A Hidden benefit to Walking your Dog

January 31, 2011

Walking your dog is necessary for your dog’s wellbeing – it provides sensory stimulation, exercise, and an opportunity to socialize with other members of its species, apart from being able to spend time with you, the most important thing in his life.  But, there are benefits for you as well.  The American College of Sports Medicine has found that you burn 225 kilojoules every 15 minutes you walk your dog!

Now, THAT’S motivation.

Clicker Games to Improve your Skill

January 27, 2011

In a previous post on clicker training, I suggested that one of the ways you could improve your clicker and timing skills, would be to practice without the dog.  In this way you can make mistakes in your learning process, and it doesn’t have to affect your dog.

Some of these games need a partner or friend, but there are some that you can play solo.

Game 1:  Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.  – One of the most common mistakes  beginner clicker trainers make is to deliver the food reward at the same time as the click.  The dog is, understandably, so focussed on the food in your hand, that he simply does not hear the click and it subsequently loses its value as a secondary reinforcer (or marker).  This is most common when working at close quarters with your dog and is often the reason that your dog is taking longer than expected to learn a skill.  Even movement of your food hand during an exercise will distract your dog and slow down the learning process.  One of the big advantages clicker training has over lure and reward training, is that it makes the dog “think” about what it’s doing rather than simply “doing”.

This exercise will need a handful of dry beans or any objects that are similar and an empty jar or cup.  Place the handful of beans and the empty jar on a table in front of a mirror.  Stand facing your image and click and transfer one bean from the pile into the empty jar or cup.  What you will be watching for is ANY movement of your food hand while you are clicking with the other.  One thing that helps is to put your (empty) food hand behind your back.  Pick up on even the slightest movement.  You must practice keeping your body, and particularly your food hand still while you are clicking.

Game 2:  One-Armed Bandit – For this game you need a friend, partner or child to help you.  Stand facing one another, about 10 paces apart.  Instruct your partner to very slowly raise one of his or her arms from its starting position at her side, sideways until it is pointing at the ceiling – in other words her upper arm is next to her ear.  Your job as the clicker trainer is to click when her arm reaches the horizontal, at which time she must stop moving.  If she is moving very slowly your clicks will be on the button, but as she speeds up, you’ll find that your clicking is too slow, and her arm stops above the horizontal position.  If it were a dog’s behaviour you were marking you would have been too late to capture it precisely, and probably would be marking another behaviour altogether.  You can see from this game that is rather better to click too early than too late.  It’s better to catch the behaviour on the way to completion, than after completion.  Remember practise makes perfect and even when speeded up, you’ll soon be able to catch the position with a great deal of accuracy.

Game 3:  Anyone for Tennis? – For this game you need a tennis ball and a friend.  Your friend or partner will drop the ball to bounce on the floor, or throw the ball against a wall.  The object of the game is to click when the ball makes contact with the surface.  Remember that if you think “Click” as the ball contacts the surface, you will be too late.   The average person’s reaction time is o.3 seconds, which when you are trying to mark small behaviours is actually a lot of time!

To check your reaction time, you can play these games on the internet.



Happy clicking!

What is Clicker Training?

January 19, 2011

The clicker is a small hand-held tool which makes a clicking noise.  The clicker is simply an effective hands-free way of communicating with animals.  It is a very distinct, unamibiguous sound (CLICK!) that tells the dog that what he has done (or is busy doing) is right and there is a reward to follow.  The clicker bridges the gap between the behaviour and the reward. It is not a magic “quick fix”, although in the hands of an experienced clicker trainer it looks magical.

