Got Influence?

I mentioned the Big Rubber Band concept in a reply to one of my commentators the other day and it occurred to me that this is a great concept to share because it is so useful. I hope your imagination is up and running because I’m going to ask you to use it for a few minutes.

Imagine yourself on an off-lead walk with your dog in a huge deserted field. He goes bounding after every bird and bunny, letting his senses lead him around, sniffing all the interesting smells and cocking an ear to the raucous cries of a crow in a nearby tree.

Your dog doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to you at all, so what is the best way to get his attention and call him back to you? The instinctive thing that most of us do is to call the dog. When he appears to ignore us we walk closer to him and call again. Then we move closer and we call again. And again. And etc.

I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve seen this scenario play out, not just in dog parks or training areas, but also in the hunting field with hunters and dogs that are supposedly trained. The handlers in these scenarios obviously don’t know about the Big Rubber Band as I call it. Famous trainer and writer, Mike Gould, calls it influence handling. Another trainer I read and respect, Julie Knutson, talks about it extensively in her book as well.

Back to you and your dog in that big, open field: It’s time to load up and head for home, so you call Fido and he just seems to ignore you. Instead of moving closer, try the Big Rubber Band. Imagine that you and your dog are connected by a big, sloppy, rubber band. You can back away from the dog and begin to pull him in your direction or you can move towards the dog and give him more slack so he can continue to investigate and explore. It’s obvious which of these two choices gets you closer to your goal of getting the dog in the car without a chase and tackle.

By moving away from the dog you begin to pull on the big, sloppy, invisible, rubber band that connects you to your dog. Once you have him moving in the right direction it’s a whole lot easier to keep him making progress towards you.

Now… is this the best tactic to use when your dog is charging towards a busy street? Maybe not. But the work you do in preparation for that nightmarish event may just make the difference between a successful recall and a tragedy.

How do you get started using the Big Rubber Band (BRB)? The BRB or “influence handling” is a force that is developed by working and walking off-lead with your dog. Ideally this should begin as soon as the pup is old enough to leave the litter, but it’s probably not too late to begin if you have a 3 or 4 year old. Drive to a large field or open area, open the door, let the dog out and start walking. Don’t talk or throw a lot of commands around. Just walk.

When we stop thinking about ways to command and control our dogs and we begin to think about how we can improve our influence, something magical happens. As you walk along with the dog running in front of you, try walking off to the right or left and see if he doesn’t change his course a bit. At some point you might want to turn down a brushy trail where you are not immediately visible to him. See if he doesn’t come bounding back in your direction looking for you. You can develop lots of little influence tricks to teach your dog that YOU are the one who determines your speed and direction on these walks and you can do it without ever uttering a single command, popping a choke chain or breaking out the treats.

As I type this, my youngest dog, Peck, is lying on the floor watching me. In a just a minute I will get up and take him outside for one of his lessons. When I get up from this computer I will not say a single word, but I will look directly at Peck and then I will look towards the door. I would be willing to bet a hundred dollars the he beats me to the door!

What is the difference between controlling a dog and influencing a dog?

What do you do to exercise your influence over your dog?

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SHHhhhhhhh!

SIT! SIT! Ok, c’mon now SIT, SIT, SIT, ok? Alright you rotten little fluff ball, get your butt on the floor now, dang it! SIT, SIT, SIT!

The preceding sentence was actually quoted verbatim from a dog owner I heard recently. His voice never got angry, but allowed maybe just a hint of frustration to seep into his tone. I don’t think the dog noticed. He was watching a Stellar Jay in a nearby tree and was far more interested in the antics of the bird than he was in the stream of nonsense flowing from his owner’s mouth.

Do you think that maybe we talk a bit too much to our dogs at times? I do. I think we babble almost incessantly to our dogs and it serves to convince them that most of what comes out of our mouths is just noise.

I’m not talking about the kind, loving words we give to them while we are cuddled together by the campfire after a long day. I’m talking about the endless stream of blah blah that we use in place of concise commands or cues.

Audio geeks talk about a concept called signal to noise ratio. The signal to noise ratio is a comparison of the level of background noise to the actual signal in an audio circuit. Another way to think of the signal to noise ratio is to imagine the sound of static on the radio compared to the volume of the music being played. When the signal to noise ratio gets too low on your radio, you probably become annoyed with the static and you either turn off the radio or you change the channel. Dogs do the same thing with us.

Most estimates put the number of words in the English language at about 1 million. The average person uses maybe 5000 words while actually understanding about 50,000. The average dog, on the other hand is said to be able to recognize about 165 words. The more you use words not included in your dog’s vocabulary, the lower your signal to noise ratio will be.

I’m going to list the words that I’m sure my dogs know. I think this could be a good exercise for raising my awareness of how my signal to noise ratio is doing. It would be very interesting to see your list!

Dog’s name
Good dog!
Sit
Heel
Here
Down
Off
No
OK
Leave it
Water
Food
Treat
Walk
Outside
Inside
Hurry up
Bird
Bunny
Kitty
Squirrel
Mouse
Toy
Bone
Fetch
Hold
Drop
Back
Over
Hup
Gita (happy bumper)
Kennel
Ride
Load up
Lookout
Quiet
Ramp
Tire
The names of at least 5 family members

That’s all I can think of at the moment.
Help me out!
Share your list!

