl as a challenge for authority and will punish their dog for this and then take the item away, in an attempt to teach them not to guard. However, again, taking the item away only reaffirms your dog's worries that you are there to take their resources from them. The other major concern with this is that if growling didn't work to warn you, your dog may feel the need to escalate to a bite. In actuality, punishing your dog for growling in any situation is a bad idea. Dog's growl to communicate. A growl is a good thing; it is your dog's way of avoiding conflict by asking you to stop what you are doing without resorting to anything physical.

So what can and should you do if your dog guards resources?
We want to teach the dog that humans approaching his resources = good stuff happens!
  1. Always work at a distance your dog is comfortable with. In other words, stand far enough away so that you don't elicit any response from your dog. (Responses can be freezing, stiffening, staring, growling, etc.)
  2. From this distance, throw your dog's favourite treats to him, one at a time and allow him to eat them. 
  3. Walk away.
  4. Repeat this process several times.
  5. This time as you approach the distance you normally stand at, take an extra half a step closer, and then throw treats at your dog. Repeat.
  6. Gradually build up so that you can be closer and closer to your dog without eliciting a guarding response. 
  7. If at any point your dog begins to guard, simply take a step back, and work at a distance your dog is comfortable with.
 Remember, the aim is not to be able to harass him while he is quietly enjoying a meal. The aim is to be able to comfortably and safely be in the vicinity of your dog while he is utilising his resources, whether it's walking past him as he eats, or going to sit down on the couch to watch tv while he sleeps there. On top of this, it's important to continue to manage and prevent resource guarding from occurring in the future, so don't give your dog a reason to guard. Teach him instead that you being around his resources always = good things. Make it his choice to leave the resource. Instead of dragging him off the couch, teach him a solid "off" cue using treats and positive reinforcement. Instead of grabbing things out of his mouth, teach him to "drop it." When he is eating, drinking or sleeping, leave him in peace.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

How to teach your dog to calm in any situation

As with any animal; human, dog or other, reinforced behaviours are more likely to be repeated. What does this mean exactly? It means that when we reinforced or rewarded for a particular behaviour, we are more likely to do that behaviour again, because we have previously been reinforced or rewarded for it.

For example, a dog that jumps up onto the bench and manages to steal a sandwich, is much more likely to jump up on the bench again because he knows there is the potential for reward. A dog that jumps up on the bench and finds nothing, is much less likely to do it again because there is no history of reinforcement or reward. A human that goes to work and gets paid, is much more likely to go to work again because there is a history of reinforcement and reward! A human that goes to work and doesn't get paid for it, is a lot less likely to show up for work next time.

Of course there could be other forms of reinforcement. Perhaps the bench is comfy for the dog to lie on, or gives it a good vantage spot to look out the window. These are both forms of reinforcement and so would result in the dog continuing to jump up on the bench. The human could find their work extremely rewarding because they enjoy it, and so may still continue to show up for work despite not being paid.

So what does this all have to do with teaching your dog to be calm? Well like I said, dogs are more likely to repeat a behaviour that has been reinforced. More often than not, most of the reinforcement for our dogs occurs when they are excited. We show them affection when they greet us excitedly after coming home, we feed them when they are dancing around asking for dinner, we take them for a walk when they appear to have too much energy, we play with them when they are feeling playful! And whilst none of these things are inherently bad, the biggest issue is that when our dogs are calm and doing nothing, we ignore them! What this means is that being calm brings little to no reinforcement, whilst being over excited or playful or energetic brings lots of reinforcement! Therefore, it's hardly surprising that our dogs then repeat these highly reinforced behaviours!

So in order to teach our dogs to be calm, we must reinforce it! When we come home, instead of rewarding our dog's initial exuberant greeting, wait until your dog is calm before saying hello. If you know your dog starts asking for dinner at a specific time, then get your dog's meal ready well ahead of time, and just before your dog starts asking for food, and they are lying down calmly having a snooze, go and surprise them by putting their meal in front of them! You have just given them a giant reward (an entire meal) for being calm!