Using a clicker has quite a few advantages over just using food without the event marker.  The clicker is…

  • More precise at identifying behaviour or parts (splits) of behaviour.  For example, if you want to reward your dog for making eye contact with you, you can catch the precise moment that his or her eyes meet yours.  The dog then understands that it is that brief contact that is being rewarded.  If you train only with food and lures the timing is difficult, as the second you move your food hand to reward that momentary eye contact, the dog will look at the hand holding the food hand and looking away is what you are actually rewarding.
  • Allows for a time lag before delivery of the primary reinforcer.  Because you have associated the clicker with the presentation of food (the primary reinforcer), the dog understands that the click predicts that the reward is on its way.
  • Allows for treat delivery to be more flexible.  Depending what you are trying to achieve in your training the treat delivery can be while the dog is in position (if you are working on sustained positions) or if you are training for some activity such as going out to touch a target and returning to you, the contact is clicked, but the dog has to return to you to get the treat.
  • Allows for easy resetting of the behaviour.  When you are working for repetitions to build fluency, the treat can be tossed away from the dog so that the behaviour is reset,  The training session becomes more efficient.
  • Affects Demeanour.  Tossing the treat after the click can activate a passive dog whereas feeding in position can calm a busy dog.
  • Enables movement to be marked and reinforced.  For example, you can click the dog while it is moving towards you, and even though you are delivering the food when the dog gets to you, it knows that it is the movement towards you that is actually being rewarded.
  • Allows for distance building.  The clicker is useful when teaching the dog to sit or lie down at a distance or to touch a target at a distance.

Some of the difficulties a lot of people have with using the clicker is the timing.  If the click is even slightly late, you might be reinforcing some other behaviour than you thought you were.  You get what you click for.  However, this timing can be practised without your dog and we all know that practice makes perfect!  I will describe some of these games in a subsequent post.

Dogs, even dogs that have never heard the click of the clicker before, take to it incredibly quickly.  It makes teaching your dog a breeze and fun for both of you.  It teaches your dog to think – and think they do.  There’s nothing more exciting than to see your dog have that “Eureka” moment when it knows exactly what you are clicking for.

Your Retriever Pup – The First 5 months

January 18, 2011

Retrievers were born to retrieve.  However, if you are planning to train your retriever to work, then you must do everything you can while the pup is young to encourage and foster this drive.  Drive and your relationship with your dog are the foundation stones that you will be building on over the next year or two.  Play retrieving games with him, encouraging him to come back to you.  I have seen on a number of occasions, handlers of working retrievers who concentrate on the obedience and steadiness to such an extent that the young dog is very hesitant about retrieving, and often will not run out to pick up a dummy at all.  My advice to these handlers is to forget about the obedience and control for a couple of weeks, and PLAY with your dog.  You want, above all, a happy puppy who just LOVES to retrieve.

Obviously, you will be teaching your pup good manners when around people and other dogs, as well as some basic commands such as sit and come, but what you will also be doing at least a couple of times a week is take your pup for a walk, off-lead on a trail, or through a field, exploring the surroundings as a team.  He will learn to negotiate rocky ground and tall grass – he will learn to cross streams and swim in dams – he will be building his confidence in himself and his trust in you.

Don’t think that training your retriever only starts at 6 months.  There is an enormous amount of work you can do before the time to give your pup a headstart with the retrieving game.

Check out this link to learn more.

Your Over-Reactive Dog

January 18, 2011

A dog that over-reacts to any stimuli he might come across by making a display of his anxiety or arousal by lunging, snapping or vocalizing is a dog with a low arousal threshold.  For these dogs the slightest sound or smallest change in their environment is enough to cause a panic attack.  Often dogs with low arousal threshholds who displace aggression onto people or dogs in their immediate vicinity are labelled as aggressive.  In fact, they are probably fearful and anxious and “over threshhold”.  Any rough handling such as shouting at them or hauling on the leash or worst of all beating them can only exacerbate the situation and only serve to make the dog more feaful or anxious and subsequently cause him to display more aggression.

With time and patience even the most reactive dog can be helped to raise his threshhold so that he can cope more easily with situations that trigger his undesirable behaviour.

The first thing you need to do as a handler is become aware of what triggers are present which are causing your dog to over-react, and also to read your dog’s body language which will indicate whether or not he is about to pop over-threshold.  Once you have established what these triggers are and at what distance they kick in you can work at raising his threshold level so that he can cope with more triggering events before he has a negative response – lunging, barking, even biting.

