Articles and information on dog behavior

Rhodesian ridgeback with a tennis ball in her mouth, ready to play.

How Playing 20 Questions Improves Your Dog Training Skills

Rhodesian ridgeback with a tennis ball in her mouth, ready to play.

You ready to play?

There’s a super powerful dog training technique that most average dog owners (and even some dog trainers!) have a hard time understanding. In this article, I’m going to hopefully turn on the light switch so you can have the a-ha moment and be able to harness this technique to teach your dog all sorts of fun and useful behaviors.

In our classes, we talk about various ways that you can teach your dog a new behavior without the need for harsh corrections or punishment. In case you haven’t been to one of our classes, here’s a quick review of those methods:

  • Capturing: When the dog offers the behavior you want, click and treat.
  • Luring: Use a treat to move the dog into the position you want, then click and treat.
  • Shaping: Click and treat your dog for each tiny step toward the correct behavior.

Of these four methods, shaping is the one that confuses people the most.

“So I just stand here?”  (Yes.)

“My dog is sitting and staring at me.”  (Give him time.)

“This isn’t working!” (Give it time.)

“Can’t I nudge him toward the behavior?” (Nope. That’s luring. We’re shaping!)

“So I click and treat when?” (Whenever your dog does a small part of the behavior you want.)

“This seems like I’m clicking and treating for nothing.” (It’s almost nothing, but definitely on the way to something!)

You Have Played Shaping Games. Yes, You!

Let’s leave the dog behind for a moment and talk about your childhood. (Don’t worry, we won’t get Freudian!)

Did you ever play the game 20 Questions? If so, you’ve played a shaping game!

Example:  Debra and Bob are playing 20 Questions.

Bob:
Okay, I know what the object is.

Debra:
Is it alive?

Bob:
No.

Debra:
Is it in the training center?

Bob:
Yes.

Debra:
Is it blue?

Bob:
No.

Debra:
Is it a piece of agility equipment?

Bob:
No.

Debra:
Is it something a dog wears?

Bob:
No.

Debra:
Is it something a dog would play with?

Bob:
Yes.

Debra:
Is it something you throw?

Bob:
Yes.

Debra:
Is it a frisbee?

Bob:
No.

Debra:
Is it a ball?

Bob:
Yes.

Debra:
Is it a tennis ball?

Bob:
Yes! You got it!

During this game, Bob is using shaping to lead Debra to the correct answer. His Yes or No answers give her feedback and she uses that feedback to refine her line of questioning until she correctly identifies the tennis ball.

Let’s look at it again but add Debra’s thoughts to the mix.

20 Questions + Debra’s Thought Process

Bob:
Okay, I know what the object is.

Debra thinks of the first step to narrowing down the name of the object.

Debra:
Is it alive?

Bob:
No.

Debra now knows it’s an inanimate object. Maybe it’s something in the room.

Debra:
Is it in the training center?

Bob:
Yes.

Debra glances around the room. There are a lot of blue things: the floor, the pods, the A-frame, the dog walk, the teeter.

Debra:
Is it blue?

Bob:
No.

Debra now looks for objects that aren’t blue. There are lots of agility obstacles that are not blue.

Debra:
Is it a piece of agility equipment?

Bob:
No.

Debra scans to the other side of the room and sees a harness hanging on the wall.

Debra:
Is it something a dog wears?

Bob:
No.

Debra keeps looking and sees the container of toys.

Debra:
Is it something a dog would play with?

Bob:
Yes.

Debra thinks about the different types of toys in the container.

Debra:
Is it something you throw?

Bob:
Yes.

Debra is getting excited because there are only a couple toys that are for throwing!

Debra:
Is it a frisbee?

Bob:
No.

So close! It has to be a ball.

Debra:
Is it a ball?

Bob:
Yes.

Yes! Debra goes one step further.

Debra:
Is it a tennis ball?

Bob:
Yes! You got it!

Hooray! Debra wins!

Using Shaping to Train Your Dog

The 20 Questions game is an imperfect analogy since Debra knows that her goal is to identify the object Bob is thinking about. Obviously, your dog does not know the point of the game in advance. Your dog does know that he gets a click and a treat when he’s done something you like. This positive reinforcement increases the probability that he will repeat the behavior you like.

Unlike Bob, who gives a non-reward marker (“No”) to Debra when she is incorrect, we will simply wait for the dog to offer a behavior that is a “Yes.”

