How to live with a dog-reactive dog and not lose your shit: An (im)practical guide

This is a fun read but still full of very useful information and ideas. A must read for anyone with a dor-reactive dog! If you’ve got one, i bet you will recognise every single point!!

Bull in the city

Many moons ago when I envisioned owning a dog I dreamed of taking my fictional dog to offleash parks for endless romps, lots of play-dates and generally a lot of problem and stress free dog-dog interactions. Then I got Jersey and this view abruptly changed. Offleash parks are not a part of my life and I honestly don’t even want to know what goes on in them. Every dog-dog greeting is carefully managed and controlled. I meticulously plan my walking routes based on likelihood of running into other dogs and ability to escape. I completely avoid any areas where offleash dogs congregate (meaning any piece of grass in Toronto)  even if it means I am walking next to roaring traffic.Jersey has made some great strides in her behavior around dogs but it is still a work in progress

I won’t lie my life can be more difficult and complicated because of Jersey’s…

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On spaying and neutering

Ailu is now a bit over ten months and is in season for the first time.  So my baby has turned into a big girl! She has not really made a mess and although she has been perhaps a bit more tired and cuddly than normal, there has been no drastic changes in her temperament. However, on the third week, which is about now-ish, I have noticed that walkies have become a bit more challenging, since she seems to be totally obsessed with various smells, up to a point where she can stand somewhere smelling and licking a piece of grass for minutes and minutes.  We have also had no unwanted dog visitors near our garden or front door.

I have had a lot of questions about when I am going to get her spayed and when I told people, that I am not going to get her spayed, not yet at least, most  have immediately assumed that I am going to breed her. When I have said that I have no such plans, I have been faced with some quite bemused expressions.

I think there is a certain cultural difference between UK and Finland when it comes to spaying/neutering and breeding. The situation with pedigree dogs and dogs in shelters is slightly different in Finland, which probably explains, why my view on breeding is not as negative as some canine professional’s have here in the UK. In UK, the shelters are full of unwanted dogs, so it makes sense asking people not to breed and instead of getting a cute puppy, adopting an abandoned dog. In Finland, while there are dogs in shelters, they are mostly runaways and don’t often have to stay there for very long.  (Although I would assume that the situation is also there getting worse.)  Spaying/neutering is not a default act for dog owners in Finland. Rather the dog will often be neutered only, if he tends to roam, mark excessively or have issues with other male dogs such as aggressive behavior towards them. Bitches are spayed if they keep having phantom pregnancies or the owners want the dog have a free run around the house in remote areas of the country.

The Whole Dog Journal recently published a very good article on the issues around spaying and neutering. They quote Patty Olson, DVM, Ph.D., a diplomat of the American College of Theriogenologists, who uses Sweden as an example of why neutering/spaying does not automatically mean responsible ownership. She points our that “In Sweden, 93 percent of dogs are intact, they don’t neuter. They have some pretty amazing ordinances by which dogs are controlled, there are very significant fines, and they do seem to have more responsibility. What we’ve had to do in the U.S. was institute something because of, if you will, irresponsibility.” As in so many other things as well, Finland is very similar to Sweden in this matter.

In US and UK people have started to neuter their dogs earlier and earlier. Although this seems to be fast becoming a commonplace behavior, I feel that some caution should be exercised. In recent years, studies have emerged, reporting various adverse effects of early age castration/spaying. In fact the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has adapted an official policy that now states “Mandatory spay-neuter is a bad idea”. Obviously they oppose the “mandatory” part of the issue, and not all spaying and neutering. The however also do acknowledge the health risks associated with spaying-neutering. In their policy statement on the issue they say that:

 “Prevention of unexpected litters; reduced incidences of some cancers and reproductive diseases; and prevention and amelioration of certain undesirable behaviors have been documented as benefits to spaying/neutering dogs and cats. However, potential health problems associated with spaying and neutering have also been identified, including an increased risk of prosthetic cancer in males; increased risks of bone cancer and hip dysplasia in large-breed dogs associated with sterilization before maturity; and increased incidences of obesity, diabetes, urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence, and hypothyroidism.”

