Thursday, October 16, 2008

A rhapsody on dog training

This is my dog Tip.
Tip is hilarious. Note the gleeful expression on his face as his busy little brain works out that, maybe, if he brings me his tennis ball AND a stick, I'll throw BOTH for him. There is a dog who knows what he wants out of life.

Tip's a purebred Border collie. He's got "classic" markings and conformation to die for. ..Actually I'm no dog show connoisseur, but still. If I were a judge, I would give him Best in Show. You say no to that face. He should be a dog biscuits model or something. (Can you tell I'm gonna be one of those moms who shows everyone the pictures of her kids in her wallet?)

But I won't lie. Tip is a good example of a purebreed you DON'T want to breed. I love him to bits, he's kooky and adorable, but he's dumb as a plank. He's a sweetheart, but he's not a good representation of his breed. I don't know if he's just got a dumbass gene in his lines or if this was the result of what I refer to as "the incident" - sometime during puppyhood, Tip was dicking around and caused a hay bale to fall on him. Chicken or the egg? Well, not worth the risk. And after he was caught several times making sweet love to his pillow, it wasn't hard to say goodbye to his balls.

Anyway, Tip's big problem is that he's neurotic as hell. Everything overwhelms him. I lied - he's not THAT dumb (he walks into so many walls he'd fool you, though) - but training him was a major trial because he'd get all nervous and wiggly and start the pee dance. I'm not a dog psychologist and I don't know how to make him stop being so afraid of being judged or screwing up or whatever it is that scares him. Actually, I have exactly the same problem myself (without wetting my pants, though. Most days). So I let it slide.

I digress.

Do you remember our friends at Dakota Winds, with the freaky mini Saint Bernards? I finally checked out their son's website because I was intrigued by the mention of a training program, and to see if maybe he learnt from his parents' mistakes. Well, he didn't. (Who's surprised?) In fact, he and his girlfriend-type are breeding MORE freaky little mixes, like ... um ... "Cuddles". (Show of hands, who would tell people that's what their dog was? If I had one and somebody asked me what was on the end of my leash, I'd say, "Oh, him? He's a Butch McHarley. Mix between a Rottweiler and a lumberjack." But I know I wouldn't fool anybody.)

Anyway, their training program. You leave your dog with them. You pay them $600, and they in turn teach your puppy how to pee outside and sit. For the reasonable sum (reasonable like a water balloon to the face) of $1800, they teach him how to pee, sit, lie down and heel. For an added $150, they teach him how to ring a bell when he wants to go outside!

I don't care how dumb your dog is, he can convey to you that he needs to pee. Even my dog who rides the short bus knows how to do this. He barks at the door. Or he comes into whatever room I'm in and gives me the Patent Border Collie Staredown. You don't have to be a sheep to get freaked out by The Stare, take my word. Sometimes I don't even know what he wants, I just get moving. It's kind of embarrassing to realize you're being herded as you part from your desk and hustle downstairs with your dog's gimlet eyes burning holes into your back. Maybe bell-ringing has its uses for some people, but I think in Tip's case he would ring them once and then take cover under the coffee table. The most expensive piece of crap my dumb dog ever scared himself with.

I wouldn't trust my dog to these people. Let's face it, for $1950 I would expect him to come home and start reciting Henry IV, both parts. For what you get, that is not worth it. And I know I'm not the only one with a) not enough money and/or b) a semi-retarded dog for whom normal training methods don't work. I don't care if you don't think you have a lot of time to spend teaching your dog how to sit pretty. YOU can train your dog yourself, and you don't have to be a dog whisperer to do it. Listen up, because I'm about to save you about $1948 with these two words:

Clicker training.

NOTE at this point that, on top of not being a dog show connoisseur (unless watching on ESPN counts) or a dog psychologist, I am also not a professional dog trainer myself. Nearly everything I learned about dog training, I learned from my friend who DOES train dogs for a living. Better yet, she trains service dogs. She gets to cruise around in wheelchairs and take puppies into malls, and THEY GIVE HER MONEY FOR THIS. I am so jealous. She's also a vet tech and I don't think there's ANYTHING she doesn't know about animals. She's the one I go wailing to when my beloved guinea pig scratches her ear an unusual amount of times, is she dying?? (Nope, C tells me kindly, just has a bit of an allergy to her bedding.) C is a dog whisperer and a goddess.

C uses a clicker to train her dogs, and had lots of tips (no pun intended) when I decided to give it a go with Tip because I was at least mostly sure it couldn't make him any more defective upstairs. Within three sessions, my dog who should wear a helmet everywhere he goes had all but mastered the "downstay". I'm pretty convinced now that clicker training is the solution to all of life's problems. Recently acquired a puppy? Clicker training! Dog pulls at the leash? Clicker training! Excessive barker? Clicker training! Cheating husband? Clicker training! Global economic recession? Buy a clicker!

