Whenever I am not hanging out with dogs, I am pretty likely to be hanging out with kids. I work for a local mental health service, providing behavior interventions in an area school. The kids I work with all meet Seriously Emotionally Disturbed criteria, but it sounds more intense than it actually is, most days at least. I teach kids to behave in school and the community, all while teaching them to make good choices, to accept natural consequences, and to use their coping skills to remain calm and focused. I’ve learned a lot by working with kids, and there are more similarities between working with dogs and working with kids than I would have thought. The average dog can understand 165 words, often more with training. A dog’s ability to problem solve is around the same as a 3-4 year old child.
***I am not saying implying that dogs and kids are equal, or that dogs should be treated like children. They are still a different species from us, even if they do have a lot in common. They will fare much better in your home if they are treated like a dog.
I spend a lot of time around small children who lack focus, either age related or because of ADHD. The boys especially tend to be impulsive, wiggly and reactive. Many of the kids need instant feedback for doing something well, even if, two seconds later, they are out of their seat and making siren noises. Yes, this is my life. Dogs also need instant feedback. This is why I love the clicker so much!
Kids need behaviors broken down into small steps if we want them to be successful. When I am coming up with a behavior plan for a kiddo, I can’t expect them to suddenly begin raising their hand rather than blurting out answers, staying in their seat and on task rather than wandering the classroom or talking, keeping their hands to themselves all day and listening to directions the first time they are given. It is just too much, especially for a child whose brain chemistry and life experiences make these criteria more difficult. Add in maturity or lack thereof, and the increased workloads placed on students, it is not that surprising that there are behavioral issues. We work on one criteria at a time, provide that instant feedback and track progress made. Dogs also need things broken up into small steps. This is called shaping (more on this later.) They can’t be expected to know all of the rules and expectations either, and they are at a bigger disadvantage because we can’t just tell them what we want. Although, I can tell kids what I would like from them and some still do the exact opposite.
Kids and dogs both continue to do what has worked for them in the past and they remember everything. This is why kids with behavior issues so often seem to strive for negative attention. Their good behavior often goes unnoticed at home, but as soon as they do something they shouldn’t, someone is sure to notice. Negative attention may be better than no attention at all. When that is mostly what they get, it becomes their normal. There are kids out there who have no idea what to do with positive attention. Then, it becomes the other adults involved to teach the kids that positive attention is actually a really good thing. Plus, kids don’t generally offer a behavior unless they get something out of it. A kid acts up in school to be sent home. They tease a classmate to make themselves look tough. They often can’t identify why they do what they do, but there is always a reason for it. I see the same thing with dogs all the time. The dog is on their bed, chewing a bone, and nobody even notices. The dog starts to chew a shoe, and may get a game of chase out of it. Chase is fun! Of course the dog will keep doing what got them a fun game.
Both like having a sense of control and being allowed to make choices. Kids are either often micromanaged or their home life feels so out of their hands, that they look for control where they can find it. Sometimes, it is in refusing to participate in a certain activity or eating a certain food. They often fight and argue about things that seem silly. I’ve had standoffs with seven year olds about how to spell a certain word. Dogs might not be as aware of control-seeking actions, but they also like choices and dislike being micromanaged. The trick with both is to allow them to have choices on things that will not cause them harm. I allow kids to choose snacks or prizes and I allow my dog to choose which path to take when we go for a walk.
Kids and dogs handle insecurity and fears in much the same ways as well. I have worked with kids who hang back and try to be invisible, making themselves look as unthreatening as possible. They may want out of the situation desperately. But there are also the ones who feel the need to lash out instead. They are both equally insecure, but the one is going to make sure they appear tougher than the other kids. Most school bullies are very insecure kids, but that is how they deal with their feelings. Dogs do pretty much the same thing. They also have a fight, flight or freeze response. That dog who is cowering in a kennel is probably no more nervous and fearful than the one who is barking and lunging at the end of the leash. They just have learned in their own way what works for them. I know with kids, sometimes the loud one is almost easier to help, because at least we know what they are feeling in that moment and can give them some calming strategies.