One big reason people seem to have to have their dogs neutered is the common sense idea that it reduces aggression. However, this is also controversial as there are studies that suggest almost no reduction in dog aggression and others that seem to imply the total opposite. In case of bitches, it has also been argued that neutering before their first season might in fact increase aggression, as the levels of the “softening” hormone estrogen, do not get a possibility to develop in the body. I will find the references for some of these studies later.

 The Innovative Sport Dog Community’s (ISDC) blog, has a good summary of pro’s and con’s associated with spaying neutering, and they show clearly, I think, how complex the issue actually is. Personally I tend to feel that spaying too early is risky, since we do not fully know, all the things the sex hormones are needed for, in the development (both physical and mental) of our dogs and bitches. Hence I have decided to wait for now and hope there is no false pregnancy waiting for us in few months time!

Clicker training in a nutshell

This method has obviously gotten its name from the small device, the clicker. However,  you don’t actually need one to train in this way. The basic idea or theory behind clicker training, is operant conditioning, which means simply that we teach the animal that when it does something (that we wish it to do) it gets rewarded. Hence, the method is often also called positive reinforcement training.

There are four types of consequences to a behavior:

1) something good happens or is presented 🙂
2) something good ends or is taken away 😦
3) something bad happens or is presented 😦
4) something bad ends or is taken away 🙂

(1) and (4) are experience as rewards whereas (2) and (3) function as punishments. Hence, it is important to realise that when we talk about punishments in the context of operant conditioning, we don’t only mean things that cause physical pain, discomfort, fear or intimidation.

In clicker training the consequences used most often are (1) and (2). When the animal does something desirable, something good happens, for instance he gets a treat (1). When he fails to do what we want, we remove the possibility of the reward (2).

What about the clicker then?
The clicker in clicker training is used to mark a desired behavior. Contrary to common ideas, it is NOT a reward in itself, but simply something that tells the animal he has done something right and is soon to be rewarded. In order for a clicker to work, the dog must first be conditioned to its sound. Remember the Pavlov’s dog who started salivating when it heard a certain bell ring? That is what will eventually happen to your dog, when he hears the clicker sound (or any other sound or word you choose to use). Basically then, we will teach the dog that the sound of the clicker always means that food is on its way. As I mentioned before, the actual clicker is not necessary, but you can easily use a (short) word such as “good” or “yess”, or even make a clicking sound with your tongue. Any sound is fine as long as it is something that you don’t normally use with the dog.

Conditioning the clicker
This is easy. Simply sit down with your dog, clicker in one hand treats in the other. Start by clicking, and immediately afterwards giving your dog a treat. The dog does not need to do anything, since at this stage we are simply creating a link between the sound and food. Repeat ten times take a little break (half a minute or a minute) and do the same thing again 10 times. Depending on the dog after two or three sessions the dog should have realised that the sound means treats. You can test this at any time, when your dog is not paying particular attention to you. Just click and see if your dog looks at you expecting a treat. If he does, you have succesfully conditioned him to the clicker sound!

Using clicker in your training
Once the conditioning is done, you can start using the clicker in training. As I said earlier the idea behind using a clicker, is to be able to quickly and accurately tell the dog when it is doing what we want it to do. Since us humans are fairly slow in our movements trying to give the dog a treat at the exact moment it’s doing the right thing, would most likely fail. We would miss the right moment by perhaps one or two second and the dog would think that it got rewarded for something it did right after the “right” thing. If we for instance teach the dog to sit. It sits and immediately after would get up. We would most likely be ready with the treat by the time the dog was standing and would end up rewarding it, not for sitting, but for getting up! The clicker allows as to mark the exact moment the dogs rear end touches the ground and this way it speeds to learning process enormously, since the dog does not need to be guessing what it was it got the treat for.

