5 Tips for More Enjoyable Leash Walks

Dogs love to go on walks, and we love to walk them, but things don’t always go as planned. Here are some tips to make your leash walks more pleasant for everyone!

Gracie and her owner learning to have more enjoyable leash walks. It takes consistent practice!

  1. Use proper equipment – If your dog is a dedicated puller, use a front clip harness or head halter instead of a regular collar. Good equipment will help give you a little more control, but it is not a replacement for consistent training.
  2. Retractable leashes teach dogs to pull – These leashes operate by the dog creating tension, resulting in more leash length, so the dog learns that pulling is the way to get further. To give your dog more freedom, use a long line, and focus on teaching your dog to keep slack in the line.
  3. Don’t let your dog pull you where he wants to go –  Pulling on the leash gets reinforced by the dog getting where he wants to go. When he starts to pull forward, turn around and walk in the opposite direction to send a clear message to the dog that pulling will not get him what he wants.
  4. Be respectful of other people and dogs walking –  Not every dog wants to meet your dog, and either does every person you come across. Be sure to ask permission BEFORE your dog approaches another dog or person, and be respectful if they say no, and give their dog plenty of space from yours.
  5. Keep on leash greetings short –  If you do have your dog greet another dog on leash, keep the interaction very brief (3-5 seconds). Any longer than that, and one of the dogs might decide they are uncomfortable, which could cause growling or snapping at the other dog.

If you are struggling with your dog’s leash manners, contact a professional dog trainer for help. Visit the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers “Find a Trainer” directory to find a qualified trainer in your area.

What’s the Deal with Food in Dog Training?

If you trained a dog 15 years ago, like when I was starting out, you probably didn’t use much food in that process. Sure, dogs might get a milkbone before bed, but we weren’t dicing up cheese and hot dogs in our kitchens before class. To be fair, my first obedience class did allow us to bring food treats for the dogs, but treats were used sparingly, and it’s possible that the food only added to the confusion that the dogs were most likely experiencing in those classes. I still get hesitation or resistance from some clients when I bring up the topic of using food rewards in training, because horror of horrors, the dog may learn to only do the behavior when the treat is present.

As a culture, we have an expectation that our dogs should do what we ask of them, when we ask, without hesitation, and definitely without food involved. We’ve been taught that the key to happiness with our dogs is obedience, the dog will listen to what you say, no matter what. Is this a reasonable expectation of our dogs? If so, how do we achieve that high level of response to our cues?

I will not expect 100% reliability from my dog until I can produce 100% reliability in myself, which is to say – never. Dogs are individuals, each of whom react to motivating factors differently. I expect that there are going to be situations where my dog may not do what I ask of her, and for the most part I know what those situations are for each of my dogs. When we set reasonable expectations for our dogs in any given situation, we are more likely to manage them appropriately, and less likely to be frustrated by their behavior.

So, how do we get our dogs to do what we want them to do? Well, dogs (and all animals) learn things in two basic ways: 1) They work to earn something they want, OR 2) They work to avoid something they don’t want. Back when I started training dogs, dogs were taught to perform a behavior to avoid a correction. If the dog didn’t sit, they received a leash correction (a sharp jerk on the leash), often while wearing a training collar such as a choke chain or prong collar. One problem here is that we don’t always get to choose what our dog will do to avoid the unpleasant consequence, and many dogs will avoid the consequence by avoiding the work altogether. You can’t train your dog to do anything if he’s avoiding you. Other dogs will become desensitized to the unpleasant consequences, and will no longer work to avoid it, unless you increase the unpleasantness. After running into several of these issues with my own dogs, I decided to look for a different way.

A new generation of dogs benefits my decision to change how I was training. Tori, Fawkes, Pirate, Millie, and Mia have all learned that staying will result in things they want, like treats!

Here’s where the food comes in. To be clear, there are many things other than food that dogs enjoy working to earn, such as access to freedom, and the best trainers utilize these other options skillfully. I’m going to talk specifically about food, because that seems to be a sticking point with many dog owners embarking on training. Food is a currency that works for all dogs, because they have to eat to live, so most dogs will work to earn a bit of food. What is puzzling to me is that many people seem to feel that using the food in training cheapens the relationship they have with their dog. Do you eat dinner with your family? Have you ever invited a friend out for lunch? What about bringing brownies to the new neighbor? Food is a big part of our human relationships, and so it should be with dogs. Teaching your dog to work to earn food will create longer lasting, and more reliable behaviors in the long run, plus you will develop an amazing relationship with your dog. Food can also be used to create positive associations with anything that scares our dogs, helping their brains to switch from fear to acceptance, or even excitement.