While most kids don’t realize it, they do so much better with consistency, clear expectations, rules and boundaries. They may push against them, but it is nice knowing that there are things in their lives that are going to remain the same, no matter what else happens. They like having a routine, and often times struggle to adjust to a change in it, even if it is something small as going to an assembly first thing in the morning. This could put their entire day out of balance. Some kids are more resilient than others to change, usually the ones who have been prepared for it and have been included in the planning process. Dogs also like their routines. They may not be able to tell time, but they know when it is time to eat. If you consistently walk them or offer a treat at a certain time of day, the day you forget or can’t do it, your dog will most likely be all out of sorts. My dog will start asking for a chew treat just before bedtime, because most nights, he gets one.
Kids and dogs both are observant and it is difficult to hide things from them. Kids can usually find someone who is weaker than them, or know exactly what to say to get a rise out of another person. They can spot weaknesses in a relationship and can use these to their advantage. Even if they can’t verbalize it, they are pretty in tune to their parents’ emotional states. The parent is nervous, the kid might be on edge more than usual too. Dogs also can pick up on our feelings. We might be able to hide our feelings from other people, but our dogs know. It can affect their behavior as well.
Some days, I am surprised how often I say (and repeat) “Sit.” Not to my dog, but during school hours. Kids seems to respond to single word cues as well. Sometimes, at least. At the end of the day, I would probably say that working with dogs is easier, but both have their challenges. I’ve been bitten more times by kids, but have had worse bites from dogs. Dogs have the added challenge of being a different species and we have a major language barrier with. Plus, the kids I work with are potty trained, so there is that to be thankful for. Honestly, I enjoy both and want to somehow merge the two worlds together in harmony. Both hold a place in my heart.
While I am still building up my client base, I do get calls and messages from time to time where the dog owners ask for help with a certain behavior, or are looking to eliminate a certain behavior. They are desperate to get their dog to sit. I ask a few more questions, and find out that they are not so much looking for a sit as they are looking for the dog settle, to not jump on guests, to stop begging at the table, to just be calm enough to be loved on. Sit is a great exercise that is incompatible with jumping up, but for all of these issues, the real thing that dog actually needs is impulse control.
What is impulse control for dogs? I’m glad you asked. Impulse control is simply where the dog makes the decision to resist the desire to perform an action. Impulse control can be tough for dogs, because often times those impulses are fueled by instinct. Plus acting on instinct is also self-reinforcing. Dogs are predators, predators chase smaller animals. However, we may not want our dogs chasing cats or risking harm by chasing a bunny out in the street. It sure is fun for them though! Sometimes those impulses are things that have been reinforced in the past, such as when the dog got a great game of chase or tug by chewing on your shoes. Some of it is just because dogs live in the moment, and don’t pause to think a decision through. It looks tasty and unattended, they eat it. It looks like fun, they play with it.
There are also some dogs who lack impulse control, out of fear, frustration or over-arousal. Reactive dogs generally will benefit from some impulse control training, to teach them that they have some control of events in their lives. These are the dogs whose first instinct may be to choose flight, and when they can’t, their next impulse is to fight and carry on.
In this regard, dogs are very much like children. In fact, there are a lot of human issues that come from lack of impulse control as well. Kids are impulsive all of the time, and it is a hard thing to teach them not to be. I should know, I am struggling to teach a kid I work with every day to stop and think before he reacts. I think teaching dogs is easier though. Teenagers are famous for this, because they often times put themselves in a dangerous situation without thinking of the consequences first. It doesn’t always go away in adults either. There are impulsive eaters, impulsive shoppers, impulsive gamblers, and adults who continue to make decisions that could cause them harm.
Impulse control is definitely easier to teach to adult dogs, but it should be started as soon as your puppy comes home. There are so many times in a dog’s day to day life that we can ask them to practice to impulse control, without setting up special training sessions. And the things they do in their day to day life may also serve as the reinforcement as well. If we ask our dog to sit while we put their food bowl down and release them to go eat, the food is the prize. Some other examples that you can do to practice impulse control in your dog’s day to day life are: ask your dog to sit before you scratch their ears, ask them to sit before you leash them up for a walk, sit before they come inside or go outside, wait before getting out of the car or their crate, sitting and taking a chew treat from you calmly. You can teach all of these just as a part of your day to day life, although, your dog will learn these skills faster if you do multiple repetitions during each training sessions. Teach your dog to sit before you throw a toy or play tug with them. You know they have this impulse control game down when they also offer a stay until released to go get the ball. The dog learns that they get what they want by offering calm behaviors.
