News from the training trenches

Karen Pryor I-Click dog training clickers

It’s taken more than a year, but we are now officially a clicker-happy household!

If you’ve been following the blog you may remember that Sasha panicked at the sound of just about any loud or unusual noise. Clickers, in particular, left her cowering in fear, which presented more than a few challenges during obedience class..

When even the quietest clickers (like Karen Pryor’s I-Click clickers pictured here) set her off, I stashed the clicker deep in a drawer and worked on reconditioning her reaction to noise. It took a while, but we’ve made good progress. During obedience class we worked with verbal clicks and she learned to ignore the repetitive clicking by other people. She’s much calmer at home, too; these days she hears the coffee grinder and she jumps into training mode, anxious to earn her special TREAT.  (That success is recounted here.)

In the past few months I’ve been coaxing Sasha though a variety of challenges, and one of them is reacting calmly to the clicker while we’re out walking. I sweetened the deal, of course, with tasty soft treats (the tiny one-calorie kind I can break in half). I use the clicker when cars approach; as soon as she focuses on me instead of the car, I click, praise, and deliver a tasty treat. While she still occasionally barks at a passing vehicle, she no longer lunges toward the street.

Every now and then, she outsmarts me. This morning she sat quietly as a car passed by, accepted her treat, and then she barked! We’ll definitely be working on that behavior.

Our most significant challenge is still very much a work in progress, and that’s walking calmly past another dog. It hasn’t helped that we’ve been rushed a few times by unleashed dogs, which has resulted in renewed hyper-vigilance when another dog–even when leashed and seemingly oblivious to us–enters her line of vision. Once she sees another dog, it’s a struggle to get her moving again and focusing on me. We’ve had sporadic success, but we’re a long way from a reliable reaction.

On the good-news side, her bark tone and body language–head up, ears forward, tail wagging furiously, and no hackles in sight–tells me her reaction excited rather than fearful. Once she’s quiet again and moving where I lead, I click, praise, and treat. Clearly, though, I need a tastier motivator. I’ve ordered ZiwiPeak Good-Dog Venison Jerky dog treats, which come highly recommended for training. Stay tuned for a progress report once those arrive!

Helping Sasha feel comfortable, confident, and safe in any environment is an ongoing effort, and some days we seem to lose more ground than we gain. Still, I’ll celebrate every success along the way, no matter how small or trivial it might be. And we’ll keep our eyes on the goal!

Have Fun While Training

February 5th marks one full year since Sasha came to us. We don’t know much about her life before she joined our household other than the bad situation that ended with her being surrendered to a county sheriff’s office.  We can surmise, however, that she had minimal attention and/or was neglected based on her appearance and behavior in early days with us. Daily doses of love and regular obedience training sessions helped strengthen her confidence, and learning new things added enjoyment to her days.

While Sasha was quick to master the commands routinely taught in basic and intermediate obedience, teaching her “the art of play” has proven more challenging. We took her with us to PetSmart for treats and toy selection, but the noise and people made those early trips less than successful. Still, we collected some toys in a basket just for her, and added an incentive to explore by dropping a few treats among the toys. The treats were a big hit. The toys? Not so much. In fact, she ignored all of them until we went to the Humane Society of the Ozarks‘ Dogwood Walk in May and fell in love with the Sock Monkey squeaky toy that came in her goodie bag. Here’s proof:

 

Since then, Sasha’s interest in toys expanded to her Squeaky Duck and a sausage-like fabric toy, also a squeaker. It’s only been in the past month that she’s begun carrying those toys from one room to another, and in just the past two weeks she finally caught on to retrieving! I can’t say I followed any particular training techniques to reach this point other than focusing on fun. It’s been months in the works, but seeing my Sasha girl happy as she learns something new makes the whole adventure worthwhile!

If you’d like to coax your pup into retrieving, you might be interested in The Whole Dog Journal’s tip this week written by author and WDJ’s Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA. If you’re in the Fairplay, Maryland, area, you can meet Pat at her Peaceable Paws training center. She offers dog-training classes and courses for trainers as well as writing books focused on positive dog training. Her newest is Beware of the Dog: Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs (Dogwise Publishing, 2016).  And if you’re interested in more great tips and articles, consider subscribing to the Whole Dog Journal. I’ve found it a terrific resource!

Here’s the lead-in to Pat’s article. You’ll find a link to the full article below, with additional links at the end of the post. Happy training!

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Teach Your Dog to Fetch by Training Him to Love Retrieval

Dog won’t fetch? There are several reasons why. Whole Dog Journal is here to teach you how to train your dog to retrieve – whether it be for honing obedience skills or just for fun.