Of course, whilst these small changes will make a difference to your dog's behaviour, there is still more work to be done! The first step to teaching your dog to be calm in any situation, is to first teach them to be calm in and around your home. What you will need to do this is a pocket (or a treat pouch) full of treats. Use healthy treats as you may be using a lot of them, and make sure you take this into account when feeding your dog their regular meals so they don't become overweight. If your dog is very food motivated, you can even use their regular food as treats.
When you are at home with your dog, every single time you see them lying down calmly, go and drop a treat in between their paws and walk away. At first your dog may follow you to see if you have anything else to offer, but just ignore him. Soon he will learn that following you isn't reinforcing. If he stays where he is, go back and reward him when he is calm. This way, he is rewarded for not only being calm in the first place, but remaining calm. Pretty soon, you will start to notice that your dog chooses to just lie down calmly more and more often. Note, if your dog is staring at you whilst lying down, don't reward. It is likely that he is staring at you because you have food. Rewarding him in this state could build food dependence.

Once your dog is choosing to be calm in the house and yard a lot of the time, it's time to introduce this game into the outside world! Remember, when working outside, you may need to use a higher value reward like real meat! Have your dog on their harness and lead. Find a quiet area, whether it's just outside your house or a nearby street. Stand (or sit) and wait your dog out. At first they may be excited, thinking they are going on a walk, however, soon they will get bored of waiting in the one place. As soon as they lie down and relax, that's when you reward them by dropping a treat in between their paws! At first, they will likely get up again, but just ignore this and wait for them to lie down and relax again, and then reward again. Soon they will start to maintain being relaxed.

When your dog is readily and easily relaxing in this quiet area, it's time to introduce distractions. It helps if you have someone you know helping you out, as you can set up the distractions at a distance at first, and have them gradually move closer. The distraction could be another person, or another dog, or a kid on a skateboard etc. Start at a distance that is easy for your dog, and again, wait for them to lie down and relax. As soon as they do, reward! Practice, practice, practice! Keep practicing and gradually build up the level of distractions and work up to being in busier places like the cafe or a sporting field. What is helpful is if the dog can learn the exercise in context, without distractions first. Try heading to a cafe outside of opening hours when no one is around and practicing the exercise first, before working up to sitting at the cafe when it's busy and full of people.

Tip: When working on this exercise, don't ask your dog to lie down. It's much more effective if you wait until your dog is actually relaxed and lies down on their own as opposed to just lying down because you said so :)

What it takes to become a Therapy Dog!

Delta Therapy Dogs are no ordinary dogs! The assessment they must pass is designed to test even the most obedient of dogs, and there are many dogs who just don't make the cut! However, the reason this test is so tricky, is because it's not just about obedience, and having a well trained dog. A large majority of the test is actually designed to assess your dog's temperament.

So what kind of temperament are they looking for? Here are the key qualities your dog will need to pass and become a certified Delta Therapy Dog:

1. Calm - a therapy dog must not be boisterous as they will be working with all sorts of people including elderly patients, and small children. A boisterous or over exuberant dog could wreak all sorts of havoc for these more fragile humans! During the assessment, your dog will be required to walk calmly passed a range of different people, and must also greet another person without jumping up!

2. Loves People - as part of their job, your dog will be required to interact with all sorts of people, including men and women of all ages, and young children as well. Your dog should not only tolerate all types of people, but also be willing and wanting to interact with them. Your dog shouldn't be fearful of any people! Their willingness to interact with a range of people will be assessed.

3. Independent - your dog should comfortably be able to be away from you for short periods in order to do their job effectively. If your dog frets or panics when you leave them with a stranger, being a therapy dog isn't for them. During the assessment, your dog will be asked to wait with a stranger while you walk out of sight. Your dog shouldn't show any signs of distress during this exercise.

4. Bomb Proof - As part of their job, your dog will be confronted with a horde of situations that would cause distress for your average dog! During the assessment, your dog will be exposed to people in wheelchairs and crutches, being mildly yelled at by a stranger, being roughly handled all over the body by a stranger, being crowded by a group of people, and exposed to loud and sudden noises. Your dog should not become overly distressed in any of these situations and should recover quickly.