For other scenarios, you will want to set up training sessions. Teaching your dog to “Leave It” does not necessarily come naturally, and the level of impulse control needed depends on the stimulus and the location. It has to be built up slowly, in the least distracting environment possible, and then increasing distractions in a controlled way. It is really important to teach our dogs that by leaving something alone that they really want, they get something better in return. It’s a trade. Leave-It can be used for dogs who are food thieves, to keep them out of a cat box (gross, I know), away from questionable finds outside, and for chasing other animals. There are lots of amazing games that start to teach dogs to make these choices on their own, by heavily reinforcing the dog when they make the choice that we want them to make. Check out this video for some more information. http://www.dogtrainergames.com/its-yer-choice/ Dogs who pull on the leash and drag you around are lacking impulse control, but it is possible to teach all dogs to walk nicely on a leash. I usually start without a leash, and reinforce lots of checking in with me.
A couple of other set ups that I strongly encourage all dog owners to do are teaching your dog to relax. Just like with some people, some dogs are better at relaxing than others. Lots of mental stimulations will help with this, as will teaching them to go to a set spot in your home, such as a bed or crate. You can send your dog to their spot when you are eating, when guests come, and when you can see that they need a break. They have to be built up to this point, because this is high distraction. I highly recommend Dr. Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation. https://www.boulderhumane.org/sites/default/files/ProtocolforRelaxation.pdf I also believe that all dogs should learn to respect boundaries. This is where we teach the dog to remain behind a line that we have established. Check out this link here for more information. https://clickertraining.com/node/2409 You may also have to begin some counter-conditioning if your dog’s impulses are based on fear and their fight or flight reflexes. Check this site for more information. http://careforreactivedogs.com/
To start training impulse control, it is always important to assess your dog’s mental state and to decide if they are ready for training at this time. Your dog may be able to handle something at home but will get too excited anywhere else. Don’t put your dog in situations that they won’t be successful in. We always want to set our dogs up for success!
Teaching impulse control to dogs is the answer to so many different behavior issues, which will be the next post. As you can see, this is something I am pretty excited about. I’m looking forward to offering classes on Impulse Control. If you would like to start teaching these skills to your dog, I am here to help!
If you spend enough time around me, especially in dog related settings, you may notice that you pick up a few words from me. One or two of my clients have noticed this for sure. These words may be a matter of semantics, because no matter what I say, I will still train the same way, but being mindful of my words helps me to stay in the right mindset. This helps me to be true to myself, as you may recall, is a big reason why I chose this name for my business. Real Terms indeed.
Cue vs. Command. What does the word command bring to mind for you? For me, it sets the stage for a militant handler, a "you better listen or else" type. One of the hallmarks of clicker training is that the dogs are given the choice to listen! Since listening to us gets them what they want, they listen more often. A cue is simply information that we give the dog, information that by doing a behavior that is associated with that signal, they will earn something they want. They don't obey out of fear, they listen just in case this time is one where they get a treat. Sometimes, the line is still blurred. There are plenty of kind handlers who talk about commands, but are not enforcing them with force. I mean, I even sometimes have to remind my dog a couple of times to lie down when he is distracted. However, he gets treats in these situations and will offer it more willingly the next time. It truly is a mindset to get into. What happens if the dog doesn't listen? With a command, the handler raises their voice and may threaten punishment. With cues, the handler looks at why the dog didn't listen, and takes it as a learning experience of what to train more in the future before putting the dog into that situation again.
