Sunday, 16 February 2014

Teaching your dog to obey any command in any situation

It is necessary to teach your dog each command in more than one environmental situation - so not just at home or in a training class, but in the garden, in the park, in the middle of a children's play area, at a farm or anywhere else that is safe and available to you, and where you are likely to take your dog in the future.  

It is important to do this because dogs demonstrate what is known as context specific learning - you may also see it referred to as 'proofing' a command. Therefore, if you only ever practice a sit-stay with your dog in the kitchen of your home for example, he may not perform a sit-stay in another location.  When you teach a dog a command, he associates not only the word or signal you are using with the command you are trying to teach, but also other things that are around him - such as smells, perhaps the texture of the surface he is sitting on, or the fact that he is on a leash and in a training class with other dogs.  You can use this learning trait to your advantage if you have an anxious dog and you want to encourage calm behaviour in a situation that the dog finds stressful - but I will cover that in another post.      

You have to help your dog focus in on the fact that it is the word or signal (or both) that is important not the other environmental factors, so once your dog understands what you require, move to a slightly noisier, more distracting location and teach him the command there too. Once he is reliable there, move again to a yet more demanding location and repeat the process.  Don't try to force your dog, you will just make him lose confidence in you and put back his training. 

Always set your dog up for success - so if you want to try a sit-stay in the park, don't go when chidren are having an exciting game of chase-the-ball and he wants to join in.  Start off on a quiet day when there are no children, then perhaps behind a bush or building so that he can hear but not see the children, then as he improves perhaps sitting with his back to the fun but his focus on you, before he graduates to being able to sit and focus on you and the command and ignores the children playing nearby. 

Each dog is different so will need to adjust your training to suit his rate of progress.  As with all dog training, you will not achieve this quickly, and depending upon what you are trying to teach your dog, it could take months - so persevere! Your progress will depend upon the strength of the bond between you and your dog, how willing he is to work for you, the dog's breed, its age, how it was raised, its innate ability to learn, your ability to communicate your requirements to your dog and reward appropriate responses, and your ability to make sure you don't inadvertently reward undesired responses.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Loose Leash Walking

The leash should be used only as a safety measure, to keep your dog at your side and under close control when it is not safe or suitable for the dog to be walking with you, under control, but off leash.  Too many people think that the collar and leash are there to control the dog - but if they are used in that way it usually means that you do not in fact have control of your dog.  All dog owners should aspire to be able to manage their dog with nothing more than their voice or hand signals / whistle, and some form of reinforcement for good or compliant behaviours.

Obviously while city-living dogs need to spend a lot of their time on leash, those dogs being walked in quieter environments and away from distractions should be able to spend less time on the leash.  However, different areas have different regulations about whether a dog is allowed off leash or not so be sure you know what is applicable to you and safe for you and your pet in each situation.

Incorrect use of the leash can lead to many problems associated with dog walking and enjoying your pet.  Sadly it also means that certain members of a family are often unable to walk the dog as they feel unable to control it when it meets other dogs or people, or is in a certain situation. It is so much better to stop these problems before they start, rather than trying to stop them when they have become bad habits.

Training for leash walking should begin shortly after your pup has arrived home, as soon as it has settled in to its new home.  You don't need to take it out of the house, initial training should start within the home where the pup feels safe and comfortable, and isn't going to be distratced by new sights or smells.  The first step is to get the pup used to wearing a collar.  This may take several days as some dogs find a collar quite irritating and scratch at it continuously.  If you allow the pup to scratch at the same spot for a long time it could irritate or break the skin, so if your pup does this put the collar on for just a few minutes at a time.  Don't frighten the pup by grabbing him and pinning him down to put on the collar, but turn it into a training-game and encourage him to sit calmly while you put the collar on and then reinforce the calm behaviour (reward him) immediately.  But make sure you don't reward inappropriate behaviour such as mouthing, pawing or jumping around.  Once the collar is on, if your pup tries to scratch or otherwise remove the collar then distract it by playing a game - perhaps chases, tickling, or put the collar on before feeding time.  Try anything that will make the pup associate the collar with something good, and something that will distract him from scratching for a short while.  Try this several times a day and even if pup can only manage a few minutes each time he will soon become used to it.