Say, for example, his trigger is a stranger approaching him.  There will be a point at which he reacts, either with a lunge or a bark or a snap.  You must identify this point, and at the “safe” distance, that is, the distance at which there is attention, but not reaction, you can proceed in one of two ways.

If you are clicker training, you will click when he CALMLY and UNDER THRESHOLD looks at his trigger.  He will (if he is under threshold) look back at you for his treat.  In this way you are telling him (with the clicker) that looking at his trigger calmly is earning him a reward.  It also changes the picture from one of which he is afraid to one which means you are going to play a game with him.  Leslie McDevitt, in her book “Control Unleashed” calls this the “Look at That” game.  If he does not acknowledge the click, it means that he is too close to his threshold.  You need to increase the distance from the trigger and try again.  Repeat the exercise at this “safe” distance until your dog is merely glancing at the trigger and then quickly back at you, clicking and treating each occurrence.  Then, move a little closer and go through the process again.  Remember, it is very important to maintain your dog sub-threshold.

If you do not use a clicker, you simply apply the rules of classical conditioning.  Working with your dog sub-threshhold, you offer him a handful of food when he is calmly watching his trigger.  This handful of food will be associated with the trigger and it will, by association, transform from a scary experience to a pleasant one – at that distance.  As with the clicker you then need to move closer to the scary object in small increments, being very careful not to go too quickly so that your dog pops over-threshhold again.

Again, remember, that your dog learns just about everything he knows by classical conditioning.  In other words, he is constantly pairing experiences with reinforcers, or punishers.  So, if you have your dog on a leash and he lunges for another dog, and you haul back on the leash with a loud exclamation, the dog will associate that with the dog he is lunging at, and it will make him more fearful and aggressive whenever he is on leash and he approaches another dog, or the dog approaches him.  Many dogs exhibit this behaviour when on leash and are perfectly fine off-leash.  The leash has a lot to do with aggression.None of the dogs in this picture taken at a popular dog park are on leash.  There is some posturing now and then, but no aggressive behaviour.

Aggressive Rottweiler

January 11, 2011

I have been training this very lovely 10 month old Rotti male for 6 weeks now and he is making great progress with his skills – and is learning some tricks too!

Unfortunately he was never socialized as a puppy, and as a result is fearful of things such as small children and strange people.  He lives in a large garden with an elderly female Rottweiler and two Scotch terriers and has two gardeners coming and going with whom he is on good terms as he has known them from puppyhood.  Any strange person approaching him, however, make him anxious and fearful and he tends to growl and lunge.  At the moment in his training we are spending time with a group of passive adult dogs as well as exposing him to different people in an unfamiliar, non-threatening environment.  He desensitizes to adults fairly easily, but is still very fearful of small children.

His owner contacted me yesterday for help, as he has just hired a painter to re-paint his home, and Jason was apparently behaving with huge aggression towards the man and had to be locked away.  As the painter was to be on the premises for a number of weeks, something had to be done.  When I arrived and let Jason out of his kennel I was greeted with huge enthusiasm as he hadn’t seen me for a week.  We did some heeling and recalls with his lead on, and then went to look for the painter.  With the clicker and treats we played Leslie McDevitt’s “Look at That” game and before long I could approach close enough to the painter (Alfred) so that he could toss some treats on the ground for Jason, with Jason eventually taking treats out of his hand.  Alfred was instructed how to behave when Jason was in his vicinity by not making eye contact and not approaching him to touch, and particularly not to pat him on the head, as all these things made Jason uncomfortable.  This entire exercise probably took 20 minutes.  For another 10 minutes I walked Jason around in close proximity to where Alfred was working and observed carefully his reaction, which was calm and relaxed.

I returned him to his kennel and returned later in the day to repeat the exercise.  I was still not confident about leaving him alone with the painter and no supervision, so I once again put him in to his Kennel with instructions to the resident staff to let him out as soon as the painter left.