Although clicker is very helpful when teaching new behaviours, it is not necessary anymore, after the dog has learned the behavior. So you do not need to carry a clicker around with you for the rest of  your life. The same is true for the treats. Although in the beginning it is important to keep the treats coming quickly and often, it is equally important to gradually reduce the amounts of treats, replace some of them with praise. Once the dog knows the behavior you should stop rewarding him every time he performs a desired behaviour, and only give the treats randomly. So, unlike people commonly think, you won’t need to pack your pockets full of sausages everytime you take your dog for a walk!

If you want to know more, check out  this post in “Barks & Recreation” -blog, on the most common myths and misunderstandings about and around clicker training.

Brain activities for your dog

Although walkies and physical exercise is important for all dogs, it is not enough to keep them happy, they also need mental activities. Even if you feel you have a hyper active pooch, who is impossible to tire out by running outside, a suitable amount of mental stimulation and problem solving, will tire him out for sure. To keep your dogs mind busy does not need to be hard work and although training is a brilliant way to give your dogs brains the much-needed exercise, there are other ways you can keep her busy.

Food puzzle toys and chews

One option are food toys. These are also great things to give your dog when you have to leave her alone in the house, or in the evening when you want to enjoy a quiet night in front of the TV, without having all the balls carried in your lap by the hopeful pups. Since our dogs’ wild counterparts spend much of their time scavenging for food, food puzzle toys offer a natural solution to pet-dog boredom. Puzzle toys also encourage chewing and licking, which can have a calming effect on dogs.

Food puzzle toys are sturdy containers, that you can use to put food or treats inside but don’t give dogs easy access to the food. Most of them have holes on sides or on ends and the idea is for your dog to figure out how to get the food out. Usually they get it out by shaking, pawing, rolling, nibbling licking or throwing the toy.

You can make food puzzles yourself or buy them from a pet shop or online. There are numerous different toys, but perhaps the most common one is the KONG® Toy, which you can in every pet shop.  Paws Abilities -blog has a great article about KONG and other similar toys, including some great stuffing ideas. Feed your dog at least one meal a day in a food puzzle toy to give her brain and jaws a great workout. You can also stuff these toys with your dog’s favorite treats or a little peanut butter, cottage cheese, cooked oatmeal or yogurt. 

A cheaper alternative is to make your toys yourself. Keep some small cardboard boxes that you get from groceries. Put some treats inside one, roll it up and push it through an empty toilet roll. At first only a rolled up cardboard box might be enough, but once your dog gets the idea you can make the puzzle more difficult, by adding boxes. Another nice food puzzle can be made from an old muffin tray and tennis balls. Put a few treats the muffin tray and put a tennis ball on top of each one to hide them. Then let your dog find the treats by lifting the balls up.

When you first introduce your dog to a food puzzle toy, make it really easy for her to empty it. She’s probably accustomed to getting her food served in a bowl, so she has some learning to do! When using a bought toy, choose one with a large dispensing hole and make sure the goodies you put inside the toy are small enough to come out easily. As your dog becomes an expert, you can make it harder and harder for her to get food out of her toys. Use bigger pieces of food or, to provide an extra challenge, freeze the toys after stuffing them. You can also place the frozen toys inside a cardboard box or oatmeal tub so that your dog has to rip through the cardboard container to get to her meal.

Chew Time

Dogs of all ages need to chew. Both wild and domestic dogs spend hours chewing to keep their jaws strong and their teeth clean. Chewing is also fun, it provides stimulation, relieves anxiety and reduces stress. Try out paddy whacks and hard rubber toys, natural marrow bones, rawhide and pig ears. You can also give your dog raw bones, but you need to introduce them gradually, since they can upset your dogs tummy. NEVER give cooked, cured or smoked bones. Check our these pages about giving your dog real bones. However, there is a lot of controversy about giving dogs real bones, so before you make your decision, it might be a good idea to do some research.

Although chewing behavior is normal, dogs sometimes chew on things we don’t want them to. Giving your dog plenty of her own toys and chewies will help prevent her from gnawing on your things.