Once the collar is on, use a house line - a very light, fairly short leash - only when you are home and whenever it is safe to do so as it lets you control your pup if he tries to turn inappropriate behaviour in to a game - such as grabbing and running off with your iPhone or purse.  Your natural reaction will be to shout and run after him and happy pup discovers he has taught you a new game (catch-me-if-you-can) which can leads to hours of fun for the pup, and hours of frustration for the owner as pup grows older and graduates to running off with expensive shoes, leather gloves, precious sweaters etc.  Unfortunately children are excellent students when pup teaches them this game - they shriek loudly, and love the thrill of the chase as much as the pup, so parents have to ensure that they stop this game immediately.  A game of chases with a dog toy is fine, a game of chases with Mum's best shoe is not fine.

When you start to walk the pup outside he will be very excited and try to dash off to investigate every new smell, or head straight to his favourite area.  This is the time to ensure that when he lunges forward on the lead he comes to a complete halt as you implement the "Become-A-Tree" routine. This means exactly what it says - when pup pulls in an inappropriate direction you become a "Tree" or a "Rock" and thus immobile.  Don't jerk the lead, or pull the pup - simply become immobile.  It means you won't get very far as you have to stop every few feet but pup will quickly realise that lunging and pulling mean NO progress towards his goal, and that the only way to progress towards it is for HIM to keep the lead slack.  So he is rewarded for keeping a slack leash by being able to progress towards his goal, as opposed to being rewarded for pulling and lunging by succeeding in progressing towards his goal.  

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Early Gentle Exercise Minimises the Risk of Hip Dysplasia - study says no steps, no running but daily walks before 12 weeks

A 10-year Norwegian study has shown that a number of environmental factors can affect the incidence of hip dysplasia (HD) in dogs.  

It is particularly during the period from birth to three months that various environmental factors appear to influence the development of this disease. Randi I. Krontveit’s doctoral research studied the incidence of HD in four breeds of dog.  Dogs are not born with HD, but genetically disposed puppies can develop it to varying degrees. 500 dogs participated in the study and the 4 breeds investigated were the Newfoundland, the Labrador Retriever, the Leonberger and the Irish Wolfhound. Puppies born in the spring or summer and at breeders who lived on a farm had a lower risk of developing HD. After about 8 weeks, the puppies began life with their new owner and the opportunity to exercise daily in parks up until the age of 3 months reduced the risk of HD, whereas the daily use of steps or stairs during the same period increased the risk. Overall, it would appear that daily exercise outside in gently undulating terrain up until the age of three months gives a good prognosis when it comes to preventing HD.

The dogs in this study were followed up until they reached 10 years of age.  Dogs seriously affected by HD were put down earlier than dogs with a milder form of the disease. This was particularly the case for Newfoundlands and Leonbergers.  Serious and moderate degrees of HD increased the risk of symptoms such as limping and hip pain and these symptoms occurred earliest in Newfoundlands. The Labrador Retriever was the breed in which symptoms appeared latest in life. Varied exercise had a positive effect and dogs that exercised on a daily basis on a lead and running free in different types of terrain were free of symptoms longer than dogs that were less active.

Of course for urban dwellers this advice could be difficult to follow as depending upon which vaccination regime they suggest, your vet will probably advise that your puppy is kept away from open areas frequented by other dogs until his vaccinations are effective.  So discuss your options with your vet who may be able to recommend a suitable spot.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Researchers in Vienna Demonstrate that Owner-Dog Relationships Share Striking Similarities to Parent-Child Relationships

A very interesting study has been published by researchers in Vienna. 

Lisa Horn (Ludwig Huber Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Austria & Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range Clever Dog Lab Society, Vienna) with Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna claim that their scientific study provides an important piece of evidence for the similarity between the "secure base effect" found in dog-owner and infant-caregiver relationships.

The study is the first to show that the secure base effect in dogs extends from the Ainsworth's Strange Situation Procedure to other areas of dogs' lives and that it can also manifest in cognitive testing. A comparable effect has been shown in human children when they were confronted with a problem-solving task: those children that were able to use their mother as a secure base were found to be more motivated and persistent in solving the task. However, while the secure base effect is usually only evident in infanthood, where it balances the infants' exploration of the world with maintaining the crucial proximity to the caregiver, dogs seem to be unique in having retained this behavior into adulthood. Dogs living in animal shelters have even been found to establish preferences for specific humans after short positive interactions in adulthood, which already strikingly resemble attachment bonds.

Although the secure base effect we found in this study was specific for the owner, unfamiliar humans like the experimenter also seem to be able to provide some social support for the dogs. A similar effect has been observed in human children when they seek social support from non-attachment figures with whom they had been familiarized prior to the test. Although in adult dogs it has so far mainly been shown that owners are the ones who provide social support for their dogs, in dog puppies social support can also be provided by an unfamiliar human. 