Forget everything you've heard right now about tone of voice and showing who's boss and even forget everything you learned in psych 101 about operant conditioning, because what it comes down to is this: Your dog thinks you're a dumbass - after all, you're the one who expects him to drop everything and come indoors right away when he's busy having the time of his life haring around the yard chasing that squirrel who keeps screaming racial slurs and making gang signs at him from the fence. So? make him think that the objective is FUN, too.
Step One: Desired behaviour.
Step Two: Click.
Step Three: Reward.

Ta-da. Suddenly you're not such a dumbass. You've got tasty treats, and your puppy wants them.

You could probably learn more from other sources, like C, who should write a book so I can pimp it all over the place, because I'm just an awed believer who's seen the light. Hallelujah, I will stray no more! But I've got some handy tips for you anyway. These methods may or may not work for you. But they worked for my dog who is special-ed and captivated by the sound of his own farts, so I have a lot of faith.

1. Don't tell me your dog is too old to learn. I've probably pulled that line too, but it's not true. Old dogs can learn new tricks. Get a clicker and let your dog wow you. Tip was five (still is) when we started clicker training; well into maturity, even for a dog his breed. I was anxious because the school next to our favourite park was having a lot of construction done this summer before the school year began, and with all those big machines rolling around begging to be herded, and him not such a star at down or recall... Well, training felt important. (Imagine how proud I was when he dropped flat at my command as a truck came rolling out of the woods in front of him, and stayed there. Forget pride - imagine my RELIEF!)

2. Use hand signals. C taught me this one. Human speech can sometimes be difficult for dogs, especially if you're not the only one in the house who's going to be giving the commands. The same word won't always sound the same to them. I imagine this is more important with service dogs - or bilingual dogs - but I attached a signal to the "downstay" command anyway (hand raised, palm facing the dog, in a kind of "STOP in the name of lo-ove!" pose. It's very overt and the most attention-grabbing signal I could think of, as this is the most important command to me), so when Tip is half a football field away and I yell "down", even if he doesn't hear the precise command, he sees the hand and drops.

3. "Downstay" is IMPORTANT if, like me, you let your dog run around off-leash. Sometimes recall isn't the best option, like, heaven forbid, if your dog is running at you from the other side of a road. When you say "down" (or lie down, or whatever command you choose), your dog should know that this means HIT THE DECK and don't move until Mom or Dad says so.

4. Know your enemy. Are you teaching a breed that learns best by repetition, or one (like herders) that gets bored fast and needs variation? The clicker's great for both. Making it gradually more difficult to earn a click, or only giving a click when the dog does the desired behaviour perfectly, can motivate him. With Tip, I first praised the simple action of lying down, then increased the distance between us when I gave the command, then only praised his lying down and staying put until I gave the release. Some sites will tell you to start with the action and THEN add the verbal command, but Tip already knew what "lie down" meant, so I all I had to do was make the gradual switch between "lie down" (which I use in the home to mean stop licking my socks and bugger off under the coffee table please) and "down" (HIT THE DECK!). I don't see the point of adding a verbal command later, anyway.

5. ALWAYS follow up a click with a treat! Some people might say click and then heap the praise on, but let's face it - your dog would rather work for food. I sure would work for Butterfingers.

6. Be consistent. I learned this from C, too. If your dog is mowing down that crazy racist squirrel, and you yell for five minutes for your dog to COME HERE SIR, and finally your dog does, happy and satisfied, don't take the wind out of his sails by bitching at him for taking so long. He came, didn't he? Tell him what a good widdle muffin he is, yes he is! Click and give him a treat while you're at it. Now he knows that, hey, coming inside when he's called can be rewarding, too. Funny how this never occurs to us. C is pretty convinced dog owners are morons. I think in most cases she is spot on.

Clicker training is dog training made easy. Before you give up on your puppy and send him to somebody else for a crazy fee, just buy a clicker and some Scooby Snacks or whatever your dog likes, and give it a whirl.

If C gives her permission, and if my readers aren't too offended by excessive profanity, I might just link to the guide she's working on right now, "Clicker Training Motherf***ers", because it's more informative than I am. In the meantime, though, here is a link which seems pretty good (PDF alert). And by the way, clicker training can be used on all kinds of animals - cat, horses (and even fish, C claims) included. Teach your pets wacky stuff, why not!



Emele Duncan said...


I don't think I'll be trying clicker training on Honey--she's practically elderly by now, according to C, and she already comes when called consistently and will sit and stay on command--but now that I know, I will be using it on my next puppywuppy, yes I will~

GoLightly said...

