Do you need treats for dog training?

If you ask qualified dog trainers from different training disciplines whether or not to use treats when training your dog, you will likely get completely different answers. Some will insist you should always use treats because it’s nicer, while others insist there are other more effective ways to train your dog and that treat training is silly.  As with most things about dog training, I’m right in the middle and can see the pros and cons of both and will adapt my training approach depending on the people and the personality of their pup.

To me, there are two very different types of dog training that need attention and that two different approaches are needed.  I call them Behavior Training and Skills Training.

Dog Behavior Training

dog-destructionBehavior training, as I think of it, are about behaviors your pup displays that are  not acceptable.  This includes things such as jumping on people, counter surfing, getting on your furniture if that’s something you don’t want, aggression of any kind, and any potentially dangerous or unwanted behaviors.

For dogs displaying these types of behaviors, it is imperative that your dog understands who the Big Dog in the family is – and it’s not them.  Of course, this means that you need to be prepared to play to the role of the Big Dog.

Generally, this is where treats are normally not particularly effective because the dog winds up getting rewarded for the very thing you don’t want them to do.  What is more permanently and rapidly effective is using correction techniques that let the dog know in no uncertain terms that those behaviors are not ok and will not be tolerated.  Your pup needs to know that there are consequences when they misbehave and that they really need to listen to you, the Big Dog.

Dog Skills Training

heelingIn my mind, skills training includes obedience commands such as sit, stay, drop it, heel and the like, or tricks you want your dog to learn.  When you think about it, these really are skill sets that are not necessarily natural behaviors your dog would do without training.

For this type of training, treats can be used initially as a way to begin introducing your dog to the new skill.  Not all dogs require treats, but they can be handy if you happen to have a food motivated pup.  The treat can be used as a lure to show your dog what you want them to do.  Then, after they’ve got the basic idea, just saying “good dog!” or giving them a quick pat on the head is sufficient.

 

 

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Dog training collars – which to use?

As with everything to do with dog training, you will get very different answers about what kind of training collar to use with your dog depending on who you ask.  Each type of collar – buckle collar, slip leash, Martingale collar, prong collar or choke chain – has its own benefits, so this article will cover many of the types of collars available and a bit of info on where they’re used.  Hopefully this will help you decide what will work best for you and your pup.

First, it’s important to understand that some types of training collars should only be used during training sessions. When you’re not actively training your dog, they should be in their regular collar. Specifically, these include the prong collar and choke chain.

Buckle collars

buckle collar stripedA regular buckle collar works just fine for most dogs as a training collar. The trick is to make sure it’s set at the right length for your dog. Many dogs are wearing collars that are much too loose to be effective.  Ideally, the collar should only be long enough that you can slide 2 fingers under it – and that’s all!  If you slide 3, 4 or more fingers in your dog’s collar, tighten it.  Other than making sure it doesn’t fall off them, it is safer and gives you more control.

Slip leash

Slip leashIt’s amazing how much you can train a dog with a simple slip lead.  I use them often. They’re nice because they loosen when the dog is walking nicely, and tighten when they’re not.  In other words, the degree of tension is totally dependent on the dog – assuming you are handling the leash properly. Since I like being hands-free as much as possible, these also are nice because they easily roll up and slip into a pocket.

Martingale collars

martingale collarOriginally designed for greyhounds, these make great training collars for many dogs.  They’re buckle collars, but work much like a slip lead, prong collar or choke chain because the degree of tension is totally dependent on the dog. They tighten or loosen depending on the dog’s tension. I’m surprised more people don’t use them.  My new pup Casey is in one whenever he’s having one of “those” days where he doesn’t think he needs to listen (and I disagree).