As I was a little concerned about how Jason would react today with Alfred’s arrival at the gate, I arranged to be at the house at 7 a.m. to assist.  (What we do for the love of dogs!).  Jason was predictably anxious when Alfred approached the gate, but with clicks and treats for looking calmly allowed Alfred to enter the grounds with happy body language as soon as he recognised him.  The owner and I monitored Jason’s behaviour around Alfred for about 10 minutes and after laying the ground rules again of not touching, and not making eye contact, decided to leave Jason out of his kennel.

Apparently, there was absolutely no incident the whole day, and, I’m happy to say that although Alfred and Jason are not yet the best of friends, there is no reactive behaviour on Jason’s part, and Alfred is getting over his fear of the black, very large and powerful Rotti, Jason.

Training 8 January 2011

January 9, 2011

Time:  7.30 a.m.

Weather:  Sunny with light breeze

Venue:  The Duke’s Farm, Eston

The training set-up was for Novice/Open level dogs.  As our trialling season still has a few months to go before it gets underway, I’m still breaking set-ups into manageable chunks so that the dogs can succeed.  I do not want to be in the position where I’m having to go out to correct what seems to be bad behaviour or disobedience in case the dog is  either not understanding what is expected of him or is confused by the terrain or the scenting conditions.

The first set up was a nominated double consisting of a long (50 metre) blind retrieve through long knee-high grass  and a mark with both the thrower and the fall behind a thick screen of shrubs and small trees.  The fall was on a track and clearly visible when the dog broke through the cover.

I worked on the blind first.  Although the dummies were placed in relatively short grass, there was a barrier of longer grass which had to be negotiated before the dog could collect the blind.  There was a slight slope down from the line to the blind and to the right a reed bed containing water.  This would, because of the hot day, be very tempting for the dogs.  I built up the line to the blind by increasing the distance in three stages.  At each stage the dogs were driving straight out and returning straight back without a problem.  The dogs observed the placement of the dummies, and I ran the most experienced dog first with the less experienced watching.  At this stage I am not running cold blinds at all and will only do so two weeks before our first trial.

I have also been working on the dogs sit and stay off lead in a group with only the dog who is called coming to me.  This usually works fine when we’re working obedience or just at home as a game, but out in the field with everyone jockeying for position it’s not that reliable.  However, it’s great training for steadiness.

I build up the marked retrieve in the same way – building distance in three stages.  For a beginner dog I would let the dog see either the thrower or the fall for the first stage and then move further back behind the barrier, but with the dogs I’m working with at the moment this is not necessary and all I’m doing is building confidence and trust.

The final product is putting the two retrieves together as a nominated double.  I line up the dogs to face the marked retrieve, and when it is down and I’m happy that they’ve seen it and marked it well, I turn them towards the blind, and send them for that first.

The Power of Play (Part 1).

January 9, 2011

Why play games?

Games build a better relationship.
Games are an outlet for predatory behaviours.
Games can relax a stressed or anxious dog.
Games can be used as powerful rewards for good behaviour.
Games can be used to assist learning.  Play should be part of learning and training part of play.

Because games and play are such powerful bonding tools, it seems to me that allowing pups – and adult or adolescent dogs for that matter – unrestricted play could be counterproductive if you want your pup to bond with you.  That doesn’t mean that dogs and pups shouldn’t be allowed to play together, but this play should be rationed, with games and play with you as the handler taking precedence.

Do games need rules, and if so, why?

  • Games with rules offer excellent training opportunities.
  • Games with rules increase our control in arousing situations.  “Control the games, control the dog”.
  • Games with rules help to teach impulse control.
  • Games with rules improve and maintain bite inhibition.

Some interactive games you can play with your pup include tug-of-war, retrieve, hide-and-seek and scent games such as the shell game.


These rules are especially relevant for the games which tend to arouse the dog such as tug or retrieve.  The games that require problem solving or concentration are less exciting, though no less compelling for the dog.

  • Dog stops game on cue every time.
  • Dog only starts the game when invited and never at other times.
  • There should be many obedience breaks during games.
  • If dog touches human’s skin, clothes, hair or shoes with teeth, claws, or body, game ends.

