Top 5 Positive Pet Training Tools for Reactive Dogs

harnesses

This month’s theme for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop is training tools. I thought I’d give you the rundown of five things that have made a huge difference in my life with my dogs.

5. Food puzzles

In the wild, animals spend most of their time looking for and eating their food. When we feed our dogs a cup of kibble in a bowl at 7 a.m., and they’re done by 7:05, what are they supposed to do with the rest of their day? Stuffed Kongs are popular. We’ve been feeding our dogs dinner from puzzles for a few years now, and as I mentioned in last month’s post, I got them Nina Ottosson Dog Pyramids for Christmas.

Dinnertime now lasts, like, 20-30 minutes as my guys fling these guys around the house, grain-free kibble spewing every which way. Reminscent of Isis and her Squirrel Dude.

Last week we could not find the red one anywhere. And it’s not a small thing! Usually we can find them under a chair or something, but it was nowhere! Until I walked into the bedroom after dropping Rob off at work and found it wedged under a dresser drawer in the bedroom. Last time I saw Mia with it, she was in the kitchen.

4. Freedom Harness

Neither of our dogs right now are pullers, but even if you “just” have a Barker and Lunger, it’s really great to have a leash that fastens on the front and back of their harness. Freedom Harnesses fit my dogs better than that other brand of front-fastening harness that was bought by a company that sells shock collars, so I no longer endorse it.

3. Halti

civic field

Not for every dog, but I thought I’d tried everything to get Isis to stop pulling. A head halter collar, in combination with a back-fastening harness, accompanied by a reinforcing clicker, changed the game for us. Some argue that Haltis are aversive, but I think it depends on the dog, and Dr. Sophia Yin says it depends on how you use it. Certainly it’s less aversive than the other stuff recommended to us.

2. Calming Cap

Another game-changer. We use it primarily in the car to reduce the stimulation for Leo. Thanks to the Calming Cap, he’s no longer in the habit of looking for things to bark at out the window. Funny story, some “trainer” found my earlier post about the Calming Cap and posted it to her FB page, saying something like “Seriously? This is a thing? How about you try training your dog instead of blindfolding it.” I wrote a very helpful comment explaining how we use it, and that it’s handy in situations when you are not able to focus on training (like when you’re driving a car), and she deleted the comment. Troll.

1. Cheese.

You knew it was going to be cheese, right?

Positive TrainingThis is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier, Wag n’ Woof Pets and Travels with Barley. Join the fun! Our theme for this month is Training Tools, but any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are also always welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long.

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Running out of Cheese

baker-dogs-2017

In my last post, I wrote about a de-facto off-leash area. If everyone else’s dogs are off leash, why can’t ours be?

For me, it’s an issue of manners. People who don’t have reactive dogs (or people who don’t KNOW their dogs are reactive, especially those whose dogs are small) think it’s perfectly fine for their dog to run up to a person or another dog. When other dogs are off leash and my dogs are off leash, there is no problem. In that situation, Leo doesn’t have much interest in the humans. Unless they’re moving particularly fast. Or on wheels.

Even so. Leo probably would not run up to a jogger or cyclist (or cross-country skier) and bite them if he were off leash. Probably not. But that’s not a risk I can take with a 98-pound German shepherd. Unfortunately, when he is confined to a leash, he is extremely likely to bark and lunge and act very scary as one of these fast-moving humans passes by. See my problem? Everything would go better for everyone if Leo were off leash (probably). But since I can’t assume that everyone we meet will be okay with my dog running up to them, I keep him on a leash.

Last year, we took the dogs to play in the snow on Mount Baker and didn’t see another soul on the trail. This year, the little parking area was full, so we knew we wouldn’t be alone. I was not overly concerned, because the trail is fairly wide, with good visibility, and I had cheese. When I saw people approaching, I called Leo back to me, leashed him, and cheesed him until they passed. It worked brilliantly. Our counter-conditioning has been a terrific success.

It became clear that this was a de-facto off-leash area, so I stopped calling Leo to me when the people approaching had a dog. Except this one couple who took one look at Leo from afar and shouted at their own dog. Their doodle retreated behind their legs, and Leo stayed frozen, staring. Several hundred feet away from the dog. (Mia was close enough, and we leashed her). I called Leo, and omigod, he came right back to me! As I cheesed him, the couple passed, and the man said, “We just had a bad experience with a German shepherd,” explaining their panic.

bakerdogs2-2017

I felt that we and our dogs were behaving very appropriately and responsibly. It’s so rewarding to take them on outings that are more exciting than a walk around the sports complex or half an hour at the dog park. Everything was going just splendidly.

Until we ran out of cheese.