How reliable can a dog become when trained with food? That may depend on a variety of factors including the dog’s personality, temperament, age, and physical status, as well as your commitment to training, opportunities for training, and training skills. In my experience, dogs who work to earn something, rather than working to avoid something, develop a higher level of reliability without relying on tools (such as a training collar) to maintain that reliability. As previously mentioned, food is just one of the many things dogs will work to earn, and including a variety of desirable consequences in your training will increase your dog’s reliability.

In conclusion, we should embrace the use of food in our training and maintaining our relationships with our dogs! Many of the skills we expect our dogs to know do not come naturally to them, and we need to pay them for their hard work in learning these skills. If food isn’t working for you in training your dog, you need to step back and look at the technique, rather than blaming the food. Training is a skill that must be learned, whether through books, seminars, YouTube videos, or lessons with a professional trainer. If you are struggling with your dog’s behavior, and you’ve resisted using food in the past, or have tried and not gotten the results you wanted, contact a professional trainer for help in adapting your technique to meet your goals!

5 Tips to Reducing Conflict with your Dog

Why do we want to reduce conflict? Because dogs and humans have evolved together for tens of thousands of years to work together, not to be at odds with one another. They are our partners and friends, not our adversaries. Here are some suggestions on how to reduce the conflict you may experience with your dog:

  1. Focus on what you do want your dog to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do. If you are always focused on what the dog is doing wrong, you will find yourself frustrated and more likely to increase conflict in your relationship. Think about what you want the dog to do instead, and then focus on training the behavior you want.
  2. Learn as much as you can about dog behavior. Many things that create conflict between dogs and humans are really a misunderstanding of what constitutes normal dog behavior. Frustrated that your dog pulls on leash? Your dog is probably frustrated that you walk so slowly! Dogs don’t pull on leash to drive us crazy, they pull because they naturally walk faster than us, and they are very keyed in to the environments where we walk them.
  3. Set reasonable expectations for your dog. We tend to have this idea in our minds of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, the ever-faithful companion that does whatever we ask. This isn’t the reality for most of the dog population, yet many times we still hold dogs to this standard. Dogs are individuals, and depending on their genetic makeup, their early life history, and their current environment, they all vary in their abilities to handle a given situation. Be sure your expectations are reasonable when dealing with your dog.
  4. Learn about how dogs learn. Dogs will always do what works for them. If a behavior is being reinforced, intentionally or not, they will continue to do it. This applies to sitting for a treat, stealing roast beef off the counter, or pawing for attention. If a behavior has been punished, whether it be going in the crate after coming when called, or being asked to do one too many repetitions of a difficult task, you will see less of that behavior. We don’t get to decide what dogs find reinforcing or punishing, so if the consequence doesn’t mean anything to the dog, it won’t be effective in changing behavior.
  5. Recognize that you are the only one in this relationship that can make a conscious effort to reduce conflict between you and your dog. Your dog is simply reacting to her environment, and the consequences she receives for her actions. If you have brought conflict to the table, it’s your job to remove it!

If you are experiencing persistent conflict with your dog, consult a professional trainer who will help you resolve those issues. We share our lives with dogs to enjoy them, not to be at odds with them. Reduce the conflict with your dog, and I can assure you that you and your dog will reap the benefits!

Shake it Off!

My favorite dog behavior is the shake-off. Now suddenly I’m pondering how much of a dog nerd you have to be to have a “favorite dog behavior”. I love the shake-off because it has such a connotation of moving on, which is exactly what dogs are saying when they shake-off. Other than a wet dog shaking the water off its body, most shake-offs appear to have some aspect of trying to improve the mental state. These are some of the situations where I commonly see shake-offs:

This Border Collie just completed the physical exam in the show ring, and is shaking off before starting the movement exam. He’s clearly ready to move on!

  • Waking up from a nap, stimulating the body and mind after a deep stretch
  • After a stressful event, such as a visit to the vet, or a close call with an unfriendly dog
  • During a break in play, especially after particularly rough or intense play
  • After the removal of equipment such as a harness, backpack, or clothing
  • Before and during a Nose Work search

In all of these situations, the dog is shaking-off in order to move into a better state of mind, or to stimulate and awaken the body. Whether or not it starts with stress, the end goal seems to always be a better mental state afterward. When a coach tells his players to “Shake it off” after the other team scores, he’s telling them to stay in the moment, and improve their mental state for what’s coming next. I believe that dogs are masters at this mind set, and I strive to learn from their ability to live in the moment and not dwell on the past.

Once you start looking for shake-offs you will start to notice how often our dogs do this. I have gotten into the habit of praising dogs when they shake-off, because I want to encourage that “moving on” mentality wherever I can. I should probably start praising myself when I remember to shake it off!