Whether you’re interested in an informal fetch or a formal retrieve, your task will be easier if you encourage rather than discourage retrieve-related behaviors early in your relationship with your dog. When he has something in his mouth, praise him; tell him he’s a good dog! If it’s something he’s allowed to have, you can sometimes praise him and let him be, and other times, you can say “Trade!” and trade him a treat for the item. Or, trade him a treat for the item, and then give him the item back again. That’s quite a reward!

Continue Reading

If author and trainer Pat Miller’s credentials seem unfamiliar to you, I’ll translate. (The protagonist in my Waterside Kennels series is working toward these, so I had to look them up!) These credentials are issued by the independent Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) after rigorous testing.  CBCC-KA stands for Certified Behavior Consultant Canine, Knowledge Assessed and CPDT-KA means Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge Assessed. To learn more about these credentials or to find a professional trainer near you, visit the CCPDT website and click on the directory of certified trainers.

Then and Now: Sasha’s Journey

Sasha's first day February 5th 2016

Sasha’s first day February 5th 2016

Sasha three months later (May 5th 2016)

Sasha three months later (May 5th 2016)

 Those of you following Sasha’s saga may remember she came to us in February frightened of ANY loud or unusual sounds. Clicker training in particular was an ordeal for her, so I turned to my friends and colleagues in the Dog Writers Association of America for help. They suggested wrapping the clicker it in a mitten to soften the sound. That sounded (no pun intended) like a good idea but Sasha still panicked at the noise. Thinking to muffle the sound even more I put the mitten-wrapped clicker in a coat pocket. I even tried clicking a pen instead of an actual clicker device. The result was the same: Sasha cowered as though she expected to be hit, which makes me seriously wonder what happened to her before she came to us. Given her fearful reaction, I discarded the idea of clicker training.

Enter obedience classes at the local kennel, where we were surrounded by a dozen people, all clicking merrily (and seemingly endlessly) through the hour-long training classes.  I distracted Sasha by moving away from the clicker crowd and treating her while praising lavishly, and she gradually calmed and focused on the exercises. Intermediate obedience was better when folks switched to verbal clicks, but some handlers insist on always using the actual clicker. (For the record, I’m not a fan of the “click/treat anywhere & everywhere” approach. Use it at home or in select training environments, sure. But learn to fade the lure as described here.)

I’ve learned a verbal click (“Yes!“) seems the most effective in gaining Sasha’s attention in a happy, positive way. Interestingly, that smart cookie also understands and obeys the “Neh!” sound when I don’t want her doing something–such as chasing ducks or moving toward vehicles as they pass by. I also use the “leave it!” command, but sometimes that single syllable “Neh!” works best.

If using the clicker is important to you and your dog reacts fearfully, consider these strategies to help your dog. And if your dog isn’t hyper-sensitive to such sounds and you want to learn more about clicker training, here are some basic training tips to help you get started.

Fresh-roasted-coffee-beans-and-grounds

Image courtesy of foodal.com

The clicker wasn’t our only sound-related challenge these past few months. The coffee-bean grinder left her literally shaking and barking wildly even if she was at the other end of the house, or even outside with doors and windows shut. It became obvious this dog takes hyper-sensitivity to sound to a whole new level. We tried showing her what it was so she wouldn’t be scared. Tried distracting her, supplied extra love and attention. Nothing worked.

Then I got smart and turned it into Special Treat Time. I got the bag of Fromm’s big oven-baked biscuit treats (something I don’t use during obedience training because of the time needed to chew), put her in a sit-stay where she could see the grinder, praised her, and gave her a treat. Repeated the process when we measured the beans into the grinder, again when the grinder started and yet again when the grinder finished. Yup, lots of treats, with plenty of time to chew before we moved on to the next step. Since we don’t use the grinder daily it took some time to condition her to the sound.  And then one day she came running into the office, whined softly to get my attention, and then trotted back to the kitchen just as I heard the coffee grinder start working. I was heading for the treats when I realized she’d already moved on to play time with Sock Monkey:

If you have a dog that’s fearful of loud noises, the Whole Dog Journal offers tips and strategies to help you. You can also check out this video from Pam’s Dog Academy for some useful ideas to desensitize your dog to whatever noises scare the dog. Whatever strategies you try, don’t expect immediate results. Depending on your dog’s age and the origins of the trauma, the “counter-conditioning” process could require multiple sessions over a period of weeks or even longer.

For some dogs, rare events such as fireworks celebrations can be a source of serious stress. Here are some great tips from the Michigan Humane Society via the Detroit Free Press:
Keep Pets Calm During Fireworks
Desensitizing a hyper-sensitive dog takes time, patience, and a willingness to adapt strategies to find what’s best for you and your dog. Whether it’s clickers, coffee grinders, or some other loud noise, it is possible to help your dog become calmer and happier.

Lessons Along The Journey

It’s been a month since Sasha came into our lives. What an adventure we’re having!

Who could resist that face?