NOSE WORK

Scent is your dogs most powerful sense and most of them absolutely love using it. Keep in mind that nose work is extremely tiring for your dog, so don’t overdo it, especially in the beginning.

Find It!

Giving your dog a chance to use her powerful nose can really wear her out! It’s easy to teach your dog to find hidden treats. Just put her in another room, out of sight, while you hide a few treats on the floor. When you introduce the Find It game, start out by choosing hiding spots that allow your dog to find the “hidden” treats easily. Try placing treats behind the legs of furniture, partly in view. After you’ve hidden the treats, go get your dog and say “Find it!” right before letting her into the room. Encourage her (you probably need to repeat “find it” a few times to keep her going) to look around for the treats. You also might have to point them out the first few times you play this game. As your dog becomes better and better at finding the treats, you can hide them in more difficult places, like behind pillows or underneath objects.

Which one?

You can use small plastic plant pots for this one or small football marker cones (which have a hole on top) that are often used in children’s games. Put few pots on the floor upside down and put a treat under one of them. Show your dog that you’ve got a treat but don’t show her where you put it. Then let your dog go and “Find it!”.

Scent trail

On the walk ask your friend or partner to hold your dog, or leave her on the stay if she masters the command. Walk a few meters away and shuffle around a small square area moving your feet only a few inches at the time. Then place a few treats to the area. Get your dog and point her to the right area and tell her to Find it! Repeat this a few times, so that your dog slowly starts associating your scent with the treats. Then you can start tamping a small distance forward (perhaps half a yard at first) and place treats every two inches. Place a jackpot pile of treats at the end. Position your dog to the beginning and let her work her way to the jackpot. You can increase the distance of the scent trail slowly and little by little increase the space between each treat. It’s a good idea to have the dog on the lead for this one, so she doesn’t wander away. However, you should not drag or even lead your dog to the right direction, but let her do the work herself. If she wanders off gently lead her back to the next treat and cheer her on.

Simple counter conditioning

Counter conditioning is a method that can be used to change unwanted behavior in animals. As the name implies, it means conditioning (or training) the animal to do something contrary, or counter, to the unwanted behavior it normally does in a particular situation. For instance, the dog cannot jump and sit simultaneously. So, if your dog jumps at people when greeting them, you can use counter conditioning to teach him to sit to greet people instead of jumping at them.

You can also use counter conditioning to change an animals feelings about something. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, using counter conditioning, you can teach him that strange dogs always mean that something nice will happen, and hence, he will start to think that strange dogs are nice instead of scary.

Counter conditioning is simple, but that does not mean it is easy, or even a quick fix for your problems. In fact it requires careful planning. First you need to think about your pets behavior and figure out the exact thing that your pets reacts to in a negative way. For instance you might know that your dog is afraid of strange dogs, but in order to start changing his fearful behavior you need to first figure out all the elements that can trigger a fearful reaction from your dog. Those elements might be distance, the sex of the other dog, whether the other dog is on the leash or off the leash, the size of the other dog or even its color. When you have created a clear picture for yourself about what actually makes your dog behave fearfully (or aggressively for that matter) think about putting them in order from the least threatening to the most threatening. For instance, your dog might be perfectly okay with small dogs that are 20 yards away, but it they get closer than 15 yards he starts barking. If your dog is more afraid of large dogs than small dogs, it might be that large dogs trigger reaction already at 50 yards distance.

The idea of counter conditioning is to start the training at the easiest situation, ie. a small dog 25 yards away and gradually, when your dogs behavior gets better, move to the more difficult situations such as small dog at 15 yards away, large dog at 40 yard away, large dog 35 yards away and so on. If your dog is afraid, and you only want to change his feelings about other dogs, the training steps are quite straightforward, and you only need dogs and owners to help you and plenty of your dogs favorite treats.