Not a problem at first. When a pair of slow-moving snow-shoers (actually, one was carrying her snow shoes) passed us, I moved Leo off to the side, plopped down in the snow and scratched his chest and told him what a good dog he was. He stayed calm, saw them, unconcerned. I was as proud as I could be.

After that, there were two or three incidents that did not go so well. The kind involving my holding onto his harness while he barked real scary-like. It’s not his fault. We ran out of cheese.

You know the spoon theory? It’s kind of like that. Also known, in the parlance of dog training, as trigger stacking.

While Leo was regressing, so was I. I had a flashback to the emotional, desperate, discouraging times when I felt like I couldn’t take Isis anywhere. To running up ahead of Rob on the trail to warn people that we had a dog with us that was freaking out. That nervous, awkward “ha ha ha, sorry about that” exchange, when really what I’m feeling is mortified and guilty. Why did I think we could bring our dog with us to a public trail?

That feeling faded once the cross-country skiers were out of sight, and we were back in the car. I reassured myself that we are allowed to take our dogs for a walk in the snow. Other people had off-leash dogs. Leo didn’t hurt anyone. We were responsible. And I tucked that little seed of a question away in the back of my mind: What if we just let him off-leash the whole time? Wouldn’t everything go better for everyone? Because no. I’d be less embarrassed, but I’d still be rude.

 

The Off-Leash Gray Area

Snowy Crime Scene Field

There’s this field near our house. We call it the Crime Scene Field. I consider it a de facto off-leash area because other people play with their dogs off leash there, and there’s no sign saying not to. Basically, if there’s no one around, we play off leash. If we see someone, we leash them.

On a recent snow day, I unleashed the dogs as soon as we arrived, but then I saw a man in the distance with an off-leash golden retriever. I called the dogs back and leashed them because I didn’t know if this guy wanted his dog to play with mine. It’s called manners. We kept walking, allowing him to see us and decide for himself. He called his dog and left. Asked and answered.

We alternated between walking on leash and off, and every time the dogs ran back to me, I rewarded them with cheese. As we were heading out, a big black dog barreled toward my leashed dogs. This was what I wanted to keep my dogs from doing to the golden retriever. Made worse because my dogs were on leash, and Leo is leash-reactive. This may be controversial, but when an unleashed dog comes up to us, my feeling is that it’s only fair for my dogs to be off leash as well. If Leo is unencumbered, the situation is less likely to escalate.

I unclipped Leo, which was uneventful. Mia barked at the other dog, and after I unclipped her, they got a little snarly. Leo stood his ground and barked at the other dog. Not a big scary bark, in my opinion. He does this at the park sometimes when he gets impatient with another dog. It’s a “hey hey hey hey” nuisance, but I don’t think it could lead anywhere good, so I always remove him from those situations.

The other guy called the black dog, who started to obey, but then came back at my dogs. After a few fruitless “heys” of my own, I chirped my dogs’ names and the magic word “Cheesy.”

And holy shit, they came to me. I leashed them and walked away, but the black dog barreled toward us again.

I said, “Can you call your dog? My dogs will fight back!”

He did and again the dog was torn between obeying and charging my dogs again, but we were leaving anyway.

Honestly, it could have turned really ugly, and this is the main reason I don’t muzzle Leo on walks. If that dog had been aggressive and an actual fight escalated, I’d want Leo to be able to protect himself. Despite his leash-reactivity, he is a really nice dog, and well socialized to other dogs.

Also, really really really proud of the way my dogs handled themselves!

The gift of Leo

This month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop theme is
The Gift of Positive Training.

Proving what a perfect boy he's grown up to be, Leo lay down and waited for us to set up for our Christmas photo shoot.

Proving what a perfect boy he’s grown up to be, Leo lay down and waited while we set up for our Christmas photo shoot.

Oh, what a gift it has been. Leo’s leash reactivity has gotten so much better. I’ve started saying he’s cured, which is not entirely true, because he still exhibits barrier frustration, but man, I’m going to have to scroll down a bit to even find the last time he had what I’d classify as a “reaction” on a walk:

Okay here:

Sept. 8, He barked at two bikes coming from opposite directions and an off-leash dog. Barely registers on the reactivity scale. A dog barks at an off-leash dog? Who wouldn’t?

June 7, We had a particularly challenging walk and he barked and lunged at a bicycle after successfully NOT barking at a bunch of other stuff.

That’s two leash-reactive incidents worth reporting in the past six months. What it’s shown me is that success begets more success.

It can be hard to wrap your head around when you’re in the thick of reactivity. While trying to get Isis to accept Leo, we had what I considered a debacle where the dogs played for a few seconds for the first time ever … and then got into a fight.

Me and Isis in front of our chosen tree in Dec. 2010.

Me and Isis in front of our chosen tree in Dec. 2010.