It is likely that the presence or absence of the owner might substantially influence dogs' motivation in other more complex test situations. The owner's absence in the generally unfamiliar experimental setting might cause a lack of security, which in turn could influence the outcome of the test.

The message to take from this research is this: your dog is not a child and should not be treated as one.  However, in the same way that young children need to be allowed to develop their confidence and life skills by exploring the world from the safety and comfort of their mother's arms, so a young puppy needs to be able to develop its confidence and understanding of its environment from the safety of its owners arms.  So don't overwhelm your puppy by constantly throwing it in to new and stressful situations.  Rather gently expose it to new and unsettling situations, but always with a safe pair of arms for it to retreat to if everything threatens to overwhelm it.      

Monday, 24 June 2013

Puppy Dog Tales - The SIT, STAY, DOWN

Puppy Training - the SIT, DOWN, STAND

Teaching a very young pup the basic positions can be quite simple as they can be lured in to position more easily than a larger dog.  People who plan to exhibit their dogs in Breed Shows don't generally teach their dogs SIT as they need the dogs to stand for long periods in the show ring so they focus on teaching their dogs STAND instead.

Watch Mum! 

The first thing to teach your pup is to learn to pay attention to you by looking at your face, so when you feed the pup bring the bowl up towards your face and reward him verbally and with his dinner when he makes eye contact.  

You will find that if you call your pup's name it is likely that the pup will sit as he lifts his head to look up at your face as it is so much higher than him.  If you know he will do this, call his name to get his attention then give him the command SIT.  When he sits, praise him and treat him immediately - behaviourists recommend rewarding within 3 secs of the dog complying so time 3 secs on a stopwatch to see how quick you need to be as it is a very short space of time!

When your dog is sitting, use a treat to lure your pup in to a DOWN position.  You can do this by showing him the treat by holding it in front of his face, then drop your hand to the floor immediately under his chin, at the same time giving the command DOWN.  As you do this he should start to lower his head to get the treat, so start to slide your hand along the floor away from his face - still saying DOWN.  His head should follow the treat and if you do it slowly and gently he will drop to the floor rather than walking forward. If he does drop to the floor, reward him immediately with lots of cuddles and praise and the treat. If he stands up, or lifts his back end off the floor, say 'No' and very gently try to manoeuvre him so that his belly is on the floor or he rolls over on to his side - at which point praise and treat as described earlier.  
DO NOT under any circumstances push your pup to the floor, pin him down or put pressure on his back or hips as you could easily damage his growing bones.   

The secret with this exercise is:
  • Firstly to keep your pup calm.  If your pup has been over-stimulated by playing or some other physical activity, he will not be able to focus on you and your commands so wait until he is calm and able to pay attention to you.   
  • Secondly only reward the required behaviour.  Don't reward a partial down or a 'cute' action such as giving a paw - you asked for DOWN so all that should be rewarded  is a DOWN.  Your pup learns by trial and error, so if he doesn't understand or doesn't get it right, say No gently and keep explaining what you want clearly and calmly.  If he is still very young you may only be able to try 2 or 3 repetitions before his attention wanders.  Be guided by your dog and work at his pace as all dogs are different and you cannot expect too much from a young pup.
  • Thirdly make sure you DO reward the desired behaviour.  Your pup will probably accidentally put his belly on the floor just before he jumps up again so be prepared and the instant he hits the ground say Yehhh - Good pup - Well Done... etc and treat him.  It won't take him long to associate the belly on the ground and the reward.

When your dog is sitting, use a treat to lure him in to the STAND position.  You do this by showing him the treat by holding it in front of his face, then moving your hand away from his nose, very slowly and parallel with the floor and giving the pup the command - STAND. You will only need to move your hand a few inches so that the pup comes up on to all 4 feet then praise and reward him.  Make sure you don't reward the pup for taking an extra step or walking forward - something they are liable to do if you move the treat too far away from their face.  Again, wait until the pup is calm and focussed on you before you try this; don't get impatient with the pup, and if he is very young then 1, 2 or 3 attempts may be all he can focus on before his attention wanders. 

Always finish on a positive note - so ask your pup for a sit as they usually learn that very quickly - then as well as praising him have a little game so that he looks forward to training sessions because he knows it will end with you being delighted with him!  

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Big Boy crosses Rainbow Bridge

For various reasons it has been some time since my last post.  Sadly, one of the reasons is that Big Boy became even more poorly and after a lifetime of ill health he passed away at the end of last year.

It started sometime in November, when he began vomiting.  Not the usual "coffee grounds" and bile that usually signified a re-occurence of his gastritis but copious amounts of clear mucous that trailed all across the floor.  