First, bring the feared thing into sight, and start treating your dog in a steady stream of small pieces of his favorite treats. Second, move the feared thing out of sight and stop the treats as soon as your dog cannot see the feared thing anymore. Rinse and repeat at least 10 times each session. If your dog won’t eat or seems to get agitated you are most likely too close to the feared thing and you should start training from further away.

Once your dog seems comfortable at the distance you decided to start at you can move a little bit closer. Don’t try to get too close too soon! Even one step closer can be a lot for some dogs. Start a new session always at an easier level and do few repetitions at that level before moving on. Never start at the more difficult level than what you ended your last session at.

If at all possible try to avoid exposure to the scary thing between your treatment sessions. The possibility to perform the unwanted behavior will only strengthen it and risks undoing all the good work you have done during your training sessions 😀

The mystery of the loose leash walking and how we did it

Having read a lot about loose leash walking and how to master it, I should write down some thoughts of my own about the subject, given that loose leash walking, or LLW, has been our main training focus for the past months.

Few months back our walks were still quite short and consisted mostly of going back and forth the same road or me standing still and Ailu wondering what is going on. All this, since I was trying to follow all the instructions there exist about how to teach your dog to walk nicely on a loose leash. I cannot say that we have mastered the skill yet, regardless of real effort, but we are definitely making progress and now we actually go for walks! Occasionally though, instead of the dog, there still seems to be some kind of a bouncing alien at the other end of the leash and there are days when I feel like dropping the leash altogether and going back home alone.

I have surfed hundreds of websites telling how to teach your puppy to walk pretty on the leash, watched videos, talked to friends and colleagues and I feel I know it all…in theory. In practice though, the problem seems to be that I cannot share my knowledge with the puppy.

Most common advice given to new dog owners about leash walking is to stop (be a tree) when the dog starts pulling and not move forward until the leash is slack. Alternatively, you are advised to turn around and walk to the opposite direction and only turning back when the dog is walking nicely on your side. The idea behind both of these methods is to avoid rewarding the pulling by letting the dog get to its desired place by pulling. The loosening of the leash then, is rewarded by letting the dog move forward again.

This method didn’t get us very far and for a while our walks consisted mostly on walking a stretch of few meters back and forth. I bet the neighbors had fun watching us! When I tried the stopping method, it kind of worked at first. Ailu stopped and sat down, a behavior that is probably her strongest. However, when I started walking again, she would get up with the speed of light and pull even harder. I stopped she sat. I moved she lurched. I stopped she sat….

Since the “being a tree” method did not seem to do the trick, I had a long thought about the matter and decided to incorporate another system into our walks. I got the idea from Kikopup, who has loads of absolutely brilliant dog training videos in You Tube.  For a clicker trained dog this method is really simple. It also has the added benefit in helping you in the future with the heeling position if you ever decide to do some (competitive) obedience training.

There are two main ingredients in this method. Rewarding the right position often (especially in the beginning) and preventing the dog from getting to a “wrong” position ie. pulling. When Ailu walks nicely close to me with a loose leash I click and reward her right next to my left leg. In the beginning I did this very often, perhaps every few steps. Now I’m only doing it occasionally, although she needs more rewarding in the beginning of the walk when she’s really excited about getting…well somewhere.

If I at any time notice her having that “look” which tells me she’s soon going to be at the end of the leash pulling towards some smell, I call her to me by making a kissy sound, or calling her name (which probably is not the best of ideas I know) . When she stops and turns even slightly towards me, I click and again reward her right next to my left leg. It doesn’t matter where exactly you reward the dog. I’m doing it close to my left leg because that is where she is expected to do obedience heeling, and this way Ailu gets extra reinforcement for the position.

I still occasionally use the “be a tree” method, but I have also found that for Ailu taking few steps backwards works better, so I rather use that. All in all I am pleased with our progress and very happy about the ways she has started to heel on her own (in almost a perfect position), even when I am not asking for it! Just another prove that position of the rewards really does matter. But that is a topic for another post.