A trusted trainer, who wasn’t there at the time, said, “It does sound like you had some minor success. It might be better next time. Remember that repetition of behavior creates habit. It they have a couple of good sessions, it would increase the chance for success.”

At the time, I thought, Yeah right. How are they ever going to forget hating each other?

Sadly, they never had the chance, but six years later, I’ve seen the concept realized: repetition leads to habit.

Example: Leo barks at bicycles from the car. Unchecked, he’d develop a habit of doing this, so he’d get in the car, expecting to find things to bark at. We got him out of this habit by using a Calming Cap. Now, if we forget to put it on him, or if he takes it off himself (sneaky bugger), he’s not searching out the window for things to bark at.

We have to be careful they don’t backslide. On a recent solo afterdark walk with Leo, I noticed a flashing light behind me. Good thing too, because it gave me time to ready the cheese. Leo didn’t react to that bicycle as it passed, but the next time we encountered an unrelated flashing light, he flinched, expecting it to be something scary.

The gift I want to give fellow people with reactive dogs is: Have hope. Work to have more successes than failures. You will see improvement.

Leo’s gotten so good, that a few times recently, he has seen a trigger across the street before I do (because it’s dark). I’ll feel him tense up on the leash and then he whip his head back to me.

Hey, did you see that? I’m supposed to get cheese now, right?

Yes, my darling boy. You get all the cheese.

All the cheese

Proud of my Leo

giveawayThis month, our generous blog hop hosts are giving away some positive training goodies! Click here for the Rafflecopter

 

 

 

 

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Rescue Dogs published in UW journal

uppercut

I’m thrilled to announce that Rescue Dogs, an excerpt from my work in progress, has been published in the University of Washington’s Stratus: Journal of Arts and Writing.

Warning: The story depicts dog fighting, and includes some graphic violence. Read it here. (starting on page 67.)

I’ve been working on Fight Like a Lady since 2009 (it started as a NaNoWriMo book!), although not steadily: I wrote Bark and Lunge during that time. It’s so close to being done, and I can’t wait to share it with all of you.

Dilly dog

I also entered the first several chapters in 2016 Ink & Insights Writing Contest, where it placed in the Top 10 of the Apprentice category. I was very flattered that one judge wondered why it wasn’t submitted in the Master category. (Because it wasn’t finished!)

More about Fight Like a Lady.

Three times I spoke up for my dog

dog park_2

 

Often, people with reactive dogs are overly concerned that others will judge us for the uncontrollable, barking, lunging, frothing beast on the other end of the leash. We need to get over that and just worry about our dogs.

I have gotten better and here are three examples where I was proud of speaking up on behalf of Leo.

1. For some reason, people like to ride their bikes on a path through our only unfenced off-leash area. This field happens to be next to a sewage plant. There’s signage at the top of a path, which I’ve wanted to supplement with “Off-leash dogs. Bike or jog at your own risk.” Or even “Walk your bike, please.”

Recently, we were working our way down the path when I noticed two bikes at the top of the path. They had a choice of directions; one featuring a view of the bay, the other the scent of sewage. If they came down my way, we were screwed. There’s no place to step off the path. I know because once I tried avoiding a jogger and fell embarrassingly down a hill. The jogger of course wanted to stop and help, and I was like, just go! Instead of letting the cyclists decide our fate, I called up to them, “Please don’t come this way. It’s an off-leash dog area.” And they didn’t.

2. Clearly I have forgotten what it is like to not live with one’s romantic partner, because it baffles me to see young people kissing and hugging in parking lots. So we’re walking up a path and I can see cars parked at the top, and the heads of a couple of people, and I’m thinking, whyyyyy are you parked there? when a shepherdy looking dog starts wandering down the trail. I called out, “Are you walking your dog down this way?”

The dude said, “No, we’re just hanging out.” And put his dog in one of the cars, and we were able to pass.

3. While this next one is a success story for Leo, it pissed me off to an unreasonable degree. It actually happened on the same walk as #2. We walk around a big sports complex where we can see triggers coming from a good distance. I had just bagged up some poop and was headed toward a trash can when I saw a 60-year-old guy on rollerblades, like it’s the goddamn nineties! I turned the other way and cheesed Leo while I tried to assess where Roller Dude was going. Of course his destination was the same trash can. Once he threw away whatever, he headed in our direction.

So we’re on the sidewalk, and he’s rollerblading down the middle of the street. Leo rumbles, like, a little bit, but honestly, I’d had more trouble managing him the night before during an encounter with a deer. Yay! Good boy, Leo. We throw out the poop and continue down the street. And then, Roller Dude skates back down past us again! And Leo rumbles again just a little bit and I’m cheesing the hell out of him, and he’s wonderful, but I’m watching this guy skate to the end of the block in the middle of the street like he’s motherfucking Gretzky. I mutter to my dogs, “This guy’s an asshole.” And he turns around again to skate past us a third time!