Reinforcement vs. Reward. This is an important one. A reward is chosen by the giver. The receiver may have a couple of choices, but it is ultimately not their decision. Sometimes rewards work and sometimes they don't, depending on the value and how much the receiver actually wants it. The example I use is if my co-worker wanted me to stay on top of paperwork, she decides to reward me with Sweet-tarts. I don't ever seek that type of candy out, so it is not terribly motivating to me. A reinforcement, on the other hand, is always chosen by the learner or receiver, and they are the only one who can decide if something is reinforcing or not. Sometimes, it even depends on the environment. A dog may work well at home for kibble, but might need boiled chicken when working in public. Some dogs will work for praise, although usually not in a high distraction environment. Most dogs will work for food, and some prefer to work for a toy. It usually depends on context. A dog who is outdoors might want to work for a Frisbee. Or, a dog might not be hungry and won't find food terribly exciting, even if they normally love it. I usually don't find pie as reinforcing after eating a giant Thanksgiving dinner as I do the next day for breakfast. Back to my example, if my coworker wanted to reinforcement paperwork done on time, she could bring me coffee, or tacos, or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
Manners vs. Obedience. I still talk about obedience, because it is what people know and understand, but I try to gently guide clients towards manners instead. It's another one of those word choices that makes me think. Obedience is a good thing, until the dog is offering it because they are too scared not too or have been pushed hard into it. Truly, most of my clients don't actually want obedience. They want a dog who can make good choices and just be a cool member of the family. When I look at criteria that a clients wants, most don't need their dog to snap to to listen. They want their dog to be calm, to greet guests nicely, not to beg at the table and to walk nicely on a leash. They might not actually ever need a dog who walks at a perfect show ring heel. They just want their dog to not be pulling their arm like crazy or to be wrapping them in a leash. We have made a cultural shift away from using the word obey in marriage vows. Most parents and teachers don't expect kids to be obedient either. They want kids to be respectful, to listen to expectations and to face the positive or negative consequence of their choice. Our dogs are the same way.
I even sometimes think about the cues I use in my own dog training. I realized, not too long ago, that my Leave-It cue had been poisoned, or made to have a negative connotation to my dog. Not that I even ever punished him harshly, but even raising my voice hurt his feelings. So, we retrained it, and not call it Mine/Trade. He leaves what I don't want him to have with the knowledge that he will get something he really likes.
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter which words we use, as long as we are kind to our dogs. We owe it to them to be patient, to be allowed to make good choices, after those choices have been heavily reinforced. Our dogs are going to love us as long as we are fun and kind to them.
Since I am teaching a Recallers class right now, good recalls have been on my mind a lot lately. I've been looking at mistakes I have made and seen made in order to help my students have the best recall possible. The two biggest reasons that a recall falls apart are that the behavior hasn't been proofed enough and the dog learns that he/she doesn't have to listen. In the world of recall training, repetition, repetition, repetition will be your best friend. However, when your dog learns that a cue can be ignored, sometimes it is best to start with a new one and start from scratch retraining the behavior.
The other issue is that the cue has somehow been poisoned. The dog takes their sweet time getting back to their owner and the dog gets in trouble. The dog may make the association that this particular cue means trouble, so running the other way is self-preservation! Or, the dog is only called for unpleasant experiences, like baths and leaving the park. Of course they ignore the cue then. Again, the best thing to do in this case is to choose a new recall cue, and make it fun and positive every time the dog listens and returns.
Here is an extensive list of potential recall cues that may be novel to your dog. This is a good thing, because the dog has no association with this word. You can turn paying attention and listening to this cue to be the most fun thing in the world, with the best ever treats, play sessions and cuddles. Plus, it may be less likely that everyone else and their dog is using the same cue as you, lessening confusion for your dog. Enjoy, and let me know if you chose one of these cues in the comment sections!
Several days ago, I posted a picture of my buddy Dakota on a Facebook dog group. There are some crazies in the dog groups, and the crazies can come from all walks of life and dog experience. The particular person I encountered this time saw a picture of Dakota in a martingale slip lead that we use for sports. She told me I had no right to call myself an R+ trainer and I was going to break my dog’s trachea with that instrument of torture. Hmm, I was just sharing the picture because the look on his face is hilarious. See below. If you know me, you know that I am pretty conscientious of what I use on Dakota, and I research a lot! While a martingale can be abused, it is not as black and white as this person makes it sound.