Prong collars and choke chains

These collars generate a lot of passion – from those who love them and from those who see them as tools of torture.  As with most things, to me it totally depends on the dog whether or not these are appropriate tools to use.  One thing, for sure, is neither of these are ever to be used as regular collars – they should be used as training tools only. They work like a slip lead in that they tighten only when the dog pulls, but otherwise hang loose around their neck. They are not tools of torture. On the other hand, I personally don’t think they’re necessary unless you have a very strong or very intense dog  that doesn’t respond to other methods.  If that’s the case, they’re absolutely appropriate to use and I’ve used them in the past.  Less so, now that I understand better how to communicate with my dog.  Still, they can be valuable tools when used properly.

prong collarProng collars are very effective with a strong or stubborn dog. They have teeth set at angle so that when the dog pulls, the feeling on their neck is similar to how a mother dog disciplines a puppy by putting her teeth on their neck.To test this yourself, go into a pet store and put one around your arm or wrist and give a quick tug on it.  That will give you a sense of how it feels to the dog.  Why your wrist and not your neck?  Because your wrist more accurately reflects how most dog’s necks are built.

choke chain collarChoke chains are just chains that tighten around the dog’s neck and work like a slip lead except they are made of chain. They’re often used on strong, powerful dogs. Never ever use them as a regular collar because they can be very dangerous if they are not put on the dog properly, and the dog needs to be under supervision at all times when wearing one.  To be honest, I’ve only ever used a choke chain a few times, so I’m not competent to comment on them.  I will say that I have seen them used effectively.  But if you’re going to use one, make sure you know how to properly put it on and are working with someone who is very familiar with them.

How I choose what collar to use

My personal preference is to start with the softest, most gentle initial method (buckle collar or slip lead) and work on having the dog want to do what I ask. Then, as needed, I gradually move up the tool list until I find the right balance between asking the dog to do something and then telling them that they have to do it anyway.  For example, for the first 2 weeks I had Casey, he was in a Martingale.  Now that he’s starting get the idea, he’s in a regular collar most days. I do foresee that I may need to get him a prong collar at some point for those occasions where he gets so excited that he loses his ability to pay attention. He is party Husky, after all…  Time will tell with that, since he’s only been with me for 3 weeks.

Hopefully, this bit of info will give you some good things to consider when you’re trying to decide what to use with your pup.

Casey Puppy Training Week 3

Ok, so I was a little optimistic about Casey Puppy’s training plan for last week.  He’s still doing fabulously given the whole new exciting world he’s found himself in, but I need to take another week to let him get even better about a few basics such leash pulling and not exploding the instant he sees something exciting to a dog.

He’s come a l-o-n-g way in just 2 short weeks.  He’s about 80% of where I want him to be before we start working on serious basic obedience commands. Here’s what he’s learned and a few notes about how we’re working on that:

  • black dog in back of carHe can’t jump out of the back of the car until I say so
    • He has to wait for a minute or two until I can see that he’s just watching and not getting ready to lunge at the first exciting thing he sees
  • He can’t explode with excited joy whenever he sees a person, dog, squirrel! (ala Doug in the movie “Up”)
    • I bring him close and then slowly and calmly stroke his chest, ears, shoulders, or back until he settles down. Depending on the level of excitement, this can take a minute or two.  Patience matters here – he can’t move again until he’s settled down.
  • He can’t go through any door before me.  I can’t take credit for that one – it’s either a natural behavior on his part or his previous people worked with him on that.
    • This is a matter of simply reinforcing a behavior he already knows
  • dog coming when calledHe needs to consistently come to me when he hears, “Casey come!” This is a basic obedience command that must be obeyed always!
    • When he returns as commanded, he gets a “good boy” and some nice petting
    • When he ignores me, he gets a pop on the leash until his stubborn little butt is standing in front me. Then, after a moment’s pause, he gets his petting.
  • He’s not allowed to yip or otherwise pester me and demand play time whenever he wants it
    • yappy dogIf he’s nosing me, I push him away and ignore him until he settles down
    • If he yips (and he does have the Husky yip!), he is firmly told no with a palm’s up gesture towards him that says “forget it buddy.”  If he continues to yip, I slowly stand up and make myself big and just stare at him until he settles down. This usually involves him rolling over on his back and trying to get me to play.  This is completely ignored.

dog sit commandThere’s more that we’re working with — occasionally and randomly having him sit or lay down, and a few other basics like that.  So far, though, it hasn’t been in a formal training session.  I’m just occasionally introducing him to a new thing that we’ll work on more later once he’s just a little bit more consistent with impulse control and the things we’re already working on.