Loose Dog! Tips for catching an out of control dog

I was standing at a Nose Work trial in the heart of Denver, outside of South High School when I heard someone yell out “Loose Dog!” My many years in the dog industry, attending dog shows, working at doggie daycares and grooming salons, caused me to jump into action, ready to help. I’ve caught many strange dogs in my life, including a rambunctious Shepherd at a Search and Rescue practice who came barreling into me at full speed, and instead of backing away to protect my own body as many others did, I let her run full force into my open legs, closing them quickly around her body and bringing an end to her interruption of the training day. On more than one occasion, I have raced out the door of a dog business where a dog escaped their owner in the parking lot. When I lived on a corner lot in a busy neighborhood, I caught many a stray dog who came up to investigate my dogs through the fence. On this day, when I turned to see the loose dog at the Nose Work trial, I had that sinking feeling that I’ve had too many times in my life with dogs, “Oh s***! My dog is loose!”

Some dogs, like this Gordon Setter, are bred to run all day. It is very important to teach them to come when called!

I’ll admit that Fawkes, my 5-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, looked beautiful galloping across the front lawn of South High School. I immediately cursed myself for not spending more time working on his emergency recall. As an intact male of an independently minded hound breed, he requires an immense amount of work to build his desire to come when called, especially when the stakes are high. Like the cobbler’s kid growing up without shoes, Fawkes the dog trainer’s kid has received an inadequate amount of training in coming when called. I generally manage this by keeping him on leash or on a long-line at all times, but there’s this pesky little saying that management always fails…

While I could write an entire blog on recall problems, and the training solutions for such problems, this one is about what you should do if that training hasn’t been established (or it’s a dog you don’t know), or if the training you have done is presently failing. As with many things in dog training, as with life, the answer is “It Depends”. Your reaction will change based on the environment around you, what you know about the dog, how many people you can mobilize, and what you have at your disposal (food, toys, leash, etc.).

Based on my experience in catching loose dogs, here is my best advice:

  • Do not chase the dog! This can have many effects, none of them desirable. If the dog is scared, you are just adding to the scary experience. If the dog is having a great time being loose, they may interpret your running after them as joining in on the fun. Some loose dogs will stay within a certain distance of their owner, and running after them will only expand their range.
  • If you have a bag of treats, it’s worth a try to shake them to get the dog’s attention. Not all dogs will buy this, or even care, but enough dogs will react to it that you should give it a shot.
  • Run away from the dog. This will incite the chase reaction, and you can get the dog moving toward you. If the dog starts chasing you, run to the safest location you possibly can.
  • Do not reach for the dog! If you manage to get the dog coming toward you, avoid the temptation to try to grab the dog. A scared dog will only become more scared, and a clever dog enjoying a jaunt will only work harder to avoid being caught.
  • Fall down. Yep, that’s right, fall to the ground – the more dramatic the better! This is how I caught Fawkes at the Nose Work trial. It does two things – it creates some concern in the dog, especially if it’s your own dog. Humans matter very much to dogs, even independent hound dogs. Second, it makes you very non-threatening to the dog. The dog knows that you can’t run after them, and sometimes that’s just enough to convince them you are safe.
  • Move slowly in securing the dog. If you have food, scatter it on the ground for the dog to eat while you quietly get ahold of them. Once Fawkes came toward me after I fell down, I scattered treats all over the ground, and waited for him to start to eat them before reaching out to secure him. He was enjoying his freedom, but his concern about my falling, and consequently treats raining down on him convinced him that I was worth sticking around in that moment.

Every dog is an individual, and no one method will work for every dog. Try to think about the dog’s motivation in making your plan, and be ready to try something else as soon as one plan fails. Even if it’s an unknown dog, it’s body language can tell you if it is running scared, or having the time of its life. Focus on drawing the dog toward you and building trust by offering food and not reaching toward it quickly. It’s worth taking the time to build that moment of trust in order to secure the dog safely!

Megan is now a Certified Nose Work Instructor!

Megan completed all of her requirements through the National Association of Canine Nose Work to become a Certified Nose Work Instructor! This certification included 8 days of in-person learning, an exam, instructor evaluations from students, video submissions of classes, as well as additional requirements such as passing an Odor Recognition Test, and attending certain lectures from the founders of the sport. It was a lot of work, but Nose Work is Megan’s passion! If you are interested in learning more about K9 Nose Work, we have a special 9 week Intro course starting June 2nd. Contact Megan at megan@dogsdeciphered.com for more information!