When the usual 24 hr starvation followed by a light chicken and rice diet didn't help it was off to the vet and an anti-emetic injection.  This would work for a few days and then the vomiting would start again.  Although reluctant to cause him more stress through medical interventions I agreed he could go in for an exploratory endoscopy as we had reached the point where palliative care was the only other option.  

A scan and x-rays suggested shadows in his stomach and lungs but as he was being intubated in preparation for the endoscopy some sort of vascular mass in his lungs ruptured, there was blood everywhere and he nearly died.  They did however get him back and after a couple of days we got him home, although without a definitive diagnosis as further investigations couldn't proceed.  He was very weak, had lost a lot of weight in just a few days but once home started eating and was keeping food down. 

My son - his special friend - came home for the weekend to visit him, but by the following Wednesday Big Boy started refusing food and on the Thursday morning he told me he had had enough.  I have heard people say this, but this was the first time I have experienced it, and I'm not sure I can explain it, but it did happen.

My son arranged a flight home and an appointment was made with the vet but by that evening Big Boy was getting weaker so my son brought forward his flight to arrive first thing in the morning. I slept downstairs that night with Big Boy who seemed reasonably settled and in the morning I told him I was going to the airport to collect my son.  But as he got into the car, and we pulled away from the pick up point his phone rang.  It was my daughter to say that Big Boy seemed to be having a fit -and then almost immediately he stopped breathing.  And that was it, after 8 years he was gone.

When we got home, just a 20min drive, Little Girl and Little Boy were watching morosely, Little Girl quite obviously knew what had happened, and I let them both say their good- byes.  

The night before he passed away Big Boy had asked for the back door to be opened, and despite the bitter cold of December he lay there looking out at the garden as he always did when it was a warm, sunny spot, as if he were reliving old memories of happier days.  We had him cremated and scattered his ashes around the garden boundary where he so loved to patrol so he can always be with us and watching the other dogs.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Puppy Dog Tales - Rewards for Training

Little Boy is responding well to all the basic commands - SIT, DOWN and STAND.  

Obviously I use only reward-based training, and so I have a treat bag permanently attached to my belt so that I can reward wanted behaviours whenever they occur.  It is very important to let young animals know what is a 'good' behaviour, and what is a 'bad' behaviour so continual and consistent guidance in the form of rewards for 'good' behaviours is very important.  I do use voice, touch and games too, but with food-motivated dogs such as Labradors, treats make the whole process very simple.  

It does carry its own problems in that I have to ensure that the treats do not make up a large proportion of the puppy's diet - a young, growing animal needs a well-balanced dog food suitable for his age and breed.  Similarly, the older animals are prone to putting to weight, so the quality and volume of treats has to be strictly controlled.

For the puppy I am using a mixture of his kibble pellets and dehydrated liver cubes.  The latter are available in little tubs from pet stores, have no additives or chemicals and come cut in to little cubes of about 0.5cm.  They are quite soft so I can break them up further with my nails and so can treat frequently using the tiniest of pieces.  The older dogs can have problems with sensitivity to wheat so for them I use gluten-free beef or chicken chomping chews.  These are made from 50% meat, and are soft, thin flat strips about 15cm long x 2cm wide.  As with the pup, I break the strips in to about 4 pieces to have in my treat bag, and reward with a small piece broken off one of these quarters.  The size of reward can thus be varied as appropriate for larger or smaller dogs.  

If your dog is very overweight you can measure out the dog's daily kibble allowance, and instead of feeding it all at one time in the dog's regular meal, you can put half of it in your treat bag and use that to reward behaviours.  If your dog is fully grown but is very stubborn, you could try not feeding a meal at all and instead put the dog's daily kibble allowance in your treat bag and reward desired behaviours constantly during the day so that he has to work for every piece of kibble.  However, if you try this approach you would need to be careful that you were consistent and fair in your rewarding, and that your dog was an adult, in good health, and no longer growing as puppies need a different feeding regime to adult dogs.  

For the older dogs, if I am trying to teach them something new or difficult, or trying to encourage them to do something they are worried about - such as getting Little Girl to do the Dog Walk at Agility - then I will use small amounts of a high-value treat.  High-value treats are exactly what they sound - a treat that is of high-value to your dog.  It could be a piece of cheese, or fish, cream, a piece of hot-dog sausage - whatever your dog adores and will do anything for.  Obviously, to keep their status as 'high-value' you must limit their use to those occasions when you are having problems otherwise they will lose their value. You can also use them to distract your dog when working on resolving behavioural issues such as inappropriate barking.