Ailu has arrived…life with a new puppy

I am now in Finland where I traveled to get my new puppy, the Finnish Lapphund Ailu. Ailu is now ten weeks old, and our shared life has started very nicely. We have concentrated on practicing recall and sitting for treats, strokes and toys, all of which we have mastered pretty well. Obviously a good recall is going to be a lifelong project, but the start seems promising.

Life with a new puppy has made me think about those who get their first puppy, not knowing much about dogs in the first place, and not having any experience that might prepare them for what’s to come. How do they cope with the “crazyhour”  in the evening, almost constant biting of everything (especially toes under the table when you are trying to have your morning brew), peeing inside, harassing other pets, not coming when called, putting everything in the mouth and destroying it in the process and all those other things that puppies fill their days with? How do they cope, when sometimes even knowing why all this happens and how to deal with it doesn’t seem to help with coping?

I am now living all those situations I have so generously helped my clients with and sometimes I can hear my own voice telling me to give the puppy a chew toy or a bone, while my own puppy couldn’t care less about anything that it is actually allowed to chew, happily continuing with my toes and ignoring the (rather expensive) squeaky toy that I’m holding 😀 It is easy in theory to know what to do and how to act, but as we all know sometimes reality does not live up to theory’s expectations. Sometimes we do not have enough time, sometimes we are too tired, sometimes we act before thinking and other times even when we do what we think is right, the puppy does not seem to have read the same theories and manuals that we have.

So far the biggest lesson for me with Ailu has been patience. In fact this has been the biggest revelation for me in all animal training. Patience and consistency seem to be the key words and boy are they difficult to master!

And of course the cute noises Ailu makes when she falls asleep, the bright eyes that watch me when I wake up and the happiness in her whole body when she runs to me to get a treat all make up million times for toe biting, table-cloth pulling and all other little bothers that now belong in my life.

Ailu, like most dogs, loves digging and digging and digging…

To Lure or Not To Lure

Luring in animal training refers to the use of food lure as a way of getting the animal to do the desired action. For instance, when we want a dog to sit, we hold the treat in front of its nose and slowly move it upwards so that when dog tries to get it, its behind will automatically (well that’s the theory at least) move towards the ground and the dog will sit. Similarly we can use the food lure to get the animal to follow us or to move to a specific position. Most of the “tricks” that we want to teach to our dogs can be taught by using lures.

Traditionally luring has been the way to train. The idea was to lure the dog to do want you wanted while at the same time repeating the cue word of your choosing. Recently, however, a lot of trainers have abandoned this way of training since it has some inherent problems.

The first issue with luring is that the lure will eventually need to be faded off, unless if you think it is OK that you always need to have a treat in your hand when you want your dog to sit. Fading should be done quite early in the training so that it won’t become part of the cue. Depending on the trainer (and of course on the dog) you should ideally have no more than five attempts with a lure, after which you should really start fading it. In the worst case, the dog has already decided that the lure is part of the cue and instead of fading it, you will end up having to teach the whole thing from the start.

Especially if your dog is extremely greedy the problem with using the lure is that the dog might be so focused on the lure that it is not paying much attention to what it is actually doing. When you then try to fade to lure off the dog has no clue what it is supposed to be doing. It will stare at your hand or your pocket expecting to see the treat, that it will get if it follows it.

The dog might try do various different things when you are teaching it to sit. It might reverse or try to jump to get the lure. When the cue word “sit” is constantly repeated it might, in the pooches head, get associated with any one of these actions it performs, or with all of them. Hence, a lot of trainers nowadays suggest that the cue word is only added once the dog performs the desired thing pretty well. Hence, you would only start using the cue “sit” once you can be pretty sure your dog is about to sit.