Your steps for shaping a new behavior:

  1. Identify the end behavior you want. (Ex: Dog blows bubbles under water.)
  2. Make a list and break that final behavior up into tiny steps. (Ex: Dog puts face in bucket.)
  3. Go back and break it up into even smaller steps. (Ex: Dog looks at bucket.)
  4. Wait for your dog to offer a behavior that is one of the tiny steps. (Ex: Move toward bucket. Look at bucket. Smell bucket.)
  5. Click and treat your dog.
  6. Continue to reward that behavior, and give your dog a jackpot (many small treats in quick succession) when he offers the next step of the behavior. (Ex: Dog holds nose on the bottom of the bucket.)
  7. Now hold out for the new step of the behavior to click and treat.
  8. Repeat until you get to the final behavior.

Train Your Dog to Blow Bubbles Under Water Using Shaping

See the process in action with this great video from ShapeFest on YouTube.

More Resources

Training a Dog to Flip Open a Picnic Basket Using Shaping by Pat Miller

Shape a “Crawl Under” Trick by kikopup

ShapeFest videos on YouTube

Introduction to Shaping by Karen Pryor

Ten Laws of Shaping by Karen Pryor

Fun Training Using Shaping by Pat Miller

Stop Barking at the Doorbell: A Halloween Training Activity

Photo by Found Animals Foundation

Photo by Found Animals Foundation

Your doorbell is going to ring all night long as the trick or treaters make their way around the neighborhood. What if we told you that you could use this as an opportunity to teach your dog not to bark his fool head off?

This process requires:

  • One human to handle the trick or treaters
  • One human to do the dog training
  • A big baggie of over-the-top awesome treats.
    • Chopped up meat and/or cheese works best!
    • Prepare lots more than you think you will use.
    • Skip feeding your dog dinner since they’re going to eat a lot!
  • One hungry dog that likes to bark at the doorbell
  • A book to read between doorbell rings
  • Ear plugs (optional) 🙂

Set up:

  • Be sure your dog has had a walk so they’re a bit more relaxed and have done all their business.
  • Before the trick or treaters arrive, get your dog and your over-the-top awesome treats in another room of the house and close the door.
  • Your helper human will be handling the trick or treaters!
  • Put your treat bag somewhere you can have quick access to it.

DING-DONG!

  • As soon as the doorbell rings, grab a small handful of treats and feed feed feed.
  • Put the treats away and go back to your book. Your dog may still be barking and that’s ok.
  • Repeat the process for every doorbell ring.
  • Do not give treats for any other reason so the dog understands doorbell = delicious.

What You Should Notice

  • After a few repetitions, your dog should start to look at you expectantly when the doorbell rings.
  • The barking will most likely start to fade away. (Key word: “start.” You’ll want to keep working on this beyond tonight to get the best results.

Troubleshooting

  • “My dog won’t eat the treats!”
    • Be sure you have the highest value treats possible. Normal training treats or biscuits won’t cut it. Real meat and/or cheese is best. You need something irresistible that your dog doesn’t get every day.
    • If your dog turns away from you and won’t eat the treats, toss them on the floor near the dog. When the dog calms down a bit, they will eat them. The important thing is the connection that doorbell = food.
  • “My dog eats and then starts barking again!”
    • That’s fine. There are no other triggers present other than the doorbell, so once you’ve given the food, go back to your book and ignore the barking. Wait for the next trick or treater.
  • “We don’t get that many trick or treaters.”
    • This is why you have a helper human at the front door! Ask your helper human to ring the doorbell if there have been no trick or treaters for 5 minutes. Then you can get in more practice with your dog.

A Great Video

Check out Kikopup’s very thorough video that teaches how to desensitize and countercondition your dog to the arrival of guests.

Need Help?

We have a great resource page on Barking you can check out for more information. And you can always contact us with questions or sign up for a class or a free workshop to learn more about getting the best behavior out of your dog.

halloween dog - cocker spaniel wearing bat wings sitting beside tomb stone on white background

Dogs Don’t Like Wearing Halloween Costumes… Unless You Train It!

A chihuahua dressed in a hot dog costume. The dog's head is down, its ears are back, and one front paw is lifted.

Head down. Paw up. Ears back. This dog is not happy.

Planning on dressing up your dog for Halloween?

How does your dog behave when wearing a costume?

If your dog is so happy-go-lucky that wearing clothing and hats doesn’t bother him, you can go about your day. You hit the lottery and got an extremely well-adjusted dog.

Costumes Stress Out Most Dogs

Most of us have dogs that look a bit like the Chihuahua pictured here. This dog is showing signs of stress: head down, ears back, paw raised.

Signs your dog is stressed:

  • Head down
  • Whale eyes (open wide, can see the whites)
  • Ears back
  • Turning away
  • Single paw raised
  • Freezing / refusing to move
  • Flattening to the ground

Alternatives to Dog Costumes

halloween dog - cocker spaniel wearing bat wings sitting beside tomb stone on white backgroundIf your dog does not deal well with changes in the environment, it’s best to skip dressing them up for Halloween. Here are some ideas to get cute pictures without dressing up your pup:

Festive Collar:  Seasonal collars are a fun way to dress up your dog. Check out these handmade Halloween collars on Etsy.