Hopefully, the ideas and approach given here will help you with your pup(s) too, and give you some ideas of things you can do or adjust to get the well behaved and happy buddy you’re wanting.

Casey Puppy Training Week 2

In one short week, Casey has come an amazing distance.  The dog training plan is coming along nicely. Focusing on creating a calm dog and on name recognition this past week has made all the difference in the world.  He’s much better about not leash pulling, and he’s reached a point where he is responding to his name and returning to me when called.  So, now that I have his attention more reliably, what’s the next step?

This week’s dog training plan will focus on refining what he already knows and on hand targeting and the basic commands of sit, stay, down, and leave it.

You may be asking what dog hand targeting is.  Dogs are the only beings other than humans (found so far, anyway) that understand a human gesture. They instinctively watch our hand and arm motions and respond to them much as people do.  Hand targeting is a way of telling your dog where you want them to be without having to say anything.  You need this whenever your dog is off leash – whether he’s in a different room in your house or off leash outside somewhere.

Here is a video that demonstrates the first steps in training your dog in hand targeting. While she is a clicker trainer, you don’t need to use a clicker to make this work.  Every time the dog touches your hand, you can quietly say “good” or make a clucking sound – whatever works for you.  You just need a quiet sound that indicates approval made the instant your dog’s face touches your hand. Enjoy!

Casey Puppy Training Week 1

If you read my previous post about my new puppy Casey, you’ll know that he is starting from ground zero in terms of knowing anything.  So, where do you start?  From my perspective, he can’t learn anything at all until he learns to relax instead of instantly reacting to something new, and begins to focus on me when asked.  Dogs needs to be calm before they can learn anything. That’s where we’re starting with him.  And adding in tiny introductions to a bit of this and a bit of that as we go along.

jumping dogSo how do you begin to teach an excited 10-month old high energy dog to calm down, relax, and focus on you when their entire world is brand new and exciting?  How do you even begin to get their attention?  Casey does exactly what the dog in this picture does when he sees a person, a bird, a squirrel, or anything that moves.  It’s an instantaneous leap straight into the air with squeals of delight.

It’s easier to demonstrate than explain, but here’s how I’m doing it with Casey.

  • stroking beagleHe’s on an adjustable 4-6 foot leash with a martingale collar. We start with the 4 foot length so he’s within easy reach.
  • He can’t get out of the car until he’s calm. We just stand there with him in the car until he relaxes. Doing this sets him up to be less instantly reactive when he sees that next new thing
  • We start walking slowly.
  • The instant he starts to pull, I get his attention and bring him close, and then slowly and calmly stroke his chest, ears, chin, or back with slow strokes until he relaxes. I repeat the word “settle” to him so that he begins to learn that settle means relax. Eventually, I’ll be able to just say “settle” to him and he’ll calm down.
  • Then we move again and repeat as needed (which is very, very often at first)

It can take a long time to go for a walk doing it this way for the first few days, but it’s important to take the time right out of the gate.  Already, in two days, there is far less leash pulling and we can go a little bit farther every walk before something triggers for him.

Black-dog-on-loose-green-leashTo illustrate how well this works, consider this:  He knew nothing about being on a leash, has never been in an urban environment, and is puppy excited about everything new.  On the first day, he was lunging, leaping, running in circles, and had the attention span of a flea.  By today, a mere 3 days later, he is much calmer, less reactive, and is spending less time frustrated because he can’t go explore that shiny new thing. He is slowly learning to calmly observe something without the need to race towards it.

We’re a long way from where he needs to be, but he has already come a long way.

Adopting a high energy older puppy

Over the weekend I adopted a new puppy – a 10 month old black lab and husky mix (maybe) who has TONS of puppy energy and strength and weighs around 55-60 pounds.  It dawned on me that sharing the training experience might be helpful for folks who have high energy, out of control dogs.

Meet my new puppy Casey:

Casey's reaction in a new environment

Casey’s reaction in a new environment

Casey’s story

Casey’s previous people were a lovely young family that gave him up for all of the right reasons.  Like too many families, they had a 1 year old baby and thought getting a puppy was a great idea.  Unfortunately the baby, now 2, is at the age of getting into everything and Casey, at 10 months, is hitting the next high energy, into everything, and out of control stage.  They simply didn’t have the time, energy, or resources to handle both.  I’m grateful that they realized they weren’t giving him what he needs and decided to find another home for him.  Enter me.

