Monday, April 20, 2009

Leash Training, 101

Check out the latest issue of DogWorld Magazine! There's an article titled "The Importance of Play," by Lisa Hanks. I'm quoted extensively on this important topic. As for today's blog entry, this is another one for our online Natural Dog Training manual. It's a more comprehensive version of an earlier article on training a dog to walk nicely on the leash. Enjoy! Print it out for personal use. E-mail the link to friends!

"Let's Go for a Walk!"
A 6’ leash, preferably latigo leather, or if you have a puppy who might chew his leash when you’re not looking, use a sturdy nylon leash. (Cheaper than buying gallons of BitterApple or a new leather leash every other week.)

A flat, buckle-style collar, as wide as possible. Make sure the leash is tight enough to that the pup’s head can’t slip through it, but not so tight that there’s no “play” at all. Do not use a choke collar, prong collar, or Martingale collar. And under no circumstances should you use a head harness like the Gentle Leader. With young, large breed puppies you may want to use a harness to prevent the pup from putting all his weight against his throat. Just be advised that the harness was designed for pulling. So that will be a bit of a disadvantage. And the harness should be temporary. Once the pup learns to stop pulling, use a flat collar.

You’ll also need either a vest with a large, open pocket, or a bait bag from a dog training supply company, or a nail bag from the hardware store.

Pre-Game Show:
Always let your puppy do his business before a training session.

The first thing to remember is that until your dog is trained to walk next to you without pulling ahead or lagging behind, every walk is going to be a training walk. There’s no, “I’ll take my puppy to the dry cleaners,” or “I need something from the convenience store; I bet my puppy would like to come.” Yes, he’d probably like to come, but you can’t train a dog and carry groceries or dry cleaning at the same time. On the other hand, once the dog is trained to walk next to you, you’ll be able to take him everywhere.

Have some tasty treats readily available in a large pocket or “bait bag.” By readily available (notice the bold letters) I mean that you should be able to grab one instantly. I prefer to use cubed bits of cheddar or muenster cheese; they’re easy to handle, the puppy doesn’t have to chew them, and they’re generally not a problem for doggies with digestive issues. Use what your puppy likes, but keep those three criteria in mind. (Don’t use liver treats; they’re too rich and may give your pup diarrhea.)

Hold the 6’ leash in your right hand, putting your right thumb through the permanent loop, but make a temporary loop by “choking up” and holding that part of the leash in the palm of your right hand. Let me repeat: right thumb through the permanent loop, the temporary loop in the palm of your right hand. This gives you much more control over the dog’s movements than if you put your wrist through the permanent loop and wrap it around your arm or wind it around your fist. The temporary loop should give you the same distance between your hand and the dog’s collar as if you were walking him on a 4’ leash. That temporary loop is important, so don’t use a 4’ leash!

While you’re walking the leash should fall naturally across or in front of your hips. If the puppy moves ahead to sniff something or say hello to another doggie, you can let out some slack so that he doesn’t feel any pressure on his collar. Pressure is the enemy. That’s why we use a 6’ leash. Whenever a dog feels pressure on his collar he’ll automatically pull forward. This is an unconscious behavior called the opposition reflex. So your primary goal is to walk him in such a way that there’s as little tension on his collar as possible.

Your left hand should not touch the leash, except when you need to choke up to make that temporary loop. The dog should always be on your left side while walking, and the optimal position (the “heel” position) is with the dog next to you, in “the pocket,” close to your left leg, with his head and shoulders about even with your left knee. If the dog moves out of the pocket, make a kissing sound to get him to focus on you, then reward him with a treat when he does.

Here are the 2 ways a dog will move out of the pocket:

He’ll stay on your left but his head and shoulders will move forward past your left knee.

He’ll lag, then try to come around behind you, veering to the right, sometimes wrapping the leash around the backs of your knees.

Training Environment:
Once your dog has finished doing his business, find an open, distraction-free environment to do your leash training. If you live in an urban area you may have to improvise. That’s okay, just find the best possible spot you can. 

Starting the Leash Training:
Start each session with your dog sitting next to you in the heel position. It’s probably a good idea to motivate the dog to sit by showing him a treat. This will not only get him to sit, it will also make him realize that you’ve got a pocketful of treats with you.

Once the dog is sitting, say “Ready?” then, “Okay, let’s walk!” and begin walking, praising the dog as you go. Praise is not necessarily being used to reward any behaviors yet. You simply praise him to keep him in a group mood. Since dogs and humans walk at different paces, and have different agenda, he’ll slip out of his group mood pretty easily. Praise is one tool that can help sustain that mood a bit longer than normal.

Pay attention to where his focus is. And once he slips out of his group mood—eg., he moves his head and shoulders ahead of you, or he just starts to lose focus on you—make a kissing sound. With some dogs you may have to do it a few times before they respond. Don’t worry about it, just keeping doing it. When the dog does respond, immediately pop the treat into his mouth, but only while he’s in the pocket.