Fake Costume: Check out the adorable BatCocker! Attach the wings to the wall and position your dog in front of them. Ta-da!

Props: Gather your jack-o-lanterns, fake spiderwebs, and scarecrow and pose your dog in front of them for a great Halloween photo.

So You Want Your Dog to Like Wearing a Costume…

To get your dog accustomed to wearing a costume, you need to start bit by bit. This process will take 1 minute per training session.

Training Goal 1: The sight of the costume predicts treats.

  1. Grab the costume and 10-12 pieces of GOOD treats. Leftover meat, cheese stick, etc.
  2. Show the dog the costume and feed a treat.
  3. Hide the costume behind your back.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 until you run out of treats.

Do this process several times per day. Once you see your dog getting excited at the sight of the costume, move on to the next training goal. (If your dog does not get excited to see the costume, do not proceed. Scroll back up for costume alternatives and keep that pup happy!)

Training Goal 2: Touching the costume predicts treats.

  1. Grab the costume and 10-12 pieces of GOOD treats.
  2. Show the dog the costume and feed a treat.
  3. Hide the costume behind your back.
  4. Touch your dog with the costume (reach to your dog’s side, not over the head) and feed a treat.
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 until you run out of treats.

Do this process several times per day. Once you see your dog getting excited at the sight of the costume, move to the next training goal. (If your dog is looking stressed, do not proceed. Scroll back up for costume alternatives.)

Training Goal 3: Wearing the costume predicts treats.

  1. Grab the costume and 10-12 pieces of GOOD treats.
  2. Show the dog the costume and feed a treat.
  3. Hide the costume behind your back.
  4. Touch your dog with the costume (reach to your dog’s side, not over the head) and feed a treat.
  5. Hide the costume behind your back.
  6. Put the costume on the dog* and jackpot feed the treats. (Save 2 treats for removing the costume.)
  7. Take the costume off while feeding the remaining treats.

*NOTE:  If the costume involves multiple pieces, do this process for each individual piece in separate training sessions.

“I Don’t Have Time for That!”

Sure you do! Each training session is 1-2 minutes long. You can dedicate just 5 minutes a day to this training protocol and (most likely) have a dog that’s happy to dress up for you. And when your dog is happy, your Halloween pictures will be super cute!

Positive Training in Action: Down / Stay in the Kitchen (VIDEO)

Everybody wishes that their dog would have the impulse control to stay on his bed while the rest of the family is buzzing about the kitchen, getting food prepared for a meal.

We teach Relax on a Mat in our Puppy Kindergarten class. It’s a valuable skill because you can take it anywhere you go! PuppyK teacher Sarah Stoycos says that a friend of hers can even use a paper napkin as a “mat” and her dog will happily down-stay on it.

Here’s a great video of a child helping his puppy learn how to relax in the kitchen:

Video by The Family Companion, a positive training center in NY.

Notice two important things:

1) Nothing happens when the dog gets up. The child simply waits for the dog to offer the correct behavior (down on the mat) and rewards the dog.

Other trainers will tell you that you need to:

  • Say “no!” in a stern voice.
  • Jerk on the leash to correct the dog.
  • Press a remote to shock the dog with an e-collar.
  • Force the dog to return to the mat.

None of these things are necessary. Dogs will do whatever behavior benefits them the most. This pup is smart and you can see her thinking about what to do to get those treats!

2) The child is “proofing” the behavior. Many people forget this very important step to training. When you proof a behavior, you introduce other variables that may distract your dog into making a mistake.

In the video, you see the young trainer:

  • Opening the oven door
  • Opening a drawer
  • Opening the fridge
  • Walking around the kitchen

Each time the dog holds the correct position (down/stay on the mat), she gets a reward. This drives home the lesson that NO MATTER WHAT, down/stay on the mat is where the dog should be when in the kitchen.

Later on, they could increase the temptations:

  • Running around the kitchen
  • Pouring dog kibble in a bowl
  • Dropping food on the floor

Again, if the dog makes a mistake, nothing happens. (Be sure the dog cannot self-reward by grabbing the dropped food, though!)

When the dog returns to the mat, the rewards begin to flow again.

No force. No fear. Just a dog that understands her job and is happy to do it. This is positive training in action!

Red tri Aussie dog with mouth open to catch a treat

Has Your Dog Wised Up to Pill Pockets? Try this Trick!

Some dogs are easy to medicate. Wrap a pill in a bit of cheese or stick it in a Pill Pocket and—GULP!—down the hatch it goes.

But what do you do when your dog hates taking pills or you have a particularly bitter-flavored medicine that renders your usual technique useless?