Brilliant post!
I've read all of Karen Pryor's books, (the mother of clicker training, actually it was B.F. Skinner, but she likes animals, I think he just liked to study 'em)
Clicker training can get complicated. I'm just not that smart, really..WhereTF is my clicker? With my genius herding kelpies, I have to keep them fascinated, or that squirrel/snake/bug/whatever wins out. My older dog, Flip, is so smart it's scary, and my coming 2 puppy is just awesome. I think after a while, you need to pair the food with a verbal or visual cue, that equals the click/reward, for those cases when you aren't close enough to treat them. My old kelpie mix wouldn't take food, unless she did a trick first. She figured that out on her own. And, they do get full, and sometimes food isn't as great a distraction as that raccoon pooh they're rolling in.
I know my dogs have me figured right out:)
Curious, what do you think of Cesar?
He was the "icing" on my training cake, but that's what training is all about, you learn as much as you can, from everywhere that you can, and then enjoy the dog you've got.
And discard that which isn't helpful.
Better work!

Thanks again, great post!

muttpuppiesontrial said...

Thanks so much! :) And highfive for herding dogs!

I have to be honest, I don't follow Cesar all that much - up in the frozen North we don't get the network. So if there's been some big public scandal decrying his methods, I haven't heard about it!
I'm kind of on the fence when it comes to Cesar. On the one hand I don't think physical force is always necessary. And I know personally, with my dog, I prefer to reward something good rather than wait for something bad and then punish him. I sense that would foster a good deal of uncertainty.

But on the other hand, I don't personally work with aggressive breeds, so I don't feel I'm in a position to properly judge. I think it's entirely possible that these dogs DO need a "calm, assured leader", and that maybe that basis needs to be provided before you can move on to positive reinforcement methods. I think his methods can and have worked on aggressive dogs, I think he's done a lot of great work in the dog world, and I very much like that he simultaneously trains the owners!

Hmm, maybe I'll have to buy some DVDs to form a more solid opinion...

GoLightly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GoLightly said...

I blathered on way too much with my last comment, and deleted it in disgust.
Please, try to watch Cesar. I've read too many comments like "Oh, I don't watch the show, but I don't use physical punishment, like he does."
He does not. Really. Watch with an open mind, is all you need. Yes, he touches them, but never, ever does he hit them, ever.
New show last week, where we got to watch a dog-aggressive pit-bull attack, and start-up a dog brawl. He was able to break it up, with no punishment, and while it reinforced my conviction to never own a bully breed, (I do make mistakes, and they can't handle sloppy dog training) it also showed how an owner (they had come to see their dog in rehab) can generate a behaviour. The dog had been fine in his pack for two months.
if you want to read my blathering on Cesar, go to dog-gone fugly's blog. I really went to town, there!
Have a great day, and scritches to Tip. I have the same problem of my dogs just loving other little dogs, 'cause their best friend at work is a Jack/York cross (I know...)
Skeered the heck out of the pseudo-trainers, when my puppy wanted to "gasp" meet other smaller puppies.
Shut up, and go to work, I will!
I'm in the frozen north, too, btw, we have a new fangled thing called satellite tv. Watched all of the equestrian olympics, I was in heaven:)

muttpuppiesontrial said...

Haha, I made sure to catch all the show jumping. :) I hear Eric Lamaze is going to be at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair! I'd love to see him and Hickstead in action, though I suppose Hickstead might be on a well-earned vacation by now...

Yes, I think there's a lot to be said for Cesar's methods. And I know he wouldn't hurt any of his dogs. I guess I believe it varies on a case-by-case basis - agressive dogs, willful, stubborn, dominant dogs, those are the dogs that need some Dog Whispering! People who have dogs like that and can't control them really need to pull their heads out of their asses and listen to trainers like Cesar. But for other dogs, like my wimpy Tip, I'd say positive reinforcement will work just fine. I did say everything overwhelms him! Clicker training was our miracle-worker where other methods failed because it was more of a fun game for him. :) But if he were trying to dominate me at every turn and make life difficult ... forget positive reinforcement! That's where corrective methods need to come into play. You're right; Cesar's a good guy, and even if people don't fully understand the "alpha roll", it certainly does seem to work!

Tip was snoozing on my feet when I read your comment. I passed on the scritches and he looked sleepy but pleased, lol.

GoLightly said...