You’re also going to have to train yourself to reach for the treat (or have it ready), do the kissing sound, and let the slack out of the leash all at the same time. It takes a little time to learn this but it’s important to always keep a slack leash as much as possible.

If you’re too late with your timing, and the dog veers across your path in front of you, or off to your right, that’s okay. Just make the kissing sound, then make an easy, gentle about right turn, maneuvering your body so that the dog ends up back on your left again. Keep making the kissing sound and showing him the treat until he’s walking next to you in the pocket, then give him the treat. He should only be treated while he’s either already in or moving into the pocket.

You’ll now be walking in the opposite direction, so if you want to continue going the same direction you were originally headed, just continue making the about right turn until you’re headed back in the previous direction.

If the dog decides he wants to veer to the right behind your legs, do an about left turn so he’s once again on your left. Make the kissing sound, lure him into the pocket with the treat, keep circling to the left until you’re going the original direction. This maneuver is usually a bit more difficult to get the hang on. But once you realize that that’s the case, you can take a little extra time and thought to teach yourself how to do it.

As you make these gentle “corrections,” followed by a treat while the dog is either in or moving into the pocket, you’ll find that he’ll start to almost prefer to walk next to you. He may even start looking for a treat without hearing the kissing sound first. When he does he should immediately get a treat then as well. (Yeah, you’re going to use a lot of treats, but remember, until the dog is trained to walk next to you, every walk is going to be a training walk.)

Time Frame:
Keep the sessions short (about 3 mins., followed by a play break, then 3 more mins., followed by another break, then 3 more, and you’re done). Don’t worry that you won’t be making progress quickly enough. The slower you go initially, the faster you’ll get there in the end. Just trust that when you do this properly, without stressing the dog, she’ll begin to automatically gravitate to a spot next to you on her walks.

Each session should end with a rousing game of tug or fetch. Remember, the dog thinks she
’s on a hunting expedition. Walking next to you feels unnatural to her, so her hunting instincts need to get some sort of payoff at the back end.

Also, be on the lookout for any signs that the dog is bored, anxious, stressed, or losing interest. If so you can either take a break for some nice, easy massage. Or if the dog seems really stressed
—panting, unable to focus on youtry stroking her very firmly down the topline, from the base of the skull to the tail, as if youre pushing excess nervous energy out of the spinal column, releasing it through her tail (but don’t massage her tail). Do this three or four times and the dog will usually either yawn or shake herself. You could also do some gentle massaging of her shoulders and haunches.

After three or four days you should see some definite progress. But remember: this needs to be done as a training session, not part of a trip to the bank or the copy store, etc.

After three or four days you can add some variations. One is what I call the “kiss-n-tug” where you give a tiny, almost imperceptible tug on the collar, followed by the kissing sound, which is then followed by a treat. You can also do a “kiss-n-walk” where the kissing sound is followed by the words, “Let's walk!” Then you can start doing both of these exercises together. Pretty soon the tiny tug on the collar is a signal to the dog that walking next to you, and focusing on you, is a pleasant experience. (This is not a real, obedience-level “heel” by the way; it’s just one way of keeping the dog walking next to you, in the pocket.)

I also talk to and praise the dog continuously while walking (at least in the beginning). Remember that the dog’s agenda is different from yours. He wants to move ahead, toward some release of his prey drive. Praise will bring him back into a group mood and make him feel that his hunting needs will be satisfied soon enough (by playing fetch and tug when the session is over).

And if the dog stops to sniff something, I let him. If he keeps sniffing and I want to keep moving, I’ll say, “Oooh! Is that a good smell? Oh, you like that smell! What a good doggie! You’re such a good smeller!” Then I change my tone slightly, and say, “Okay...” and he’ll immediately start walking with me again.

If the dog can’t pay attention at all on your walks, you need another exercise: “Walking on the Leash, 102,” which will be posted here soon.

Happy leash training!

“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In Praise of Aggression

I have great news. I just started writing a blog for Psychology Today online. It's going to be a different kind of blog: a bit more technical and more focused on dog psychology than training ideas, so I'll keep writing my training tips and explanations of the Natural Dog Training approach here as well.

Why You Should Always Praise an Aggressive Dog
Praise is one of the most important training tools we have. Dogs love feeling connected. Most of them even like the feeling of connection they get with practically anyone they meet. The reason praise works as a training tool is because it satisfies that deep social need in dogs.

Since underneath it all, every dog wants to be friends with everyone she meets, aggression is not a normal behavior. Its a sometimes neurotic, sometimes borderline state that feels totally unnatural unless they feel they’re in danger. Praise can often remove that feeling of danger, which is why your first approach when working with an aggressive dog should always be to lavish her with praise.

You have to remember, though, that praise isn
’t being used here to reward the aggression. That’s a key element. Praise works as a positive reinforcer for some behaviors because it makes a dog feel good, makes her feel connected. You also have to remember my little mantra:

All Behavior Comes From Emotion
So When You Change a Dog’s Emotional State
You Automatically Change Her Behavior

Praise is one tool to change a dog
s emotional state, even if youre praising a bad or unwanted behavior.