Sasha Feb 2016

After so many years without a dog of my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that this adventure comes with a learning curve for all of us. For Sasha, everything’s new after losing whatever home she knew when she was surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office. (From what little I’ve learned, it wasn’t much of a home, but still…) Buddy the Cat unexpectedly gained a housemate, and we humans found ourselves in unknown territory as we integrated a rescue dog in the family mix.

Sasha came to us with various minor health issues, poor skin, and a pitiful short, thin coat—problems most likely caused by poor diet and a lack of attention. With the final round of antibiotics and other prescription meds now complete, we’re focused on improving her stamina and overall good health. I’ve spent the last month transitioning her to quality food. (If you’re new to the world of dogs, consider sampling different foods and remember to make any switch a gradual process.)

After addressing her health and dietary concerns, we started training in earnest. She came to us knowing a few of the basics and at least one new-to-me skill: she can sneeze on command. (Yes, really!) After working together every day, I’ve learned three essential lessons (so far) along this journey.

Lesson #1: Be patient.

There’s a scene in chapter 1 of Deadly Ties when veterinarian Angus Sheppard is looking over a Beagle rescued by my protagonist, Maggie Porter. Maggie’s concerned about Mr. B’s health and his transition to a new way of life. In response, Angus said, “Look at it from the dog’s point of view—he’s lost everything he’s ever known. That can haunt you for a long time.”

I wrote that scene years before Sasha came into my life. I’m reminded of those words, though, every time we hit a bump in the road. She’s over a year old, but she was as clueless as a puppy at the end of a leash. The volunteer who fostered her handed her over with a retractable leash (that didn’t retract) attached to a cheap collar. I can only guess what her life was like before coming to us, but it’s a safe bet that it was nothing like her life now. She came to us afraid of loud or unexpected noises and strange places, skittish around strangers and around men in general, leery of other dogs, and super-stressed when put in a vehicle. As Shelties tend to be VERY vocal when nervous, agitated, or excited, I confess I’ve had to refrain from shrieking myself more than once!

Every time we head out for a neighborhood walk I remind myself to be patient as Sasha encounters new sights and sounds, and to see every “moment” as a training opportunity. And after one wild experience near the pond when assorted ducks, geese, dogs, and children proved too much excitement at once, I now take greater care in planning our route!

Lesson #2: Make training a daily habit.

I started all her daily training sessions in the house, then moved to the backyard before venturing out onto our quiet cul-de-sac and eventually the busier streets of the neighborhood. After two weeks she’d mastered the sit-stay command at a distance of 50+ feet and I was convinced training her myself would be a breeze.

Not quite.

Sure, she’s doing a great job of the basics in the house, the yard, and even the neighborhood—just as long as there are no people, dogs, moving cars, ducks, squirrels…well, you get the picture.  So off we went to basic obedience class. I cringed at the thought of managing her in a room full of strangers with all sorts of dogs, but Sasha needs both training and socialization time. And how did she handle the noise and confusion? Take a look:

 March 8th 2016

Sasha in a down-stay of her own choosing 3-8-16

Once we got past that hurdle I thought we were home free. Then came the clickers. She didn’t like the sound of one clicker when we practiced at home, and a room full of people clicking repeatedly (with their dogs happily responding, I’ll note)  proved too much for her.  I stashed the clicker and rewarded her with yummy treats as we ran through the exercises.

This week our training focus is learning how to walk on a loose leash (that’s test #4 on the Canine Good Citizen test). We fitted her with a martingale collar; that was essential, as Shelties are prone to “back out” of a regular collar. (If you’d like to learn more about this type of training collar, check out the No Dog About it blog. Great info!)

Even with the martingale training collar, teaching Sasha “no pulling” is another exercise in patience. Every time she pulls I stop walking, which brings her attention back to me. Being a Sheltie, she always has some comment to make even as she stops pulling and waits to start again! We’re still in the stop-wait-start-again phase but it’s gradually improving. She’s aced loose leash walking in the house and backyard. Beyond that, she’s only good at it once she’s worn out from running around the park. (We have a big open field and I put her on the long line and let her run circles around me.) The walk home is always good. It’s a start…

Lesson#3: Praise, laugh, and love.

Sasha is one happy dog! She pops out of bed eager for whatever the day brings, and we make sure she hears lots of praise whether we’re training or not. Every day sees her more energetic and playful, and it’s clear she feels safe in her new home. She and Buddy the Cat are often nose-to-nose and have recently begun to chase one another around the backyard and through the house. She’s learning hide-and-seek and now has a basket full of toys all her own. Add in a couple of gel memory foam beds, a collection of yummy treats, and walk-and-play time every day, and the result is a wonderful new member of the family. Here’s the latest photo; the bare patches have filled in and her skin and coat are already showing signs of loving attention!

Backyard shot 3-6-16 1 month

My Sasha, one month after joining the family