Here’s a fun trick that you can play on your dog.

Materials:

  • 5 bite-sized pieces of super yummy food (cheese, leftover steak, meatball, etc)
  • 1 pill
  • 1 unsuspecting dog

Instructions:

  1. Hide the pill in one of the 5 pieces of yummy food.
  2. Call your dog over.
  3. Toss him one of the pieces that has no pill.
  4. Continue tossing pieces of yummy food one after another until you have no more.
  5. Pat yourself on the back for being so clever!

Troubleshooting:

  • “My dog can’t catch treats. They just bounce off his face.”
    • Solution: Call your dog into the kitchen. Ask for a Sit or Down and a Wait/Stay. Make a line of 5 treats with a few inches between each one. Release your dog to Hoover up the treats.
  • “My dog chews and then spits out the pill!”
    • Solution: Smaller pieces. Ideally something your dog will swallow whole. If the pill is large, you can cut it into smaller pieces (assuming it’s not extended release—ask your vet!). Use 8-10 treats and hide the pill pieces in 2-4 of them.
  • “My dog now spits out treat #3!”
    • Solution: Make it treat #5. Or treat #2. Mix it up every day so your dog doesn’t expect it
  • “My dog is really smart and has wised up to this game, too!”
    • Solution: Up the ante to something he can’t refuse. Liverwurst. Canned tiny fish (in water). Canned cat food.

 

Human Space Invaders!

The article below is from Diamonds in the Ruff (www.diamondsintheruff.com), a website with terrific articles and tip sheets on all sorts of behavior issues.

hsi1Looming, leaning, reaching, showing teeth and staring – that’s how most humans greet dogs. 
The dog at left is showing his discomfort at this child’s greeting by lowering his head, flattening his ears, licking his lips,squinting his eyes, tucking his tail and lifting a paw. These are appeasement signals, not aggressive signals, but he is clearly saying to the child, “I’m really not enjoying this.”

Too much, too fast, too close. 
If the same child had turned sideways, squatted to the dog’s level and invited the dog into her own space, the dog’s response to the child would have probably been quite different.

Humans show their teeth when they are friendly! We lean forward and make direct eye contact which in dog language is a challenge. We kiss dogs on the face. How strange they must think we are!

hsi2Leaning over and looming is a threatening posture – even if you don’t mean it to be.
It causes the dog some distress which results in displays of calming signalsto diffuse your perceived aggression. Lowered head and ears, lip licking, averted squinting eyes. In dog-to-dog body language, standing over   and putting paws on shoulders is a very assertive, space invasive challenge. A dog might show appeasement or a frightened or defensive dog might respond by freezing, growling, lunging, snapping or biting.

hsi3In general, most dogs don’t like hugs.
They can learn to tolerate them and even welcome them from people they know and trust – and many dogs learn to enjoy it so much they may elicit hugs from their owners. But this doesn’t mean they will welcome the same from all family members and certainly not from total strangers – any more than you would want a stranger in an elevator to crowd you into a corner and get in your face.

Wrapping your arms around a dog’s neck is dangerous, not only because it is usually viewed as an unwelcome and threatening behavior when it comes from a stranger, but because it puts your face right near the dog’s pointy teeth! Another common and dangerous behavior of children: laying on a dog, gives the dog no avenue for escape – she’s trapped by the scary thing.

“My daughter was just trying to hug the dog and it BIT her! It was totally unprovoked!” Perhaps from the child’s point of view, but certainly not the dog’s!

It’s actually a tribute to dogs that they humor us and our erratic children-and that more of them don’t use their teeth to ward away our rude human advances.
Parents should instill a “no hugging any dog” rule for their children. If you make sure the children respect all dogs’ personal space, including their own family pet’s, they will be less likely to be bitten as the dogs they interact with won’t have to correct them.

For some reason we humans have a hard time remembering that even we have rules of intimacy, whom we allow to invade our personal space and when and  how.  We might slap someone for being too friendly.  Why is it so difficult to imagine that our dogs would feel the same?

Most bites to children occur on the face, not because dogs fly off the ground and attack kid faces, but because kid faces are attached to hug monsters.

hsi4Ouch!
This is what can happen when a dog’s subtle warnings go unheeded.

 

 

 

 

This is how a dog prefers to be greeted:  
Turned sideways, body language soft and relaxed, shoulders and head slightly lowered, weight shifted away, not towards, with soft squinty eye contact. Everything is inviting and non-threatening. Once a comfortable and trusting relationship has been built, a dog may love a hug!

hsi5 hsi6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hsi7Soft squinty eye contact, leaning away, scratching his chest, not reaching over his head. Notice the dog is returning the squinty eyes and soft facial expression.

Cheek to Cheek!