Sounds tough right? That's because it is! The reason the assessment is so tough, is because when your dog is working as a therapy dog, they will potentially have to cope with all of these scenarios. If they can't cope with them during the assessment, it is unlikely that they would be able to cope with them in real life! The good news is that if ever you are visited by a Delta Therapy Dog, you know for certain that they are the best of the best :)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Mechanics of Dog Training

Picking the wrong dog trainer can be like taking your car to a dodgy mechanic to get fixed. A dodgy mechanic might take short cuts to keep costs down and maximise profits. You go to pick up your car and on the surface, the problem appears to be fixed, however underneath, the problem still exists. Not only is your car not fixed, but because you are under the illusion that it is, you continue to drive your broken car, placing it under extreme stress which results in even more problems than when you started. If you drive it for long enough, eventually your engine might just stop working all together.

This is exactly what happens when you pick the wrong dog trainer. Because the dog training industry is unregulated, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer or a behaviour expert, whether or not they have any education in the field. Without an education based in the science of dog training and behaviour, many "dog trainers" use outdated methods that often create more problems than they solve.

Often these methods appear to work very quickly at solving the problem. However, whilst on the surface everything appears to be fixed, just like our friend the dodgy mechanic, the underlying cause of the problem is still there. As you continue on with the "training," you place your dog under extreme stress until eventually the dog "explodes," or even stops working. What I mean by that is that either the dog's behaviour will return at a level far worse than when you started the "training," or the dog will shut down completely. More often than not, the behaviour will return a few months down the track and is much more severe than it previously was.

So how can you be sure you are getting the right dog trainer?

  1. Make sure they have some level of formal education in the dog training field first. 
  2. Do they use current science based methods?
  3. Do they attend regular workshops and seminars to keep their knowledge up to date? 
  4. What happens when the dog gets it right? The answer should be that the dog is rewarded with something the dog finds rewarding (food, toys, play etc.)
  5. What happens if the dog gets it wrong? If the trainer plans to punish your dog, run in the opposite direction. Dogs need to be redirected, taught alternate behaviours, and set up for better success next time so they don't get it wrong. My answer to this question; kick myself in the pants for setting the dog up to fail!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Minimising Contrast for your Separation Anxiety Dog

It can be one of the greatest feelings in the world; coming home to your dog, jumping into your arms, giving you wet kisses, tail wagging a million miles a second. It makes us feel like we're loved. It makes us feel important. So we fuss our dogs right back so they know we're happy to see them too. So what's the issue? For a separation anxiety dog, this massive contrast between when you were gone, and when you are home only serves to increase their anxiety. Instead, we want our dogs to feel like us being gone is no big deal. To achieve this, it means creating a window of calmness on either side of your absence.

If you want to say a big goodbye to your dog, do it before you even start getting ready, at least half an hour before you leave. Don't make a big fuss of him just as you are walking out the door! Again, this just creates a huge contrast for him between you being home and you being gone. If you want to spend a bit of time with your dog before you go, have a calm session of gentle massage or Tellington TTouch This will actually help to lower your dog's blood pressure and heart rate which will lower his anxiety and increase calmness.

When you get home after an absence, you don't have to flat out ignore your dog, but don't engage with him either. Just go about your business, and if you want to, talk to him in a calm, soft manner. Don't create or encourage excitement around your arrival home. It might make you feel great, but it won't help your dog in the long run. Wait 20 minutes or so before fully engaging with your dog so that you have effectively minimised the contrast between your absence and your arrival home.

Happy Training :)

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Splitting Hairs - Separation Anxiety in Dogs

So often when owners come to me with dogs suffering from separation anxiety, they will say things like,
"My dog is fine if I get up and leave the room, but I can't close the door,"
"My dog will be happy in his crate, but not if I leave the room."
On the surface, these seem like real road blocks. In reality, they highlight the incredible importance of splitting criteria when working with separation anxiety. What splitting criteria means, is that instead of expecting the dog to go from being comfortable with the door fully open, to being comfortable with the door fully closed in one big step, we add in little steps along the way to make the transition easier for the dog. In this particular scenario, it might look like this;