When he does, he turns to us with this shit-eating grin that probably wasn’t meant to mock me so much as to say either, “Ain’t life grand?” or “Look how cool I am on my rollerblades.”

I say to him, “Could ya not keep skating past us?”

We got to the end of the block before he had time to make it back our way again, so who even knows if he would have, or planned to but didn’t, because I so bravely spoke my mind. But it sure made me feel better.

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This is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below. All positive reinforcement training posts are welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long.

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String Cheese: I’ll never let go

. . . one can never give too many food treats during temperament training exercises . . .
– Dr. Ian Dunbar

Squirrel?

.

A few weeks ago I received a very nice message from someone who had heard my two podcasts on The Great Dog Adventure with Fern Camacho. (This one and that one) She related to my struggles with Leo, because she has a reactive dog too.

I never leave my home with out a pocket full of treats. Now when we see a dog, he turns to look at me to get a treat. I was wondering with your training of Leo, have you gotten to the point where you can wean Leo off of the string cheese? I am thinking that once a behavior is reinforced for a period of time, you no longer have to reward it.

I told her that I do still carry string cheese on all our walks. I’ve been doing it for two years, and the thought hadn’t crossed my mind to try to phase it out. Ever.

I’m totally okay with buying two large bags of string cheese every time I go to the store, and peeling the plastic off about twelve sticks before each walk. I went from thinking we’d never be able to walk Leo past a bicycle to having him look to me for cheese before I’ve even seen the bicycle. Now, even if he barks, he calms down pretty quickly.

For example, recently I spotted a bike coming our way. I crossed the street and readied the cheese. Then another bicycle came from the other direction, with an off-leash dog running beside it! Leo was amped, but not barking, and I don’t think he would have if I hadn’t made the tactical error of positioning us next to a dude rummaging inside a sketchy van. I got distracted wondering what that guy was going to do, and Leo wound up barking at one of the bikes.

Who cares. There was a time this would have ruined my whole day. Whatever.

Back to the question from my listener, though. She asked whether once a behavior is reinforced, you can stop rewarding it.

This is true with obedience training, especially if you show the dog the treat before you cue the behavior, because then it is a lure. You want to phase out the lure, lest it become a bribe. I learned this from Dr. Ian Dunbar, the father of reward-based training. (The quote at the top of this post, in fact, is from an article about the importance of phasing out treats!)

To quote my own blog paraphrasing him:

The biggest mistake reward-based and positive-reinforcement trainers make is to not phase out food soon enough. A lure takes a willing dog and tells him what we want him to do. A bribe coerces an unwilling dog to act against its will.

The difference is, I’m not using the string cheese as a bribe, lure, or reward. I’m using it to counter-condition him to things that scare him. That’s why I give him cheese even if he barks at the trigger, because I’m not as much rewarding him for not barking as I am conditioning* him that bicycles (or whatever) mean good things. That’s why comforting a frightened dog (or human infant) doesn’t reinforce the fear. Fear is not a behavior.

In addition to their obvious applications in all aspects of teaching manners, food lures and food rewards may be more importantly used for behavior modification and temperament training. In fact, food lures and rewards are so effective, their use should be mandatory.

*So, shouldn’t Leo be conditioned by now? He’s getting there. When he sees something scary, he knows he’ll get cheese. And he has a much higher threshold for his triggers than he used to. Last weekend, we sat in the middle of baseball field while Rob practiced flying a drone, and Leo lay down very calmly. Bikes passed by on a nearby trail, at quite a distance, and he didn’t need to be cheesed.

Drone practice

Leo’s the one chilling on the left.

From the CARE for Reactive Dogs website:

You will need to continue to practice DS/CC (desensitization and counter-conditioning) and positive reinforcement of the alternative behaviors you have taught in new situations and locations in order to help your dog generalize the context. This will get easier and easier as your dog’s emotions change and his new behaviors are reinforced. As your dog becomes fluent in these new behaviors, you will be able to decrease the amount of food rewards you give him and use life rewards instead; these are things your dog finds intrinsically enjoyable, such as jogging a few steps with you, play, praise and sniffing interesting smells in the environment.

I still carry the cheese, because I can’t control the environment. It comes down to generalization. Leo could be completely desensitized to a 25-year-old woman traveling in our same direction on a bike at 37 feet away, but not to a 15-year-old boy traveling toward us at 26 feet away. Factor in speeds, and number of triggers he’s already seen that day… well, the cheese keeps him from barking most of the time.

Positive TrainingThis is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below.  Our theme for this month is my positive training journey but any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are also always welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long. Our next hop will begin October 3rd and continues for a week.

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