The topic of luring can sometimes create a little arguments in the dog training circles since there are trainers who insist that you should never use it, but train your dog with free shaping only. Free shaping is a bit like the game where one person of the group goes outside the room, while others hide something in the room. When the person enters, they try to guide the searcher to the hidden thing by using warm and cold as indicators of approaching or going further from the target. The trainer simply splits the desired task into small fragments, called criteria. The dog is then guided through these criteria one at the time until the final task is accomplished. For instance the criteria for touching a hand with the nose might be 1) looks at the hand 2) turns head towards the hand 3) moves the nose towards the hand 4) touches the hand. Each of these stages is taken as a task in itself and the animal is rewarded when it performs the desired criteria. If you’re interested in knowing more about free shaping, Pat Miller has written a very nice article about it in The Whole Dog Journal.  There is also a very good introductory article by Karen Pryor in the clickertraining.com site. Enjoy!

 

Bob Bailey, who is the grand ol’ man of animal training based on operant conditioning has revealed that when they were training their hundreds of animals from dolphins to cats and birds, they mostly used training. Susan Garrett, an American instruction and many times agility champion, is known to not even allow luring in her classes. She discusses the reasons for this in her blog and has also included a text written by Bailey, that talks about the reasons they had for using luring. You can check those out here.

So, I cannot actually answer the question in the title. I guess, like most of the times when working with animals, the answer depends on the animal, the task at hand, the time you have, the condition and so on. In other words, each case is unique and a good trainer will choose the to use what works best in each individual case.

Difficulty of praising

Recently I realized once again, how much you can learn about people by observing their interactions with the animals. Few days back I participated as an observer in a puppy school where 5 puppies and their owners were taking their first steps in becoming a well-behaved unit. They were practicing simple commands such as “watch me” and “leave it”. The idea was to praise the puppies and treat them when they got it right and take away the treat (and hence the possibility of a reward) when they did not. The puppies were excited and tried their best to figure out what was expected of them, like puppies do. And the owners were trying to keep their puppy’s attention from wandering to all the other puppies that for the most of  them seemed so much more interesting than their owner with their little treats.

Nothing out of the ordinary there. Puppies cannot yet focus for a very long time and in a situation where there are so many possible friends to play with around, it can be very difficult for them to concentrate on anything. What struck me as curious though, was the seeming difficulty to give praise the puppies when they succeeded. The instructor had to constantly remind people to give praise and reward the correct behavior. However, when the puppies lost their focus, started bouncing or trying to get to the other puppies, there was no shortage of scolding words.

Watching all of this, I started to wonder why it was that the owners seemed to forget to reward their dogs. It almost seemed like the good behavior was taken for granted and only the “bad” behavior was paid any attention to. Does this tell us something about the way we interact with others? Was this just a group of random negative people or is this a more widespread way of interacting with others? Sadly, at least to me the easiness by which the owners scolded their pups while forgetting to praise their good behavior seemed very typical of many people. We tend to expect people to do well, to (always) be at their best behavior, to never cross any lines or to hurt anyone. To succeed in that is not something to be praised, but rather something normal, something to be expected. However, if they make a mistake, cross a line, forget their manners, we are quick to criticise, to judge and even “put them to their place”.

I don’t think it is right to have that kind of attitude towards other people, but at least people are capable of understanding that some people just are like that. Dogs are not. Scolding for them is a punishment (well for most at least), but instead of telling them what to do it just leaves them feeling confused. They are not born with a guidebook of living with humans and cannot be expected to do what we want without being taught to. They need to be told when they are doing well or acting like we wish them to,  so they know to do the same thing again. Also when they make a mistake, scolding won’t help, since it is very likely that the mistake was caused by the fact that they did not know our “rules” and “wishes”, got distracted, or simply were just being dogs.

Dog training is, or should be, about positive reinforcement. Positive, however, does not equal permissive. Neither does it mean that you will be feeding your dog treats constantly for the rest of its life. What it does mean though, is that when your dog does well, you really need to let it know by no uncertain terms. I am not trying to say that the use of punishments in dog training is simply “bad”. In fact they have an important place even in the so called positive training methods. The whole issue is, however, quite complicated and I will discuss it in a later post. Now I just want to remind everyone to give praise where praise is due and invite you all to think how do you behave towards your animals.