Dog training tools are so often put in little boxes. There are “good” tools and “bad” tools. However, the so-called good tools can be abused or aversive and the so-called bad ones can have their place as well. For the most part, many pieces of equipment are not black or white. They can be used appropriately, with good results or abused with lots of fallout. A lot of the effectiveness of a piece of training equipment comes back to the handler and how they know how to or choose to use it.
Take a regular flat buckle collar and six foot leash. These are tools that are pretty innocuous to most of us. They generally are tools that just are there and used, no big deal. However, if someone were to tug and pop the leash and collar, it could be an aversive tool. The leash can be used as a whip, or the collar could be too tight, or the collar could only come on when the dog is stressed out. The dog could be drug around by the collar and learn to hate it. None of this has anything to do with the equipment though. It just has to do with the handler and how they use it. But, if the dog has learned to dislike the equipment, a responsible trainer won’t just scrap it, especially something as essential as a leash and collar. They will help the dog to create a better mindset about the equipment, and figure out why the dog hates it. It’s a counter-conditioning venture.
The same could be said about pretty much any type of containment, whether it be crates, gates, fenced yards or even tie outs. These all can have fallout from being used incorrectly, but the alternative to not containing a dog is to potentially have a dog who winds up lost or injured or dead. None of those are any good at all. Nor is it good for a dog to be crated, tied out, or isolated for the majority of the day, but when used properly, these tools will keep your dog safe, contained and there to greet you when you get home. Plus, containment may also save your possessions!
I don’t like slip collars, slip leads or choke chains.. They are harder on a dog’s neck than a regular collar. Yet, I own a few slip leads. They live in my truck. These leashes are not my main leash ever, but they also serve a purpose. If I were to happen to find a stray dog on my way home, when I take the dog to be checked for a microchip, that dog is already leashed and not likely to escape from me. This has happened to me once or twice. Or, I have accidentally forgotten Dakota’s leash when I planned to take him somewhere, so I am grateful to have slip leads with me in my truck. I am just more strict than usual when he is in one. I ask for a heel to keep his throat safe. I have a client who uses a slip leash as a backup leash on her dog who is a flight risk. It is the only thing that this dog hasn’t learned to wriggle out of.
Looking at that martingale leash, the only reason I use something like that and not Dakota’s regular harness is that when we finish a run or an event, I need to get him dressed and out of the ring quickly, for his safety and the other dogs’, plus it is the rules. It’s a leash that slips over his head, and I can get it on him right away after a run. He literally wears the leash from his kennel to outside for bathroom breaks and from his kennel to the ring and then back again. Plus, like the slip leads that I keep in the truck, a martingale lead or collar also makes a good backup when walking a dog who is an escape artist. They are highly recommended for dogs who have small heads, like most sight hounds or northern breeds. A martingale does put more even pressure on the dog’s neck than a slip lead, and is somewhat less likely to cause damage. That said, I wouldn’t use one as a primary walking collar. They still do tighten up, and can be aversive, plus that kind of pressure on the neck is hard on a dog. A martingale is best used as a backup to a well-fit harness.
Not so much anymore, but head collars used to be considered a positive tool. As a dog walker, I will say that a dog who is well conditioned to wear one is a dream to walk. However, I have maybe met one dog who is conditioned to one. If one is put on a dog with no prior experience, the dog will spend the entire walk pawing at their face, rubbing their head on the ground or figuring out how to chew it off. I have seen that a lot of times! Just slapped on a dog, it is majorly aversive and can also cause structural damage and pain.
Fortunately, trainers are less likely to label a tool as good or bad. Perhaps, just as we don't want to label a breed of dog by one negative experience, or all owners who fit in a certain box. There are tools I will recommend to you above others, but at the end of the day, keeping your dog safe is the most important priority to me too.
Hi, I'm Rachel. I'm crazy about dogs and want to see all of them living the best life possible. Most of my free time is taken up by dogs, but when I am not working with my own or others, I also enjoy cooking, volunteer work, reading and Netflix in my pajamas.