Casey was raised with one adult dog on a farm.  This means that entering an urban environment is over stimulating to the max.  Everything is new!  He had never been in a car, never seen groups of people and, especially, had never seen groups of dogs.  Or deer. Or people running.  Or traffic. Or bikes. Or heard the sound of neighbors. Or watched people walk by. Or, or, or.  Name it and it’s new to him.

What Casey needs to learn

The good news is that he is a curious guy who is fascinated by everything.  The bad news is that he has absolutely no impulse control, which means he’s attracted by every shiny new object that passes his vision – which is pretty much everything. Here’s what else he doesn’t know:

  • How to control his impulses
  • How to get into a car
  • How to walk on a leash
  • That he can’t just run up to people and jump on them
  • Basic commands such as sit, stay, down, heel, come, etc.

In other words, Casey is a clean slate and doesn’t really know much of anything except that life is exciting. He’s open, curious, and wants to explore it all.  This is good news.  It means that, with proper direction, he is willing and eager to face this new and strange world he finds himself in.

My work is cut out for me.  And I’m really looking forward to it.  As an aside, I will definitely get in shape having an active guy like this around!

The Dark Side of Extreme Positive Dog Training

Before talking about the dark side of extreme positive dog training methods, I want to stress that I am primarily a positive dog trainer.  What this means is that I firmly believe that changing behavior is always more effective when using a positive reward-based approach than using punitive measures.  However, if a dog is knowingly misbehaving, I believe there must be consequences – and withholding a treat doesn’t cut it on those occasions.

Let me define what I mean by “extreme” positive dog training.  There are folks who sincerely believe that one should never ever correct a dog. Ever. While I admire their good intentions and desire to do no harm, I believe they sometimes take it to a degree that is not only unhelpful but can actually be harmful.

dog-diggingFor example, an extreme positive dog trainer believes that withholding treats from a misbehaving dog is an example of a consequence that comes from not doing what you want.  However, if your puppy is digging a hole, he doesn’t care in the least that he’s not getting a treat.  He’s doing exactly what he wants! He might be sad that he doesn’t get the treat, but he had such a good time digging that it really isn’t all that important to him.  In other words, he has learned absolutely nothing.

fearful-border-colliesExtreme positive dog trainers believe that you should never ever disapprove of your dog’s actions.  My issue with this is that it doesn’t reflect the realities of life or the fact that dogs and people learn from complex (and sometimes stressful) situations where decisions need to be made.  Frankly, it breaks my heart to see extremely bright and intelligent dogs like Border Collies who have had a trainer like this.  Too often they become velcro dogs – they cling to you. And it’s not out of love, but out of insecurity.  They are bright, intelligent and curious dogs who are completely unprepared for anything unexpected and curl up in fear when faced with something they don’t know how to deal with.  Bright dogs love being challenged. They need it to feel good about themselves and safe in the world they inhabit.

I have spoken to people who won’t even make a noise like “aah!” at a misbehaving dog. How in the world is the dog supposed to know that what they’re doing is not ok if you don’t tell them??  No wonder they get insecure – or aggressive! They can’t figure out the rules – and like us, dogs need clearly understood rules to feel safe.

dog-testDogs, like us, need to be challenged.  They need to know, without question, when something they do is not ok.  That’s how they learn. If they don’t get that from you, they can easily become insecure and I doubt that’s what you want for your dog.  Dogs like having rules they can clearly understand.  It makes them feel safe and much more willing to try new things because they trust you and know you’ll tell them if it’s not ok.

You can make a disapproving noise, pop their leash, walk over and shoo them away, or take any of a number of different actions that are not harmful in any way but are clear messages about what is and is not ok. This helps your dog know the rules and goes a long way to creating an amazing bond between you. Setting clearly communicated boundaries is the single biggest thing you can do to create that bond of trust between you. Isn’t that really what you want? A happy, active, curious 4-legged friend who trusts and listens to you?