Your Tip, my Flip! My older dog, named Flip, (I'll have had her 4 years this Nov. 4, two weeks to the day after my old mix passed away in my arms), had a lovely roll in squishy stinky today. Poor thing, she had no idea why I was furious with her when she got back in the house. Bath time for Flip, and I'd JUST had my bi-weekly shower (I'm old, you see). Lovely brown water, all over the bathroom... She's black 'n tan, and I can't SEE the crap, until it's dried, and in lower light. She's the first dog I've ever met that can silence her tinkling tags, when she wants to be invisible. I call it "Whisper Mode", after the "Blue Thunder" movie. See?? I am old! I watch her like a hawk, on walks, but she "knows" when I can't see her, she's Freeeeee.
Cesar finally helped me see the mistakes I made with Flip in the beginning of our relationship which are still haunting us now. When I got her, I was still in deep mourning for my old girl. I was very weak, and really not thinking clearly. Her previous owner, the breeder, had skeered the crap out of her by rushing her into trials. (Sheep kicked the crap out of her...)Breeder's husband had been Flip's favourite person. When I got her, she was extremely sweet/shy/submissive- peeing to me, but much more outgoing relaxed, with my husband. I was for sure, too quick/harsh with her, expecting her to know how my old girl would behave. Poor Flip. She's come a long, long way, but she still doesn't 1000% trust me. My husband on the other hand is her great and perfect human, but he gives her zero exercise, and zero discipline. Few Rules. Tons and tons of affection, and not much play-time, except when I'm there. Husband also likes to roar at me occasionally (when he's an a-hole), so Flip can get most confused by it all.
So, I'm just the big meanie, most of the time:)
My puppy, Blaze, thank goodness, came along after my mourning had passed, and even though I'd never had a puppy before, I've done things pretty well with her. Oh, the smell of a puppy:) Little popcorn feet. She's going to be two tomorrow, and the thing I've messed up on with her, is that she's still scared of rattling plastic bags, as I used that sound early on to send her to her crate/bed/SLEEP, when she would NOT go to sleep.
Now, I have to train the fear out of her. Good case study of not using aversives for training.
But sometimes, ya just gotta sleep!!
Oh, they are so impressionable!
Flip is, and will always be, scared of bad weather. But at least she doesn't try to tear the house apart, like my husband's (dear departed, and I'm sad to say, to my relief) GSD would! Flip hates airplanes flying overhead, FFS. Remember the big propane explosion in Toronto? It was 20 km south of me. She woke me up, when it was happening. I thought it was just another T-storm, but Noooo, Flip was right!! The world WAS ending, in Downsview!! Blaze sleeps or plays through just about anything!
I forwarded your puggle blog to my very bestest friend, a DVM, in Calgary. (She's my "C") She loved it!
And, on that topic, I'm glad to see you mentioning that mutts are every BIT as prone to health problems as any other purely/bred dog. My old kelpie mix, had "idiopathic autoimmune polyarthritis". Yeah, I actually do know what it means. She went on steroids for a year, to my never-ending regret, and I slowly weaned her off, once I'd done some research, and slimmed her back down to her proper weight. She had been getting extra treats, unknown to me, for some time, while at work. Oh, she's so cute, here's a biscuit, half her size.... Plus, I'd over-vaccinated her.
Why TF the vet couldn't have said, she's overweight, I'll never know. Just as much my fault, for not noticing, of course.
I'll shut up.

Hi Tip!! May we sniff you???
from Flip'nBlaze! We'd loooove to meet you, we have a hard time with some owners, who think we look like killers, when we're in "play-stalk" mode. We can make really ferocious faces/sounds/hackles, but we really are just playing. Relaxed owners/dogs have no problems with us, but they can be hard to find in Toronto, especially!!!

We ran into a old fat leashed boy-beagle in our conservation area, and Flip fell instantly in love, but the owners were as usual saying "He's not friendly..." Flip stalked him for a second, scaring the crap out of the owners, before I could convince her to follow me. She was off-leash, but I do trust her that way.
Blaze, poor creature, was deprived of lots of social interaction with other puppies, thanks to my not ever finding a good enough place to train/socialize her at! So, she still gets a bit frustrated when on leash, around other dogs. I take her into my RONA store near work whenever I can, (almost daily when she was a young pup), it's been great for seeing really weird sights/sounds/people/occasionally dogs. Blaze was fine off-leash, with the "unfriendly" beagle. She listens so well, and didn't bother trying to meet him.

Now, I'll REALLY shut up. Thanks again, great posts!!!!
Oh, here's a question for ya. Do you know of any GOOD horse rescue places around or close to the GTA??? Any that need very occasional help/resources? My horse-fix comes from TV now, but I'd love to help out, when I can.

muttpuppiesontrial said...

Oh dear, poor Flip getting a bath! lol! Tip makes the best bathtime faces, but he always perks up after he gets a good blow-dry. :) Sorry to hear about your old dog, but it sounds like you're doing good work with Flip and Blaze.

Thanks again for reading and leaving such great comments! And thanks for passing the blog on to your friend!

Unfortunately, I don't know of any horse rescues nearby... I haven't been on the horse scene for very long. I started lessons much later in life than I'd have liked!