  1. walking out of the room and returning
  2. walking out of the room and touching the door handle and then returning
  3. walking out of the room and moving the door an inch, and then returning
  4. walking out of the room and moving the door 3 inches and then returning
  5. walking out of the room and closing the door half way, opening it again and then returning
  6. walking out of the room and closing the door 3/4 of the way, making sure you stay in full view of your dog, opening it again and then returning
  7. walking out of the room and closing the door 3/4 of the way so that only half of you is visible to the dog, opening the door and then returning
  8. walking out of the room and closing the door almost all the way with your leg sticking into the room so the dog can see it, opening the door and then returning
  9. walking out of the room and closing the door almost all the way leaving just your foot sticking into the room so the dog can see it, opening the door and then returning
  10. walking out of the room and closing the door almost all the way leaving just your big toe sticking into the room so the dog can see it, opening the door and then returning.
  11. walking out of the room, closing the door almost all the way and being completely out of view from your dog, opening the door and then returning
  12. walking out of the room, closing the door almost all the way, twist the handle as though you were going to completely shut the door but then open it again and return to your dog
  13. walking out of the room and shut the door completely, open it immediately and return to your dog.
So as you can see, what humans would naturally see as one step, is actually made up of over 10 steps, and it could be easily split into more steps if the dog needed. It is natural for humans to lump things together, but in order to build our dogs confidence and allow them to transition smoothly to the next level, we must provide them with an unlimited amount of steps. Splitting criteria doesn't only apply to the door scenario, but to every aspect of treating separation anxiety. If your dog can handle a 5 second absence but not a 6 second absence, then split the criteria and aim for 5 and a half seconds, or even 5.25 seconds.

Criteria can always be split. To you, the difference between 6 seconds and 5 and a half seconds might very well seem like splitting hairs, but to your dog, it may be the difference between total calm and major panic! So if you feel like you've hit a wall, and you can't seem to make any progress, then take a step back and think about how you can split criteria for your dog. Once you provide him with enough little steps, he will eventually reach the big picture.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Adolescent Dog

The Adolescent Dog

Adolescence is a developmental stage that all dogs go through, and actually consists of different stages, including juvenile, flight period, second fear impact stage and adolescence. Generally, an adolescent dog will start to push boundaries and may turn a deaf ear. Some dogs will be suddenly fearful or reactive towards things they weren't before. It is important to understand that these are all natural stages in a dog's development and they are nothing to be worried about. Male dogs may also start to exhibit mounting behaviours both on other dogs and potentially people as well. If this does happen, it is important not to punish your dog for something he cannot help. Just redirect his attention with a toy or game. 

The most important thing about living with an adolescent dog is to be consistent. Continue with training and socialisation to ensure your dog matures into a well balanced and well mannered companion. Never punish your dog for what you may perceive as misbehaviour. Dogs don’t do anything maliciously. They are simply responding to triggers and particularly during this time in their life, responding to hormones in their body. It is very important to ensure your dog is receiving appropriate physical exercise and mental stimulation, and that you are continuing in your relationship building by playing games and positive reinforcement training. 

As much as possible, don’t set your dog up to fail. Don’t leave items you don’t want chewed up within your dog’s reach. Don’t leave food on the bench where he might steal it, unless you are doing specific training exercises for ‘leave it.’ Ensure your dog has plenty to do and that you are catering to all of his needs. For example, if you have a terrier, you might consider getting a sandpit and teaching him to dig in the sandpit only. If you have a herding dog, make sure you give them a chasing outlet, like playing fetch or playing with a flirt pole. If you have a scent hound, make sure you are playing scent work games with your dog. Giving your dog appropriate outlets for their natural behaviour will help to prevent them doing these behaviours at times you might deem inappropriate.

Don’t let your dog off lead where he has the opportunity to ignore you when you call him. 

Socialisation is key during adolescence, not just with other dogs but with every day things such as people, skateboards, trucks etc. Ensure that they are all positive experiences through the use of treats and toys, and this will help to prevent fearful behaviours around these things in the future. 

Make sure your walks with your dog are interactive, using treats, and toys, as well as the environment. By interacting with your dog in a fun way on his walks, he is learning that you are the most interesting thing in the world, and will help prevent unwanted behaviours such as barking and lunging on leash and pulling on the lead. It will also help to tire your dog out much better.

Remember that adolescence is a stage in your dog’s life and with continued positive reinforcement training, socialisation and relation building, your dog will mature into a well balanced dog. 

Happy Training