I lived for a while in Marble Hill, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. Many of the houses are on hillsides with garages below the house, like in San Francisco. Years ago it was an Irish neighborhood, but now there’s a mix of third or fourth generation Irish households—mostly old ladies—and first and second generation Hispanic families.

Though it wasn’t on my usual route to the subway station, I used to sometimes pass by a certain house, where there was a Doberman pinscher kept behind a chain link fence, with signs saying "Cuidado—Pero Malo".

The first time I walked by, the pero malo charged the fence and scared the bejebus out of me. I caught my breath then said, "Good girl!" She continued to snarl and snap. I praised her some more and sort of she quieted down a little. Then I put my hand up the fence to let her sniff it. I was glad the chain link was there! I would've lost a finger!

Over a period of several months every time I passed by—which might have been once a week or once every three weeks—I praised the dog (whose name, I eventually discovered, was Willow), and she barked and snarled and snapped, yet I continued to praise her. Occasionally I’d put my hand up to the fence to see if she'd try to bite it; she usually did.

Over time, though, her aggression began to diminish in small, almost imperceptible increments. And I began to get the impression that she was always curled up at the top of the steps, waiting for me to come by. Then, when I came around the corner and she heard my keys jingling (I wore them hooked to a belt loop), she would race toward the fence and give a few peremptory barks and growls, but she’d also wag her tail. I continued to praise her and let her sniff my hand, still keeping it safely on the other side of the chain link.

Then one day, when I put my hand up to the fence, she licked my fingers! Ah-hah! A breakthrough! So I carefully pushed a few fingers through the chain link, and she nibbled on them happily, the way puppies do when they use your hands as a pacifier.

It turned out that Willow wasn't a pero malo at all. She was a cupcake. From then on, every time I passed by she ran down the steps and wagged her tail happily, hoping—or so I imagined—that I'd poke my fingers through the fence so she could nibble on them and be my friend.

The next story starts with a phone call I got from some potential clients with a female Rottweiler whod been exhibiting severe aggression toward the skateboards, roller bladders, joggers, and cyclists in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. From what I was told she seemed to view these people as prey animals, in desperate need of killing.

I was a bit distracted when I arrived for my first visit at their 1850s era, but recently remodeled two-story house. Normally if I’m dealing with an aggressive dog I’m very careful about how the first meeting takes place, particularly in terms of my entrance through the door to the dog’s “den.” I like to meet such dogs out on the street. But since Twyla’s aggression was supposedly only directed at joggers, skateboarders and the like I mistakenly thought my entrance into Twyla’s den wouldn’t be a problem.

At first it wasn’t.

The husband opened the door. Twyla was sitting obediently by his wife at the back of the entry, next to a set of stairs leading up to the second floor. Her leash was on and she was “happily” wagging her tail.

“Hi, Twyla,” I said, in my friendliest voice.

She pulled the leash out of the wife’s hand, ran to me and jumped up, with her front paws resting on my shoulders. She was a big girl. That 100 lbs. didn’t contain any fat at all. She was long and lean and lanky. And huge!

Normally, I see jumping up as a sign of friendliness, a desire to make social contact. And that’s what Twyla seemed to have in mind too. That is, until I leaned my nose close to hers, expecting her to lick my nose.

Rookie mistake.

Her face turned into a horrible mask of terror and aggression. A low, throaty growl came through her lips, parted now into a vicious snarl of fury. Her teeth were less than two inches away from my nose. She was ready—given the slightest provocation—to rip my entire face off.

Did I mention her teeth were two inches from my nose?

My heart did a funny thing, though. It did nothing. It didn’t skip a beat. If anything it seemed to slow down. Sure, a part of my brain was wondering how much of my face Twyla would be able to tear off and eat before her owners could finally grab the leash and pull her off of me. But for some reason that didn’t faze me.

Instead, I did something I’d trained myself to do over the years. I broke eye contact and praised Twyla vocally in a soft, yet very warm and friendly voice. “Good girl… good girl…”

After a brief pause Twyla jumped down and started licking my hand.

Five minutes later we were all safely inside the house and the dog was lying next to me on the couch, flat on her back, with her legs in the air, using my hand as a pacifier. Just by praising her softly I had changed Twyla from a potential killer, ready for blood, to a complete pussycat.

I’d also saved my face from being severe damaged.

I’m not recommending that you walk up to any dog on the street and try this. In Willow’s case there was a chain link fence between us. In Twyla’s, I did a dumb thing by leaning my face toward hers, which dogs perceive as an act of aggression. Please dont ever do that!

There’s another aspect to it too, though: sincerity. If you try this with your dog (because again, I do not recommend doing it with a strange dog), your praise has to be sincere, and you can’t have even a single trace of fear in your body. And remember: it might not seem to work initially, as happened with Willow. Then again, you might see results right away, as I was lucky to have done with Twyla. Just remember: 

No dog wants to be aggressive. 
It goes against their nature.

“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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