Many of the dog games we teach our pups we teach backwards – in other words we teach the end part of the game first.  This is so that we can stop the game quickly when necessary.

Teaching the “Drop”

Teach the “drop: when your pup is not revved.

Step 1:  Let your pup take an offered toy into her mouth but keep hold of the other end.  As she takes it, say “Drop” and hold a tasty treat on her nose.  When she lets go of the toy, click or “Good” and let her have the treat.  Repeat, repeat, and repeat many times.

Step 2:  Once she drops the toy on cue, extend the time she is allowed to hold on to the toy.

Step 3:  As your pup gets better at giving the toy up you can practice when she is increasingly more aroused and also by putting gentle pressure on the toy to encourage her to tug back.

Step 4:  Practice the “drop” game using other toys and objects, and exchanging them with other favoured objects.  Work from objects which are low on your pup’s object list to objects which are higher on the list.

Note: Once you get the toy back offer up another game so that letting go does not predict ending the fun.  This is especially important during training:   if obeying signals the end of fun we can teach the pup to not let go!  Until she understands that the end of the game is not the end of the world have a stuffed Kong or rawhide chew ready to give her at the end of the game or time your exchange game just before dinner time.

Teaching the “Take”

This cue is important so that your pup won’t make a grab for the toy when you are not ready for it.  Once your pup understands the “Drop” cue you can start teaching her the “Take”.  Hold the toy behind you and say “Take” as you bring the toy from behind you to offer it to your pup.  Allow her to hold the toy for the length of time that you have worked up to with your “Drop” cue.  Say “Drop” and take the toy when she lets go.  Reward her with a treat, or the “Take”.  If she lunges for the toy before you give her the “Take” cue, simply put the toy behind your back and start again.  As she becomes more familiar with the two cues “Drop and “Take”, you can start adding excitement to the game.

Some pups may be reluctant to take the toy because they have been scolded for taking items in the past and some because they are not sure what games are.  Some under-socialized pups are afraid of interaction with people.  Play is so beneficial that I feel it is important to spend time teaching your pup to play interactive games with their people.

Resource Guarding

January 5, 2011

Left to themselves many dogs will become resource guarders.  They may growl and show their teeth to anyone who approaches and/or tries to take a valued object – whether it be food, a bone, a favourite chew-toy, or even a sleeping place or owner.  To prevent this behaviour from surfacing in your adult dog take steps now to show your pup that your presence around his food is not a threat.


  • Sit next to him while he eats his dinner, petting him while he eats, and occasionally taking food out of his bowl and hand-feeding him.
  • Feed him some of his meals in small instalments to show him that your hand approaching the dish predicts more food.
  • Take his dish away mid-meal and add a tasty morsel.
  • Walk up to your pup while he is eating and drop a tasty titbit into the bowl.
  • Let people other than yourself do these food-bowl exercises to generalize the no-guarding response.

This exercise will help to build his self-confidence.  You are teaching him that it is no big deal and can even be pleasant.


January 5, 2011

As soon as you get your pup one of your responsibilities as a new puppy owner (apart from making sure your pup’s health issues are addressed) is to teach him or her about the world.  Your pup is at an age where he habituates to different things very easily so before he turns 16 weeks, he must be exposed to as many different people, dogs and environments as possible, so that he can cope with new experiences more easily when he becomes an adult.  Make a list of all the things your pup needs to be exposed to and in the next few weeks, work through the list to see where you are in exposing your pup to a variety of experiences.

The various categories could be:

  • Humans of all ages and appearances – men and women, children, toddlers, babies.
  • Humans wearing hats, or with peculiar gaits.
  • Crowds, bicycles, motorcycles, traffic.
  • Cats and livestock such as cattle and horses (if you live in the countryside).
  • Rides in the car – not only to the vet for vaccinations.
  • Other dogs.

In socialization to any category of person, the single best way to obtain this cushion is through hand-feeding. You cannot overdo socialization.  The payoff is enormous.

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