Piper loved Megan's K9 Nose Work Classes in Loveland, CO

Piper loved Megan’s K9 Nose Work Classes in Loveland, CO

How to Choose a Dog Trainer

In the world of search engines and social media advertising, it’s hard to know where to turn when you need help with your dog’s behavior. Do a search for “dog training [city, state]” and you will come up with all kinds of options. Who can help?

  1. Where to start? An internet search is a good start, just keep these things in mind:
    • It’s easy to sell a good story on a website, which gives no actual evidence that the person has the experience or knowledge to help you.
    • Some of the best trainers aren’t the best at marketing. Coming up high on Google searches actually takes a pretty specific skill set, and spending money in just the right places. I would say most of my colleagues are in the learning phase of marketing their business correctly, because they’ve spent their time mastering their training skill!
    • I recommend looking on the CCPDT (that’s the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) trainer search: http://www.ccpdt.org/dog-owners/certified-dog-trainer-directory/.
    • Even if you find a trainer whose website looks great, you owe it to your dog to ask them a few questions (see below) before hiring them.
  2. Ask for recommendations. Your veterinarian is a good place to start, but they may or may not know trainers personally or have experience with them. Ask friends or local groups on social media if they have ever hired a dog trainer they would recommend. Your friends and community members are the most likely to be honest about their experience. You may just find the local gem that hasn’t quite mastered search engine optimization. pirate-and-megan-heeling
  3. Once you get a few names, or even one good lead, call or email to ask them a few questions:
    • Briefly describe your problem, and ask if they have experience with that issue. A trainer may not be comfortable with aggression cases, or have much experience with severe separation anxiety, and that’s okay. A good trainer will be honest about their experience level, and refer you to a more experienced colleague if needed.
    • Jean Donaldson sums it up perfectly with her 3 questions for dog trainers, and you will want to find someone whose answers you are comfortable with –
      • What will happen to my dog if he gets it right?
      • What will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?
      • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
    • If they offer inexpensive or free consults, they may encourage you to make an appointment, which is fine, but be sure to ask those questions during your consult!
  4. Be your dog’s advocate! At any point in any training program, if you do not feel comfortable with what is happening to your dog, speak up. You owe it to your dog to do what you feel is best, even if a professional is telling you otherwise. Dog training is an unregulated field, and there are many unqualified individuals working in the industry. This is why it is important to ask questions first, but unfortunately some people are deceptive. If it doesn’t feel right for you and your dog, don’t continue.

When to Hire a Professional Dog Trainer

How do you know if you should hire a professional dog trainer?

  1. When you are a first time dog owner – There is a lot of information out there on how to raise a dog, and if you are a first time dog owner it is difficult to know what will actually help. A professional dog trainer can help you navigate this information, and get you and your dog on the right track.
  2. When you are in over your head – Even an experienced dog owner may come across a problem they do not have experience with. If the problem behavior hasn’t been solved by what you currently know, a professional dog trainer can help teach you the skills you need to get a handle on the behavior.Fawkes
  3. When quality of life is suffering – If you or your dog is experience a reduction in your quality of life, you should seek professional help. This can be anything from extreme fears/phobias that reduce your dog’s quality of life, to a dog that tries to escape the front door at every opportunity which reduces your quality of life. You and your dog deserve to be happy, and a professional dog trainer can help you reach that goal.
  4. When you want to take your training to the next level – Maybe you already have a very well trained dog, but you know they are capable of more. A professional dog trainer can help you realize your dog’s potential, and find activities that your dog excels at.
  5. When your dog has threatened or done harm to a human – We don’t like to talk about dogs that threaten people, but these dogs definitely need professional help to keep them from being a risk to anyone. If you have a dog that has acted aggressively toward a person, a professional dog trainer is your first point of contact. Be aware that a trainer may refer you on to a more experienced colleague if they do not feel comfortable working with an aggression case.
  6. When you want to be competitive – If you want to compete in dog sports, hiring a professional trainer with experience in competitive dog sports can be very helpful in fine tuning your performance.

If you are looking for a professional dog trainer in your area, check out the Certified Dog Trainer Directory. In my next post I will talk about finding the right trainer for you and your dog.

 

Big Changes for Dogs Deciphered!

2016 is going to be an exciting year for Dogs Deciphered! Megan has spent the last 3 years working full time for a growing grooming salon, daycare, and grooming school, while building her training business on the side. The time has come, and Megan has gone part-time to focus more on training! This means she will be seeing private in-home clients throughout Northern Colorado, 5 days a week, with select weekends available. She will also be offering classes in both Fort Collins and Loveland, with daytime, evening, and weekend classes being offered. If this is your year to spend more time working on your dog’s behavior, or learning something new, contact Megan today to find out about her expanded schedule of private lessons and group classes!