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Sunday at the Church of Dog

I consider myself very fortunate to live in close proximity to Ft. Lewis. With thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat, you couldn’t ask for a better place to take a dog for an off-lead romp. The Army makes you jump through a few hoops to get on the base legally, but once you’re registered the sign in process is pretty simple.

I make it a habit to run my dogs, off-lead, every day. Our usual destination is one of the Ft. Lewis training areas between Spanaway and McKenna. Over the last week the Army has closed most of the training areas in order to use them for … well… training! ROTC trains there every summer and that means our daily walks become more sporadic and I need to find other areas to exercise and train my dogs.

This morning was the third morning in a row that we have been unable to get the dogs to Ft. Lewis because of range area closures. The dogs were beginning to show signs of going slightly bonkers due to being cooped up on our little 10 acre slice of paradise. In a desperate attempt to ward off the impending lunacy, Lyn and I gathered up the dogs and headed for the Skookumchuck River.

A huge chunk of land near the Skookumchuck River Dam is owned by the power co. and WDFW. This land is open to the public for recreation. There are hundreds of acres of grassy fields, forest and brushy edge cover for the dogs to romp and explore. It turned out to be just the ticket for our pack. They ran all over the fields, swam in the river and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our Sunday morning.

As I sit and type these words all four of the dogs are sleeping soundly with just an occasional twitch as visions of endless, grassy fields and cool river water pass through their dreams. Sanity has once again returned to our den. Tomorrow the pressure will begin building again. I hope one of the army training areas will re-open. If not, we might have to take a trip to a nearby lake and do some swimming.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be living my dream of being a dog trainer, but I have to admit training isn’t my most important job. All the training in the world won’t make a good dog if he doesn’t get his exercise!

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KABOOM!

Independence Day or The Fourth of July, as it’s often called, is fast approaching with the impending rain of amateur explosive devices that accompany this holiday. I’ve reached the ripe old age when I no longer feel the need to burn up big hunks of disposable income on incendiary devices, but I’m not too old to recall when I considered this a wonderful form of recreation. I have to remind myself of this so I don’t get irritated at the folks who still enjoy celebrating with gunpowder.

As dog owners most of us recognize the challenge that The Fourth presents to our dogs in the form of big, loud, scary noises that can happen at any time. I thought it might be a good idea to list some of the things we do to cope with the challenge so that others can use this info to make the holiday a little less frightening for their dogs. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list so I hope you’ll chime in with your tips too.

My favorite strategy is to drive to a less populated area or perhaps a State Park that does not allow fireworks. This method has the added advantage of turning a bad experience into a vacation!

Make your dog’s crate available to him and cover it with a thick, sound absorbing cloth. (See?… another great reason to crate-train your dog!)

De-sensitize your dog to the sound of gun fire. (This needs to happen long before the 4th)

Counter condition your dog to eliminate the fear of loud noises. In other words, spend the weekend with a bag of tasty treats and offer Fido a treat every time there’s a big, scary noise. Be careful not to reinforce the fear itself! (Timing, Timing, Timing!!!)

Try a Thundershirt or other tight fitting garment to help reduce anxiety.

Try one of the herbal concoctions designed to reduce anxiety in dogs.

Get some doggie downers from the vet and send Fido off to Lala Land for the weekend. This is my least favorite option, but I have seen dogs that are so fearful of fireworks that this is the only reliable method to keep them from having an emotional meltdown.

Whatever you do, don’t reinforce the fearful; behavior by offering treats or other rewards for fearful behavior!

This is just a short list of some of the methods I’m familiar with. I’m eager to see what others do to make this holiday less of a burden for our dogs. Do you have strategy for helping your dog cope with fireworks fear? Please share it!

Smell This!

When I learned about dogs using a larger portion of their brains to process olfactory data than we humans use to process vision, I realized that there was no way I could possibly gain a full and complete understanding of what it feels like to be a dog.

We use a large part of our human brain to process vision. My brain seems so directly connected to my eyes that I can’t really tell them apart. It feels like my vision IS my eyes. I can’t imagine how it would feel if my nose worked like that.

In addition is the completely different way in which the olfactory sense works compared to sight. Light travels in a straight line under normal circumstances. Not so with raw, olfactory, sense data. Everything a dog smells is some particle or gas which has entered his nose traveling on fickle currents of air. The currents change so subtly and quickly that they require a sense organ that we do not even possess: vibrissae. With its vibrissae, the dog senses information about the strength and directions of these currents. Our sense of sight has nothing analogous to the vibrissae, to say nothing of the vomero-nasal organ.

Trying to imagine this kind of acuity in my olfactory sense simply confounds my feeble brain. Even our language is ill suited to describe it. I just used the word “Imagine” in a context that almost makes it ironic. But you probably zipped right over that as you read along because, as humans, we are so visually oriented that nothing “looked” out of place. We are talking about a dog’s sense of smell and we have to use language that describes sight just to deal with it. Do we have a word in the English language for conceptualizing in olfactory terms? I don’t think so. We imagine things, we envision things. We might say, “I smell a rat” or use similar expressions that invoke the sense of smell but I can’t think of a word related to the olfactory sense that is otherwise synonymous with “imagine”.

Humans often speak of visualizing things. We think in pictures and visualize our successes and failures, hopes and fears in a sort of visual inner dialog. The concept was so popular for a while that it appeared on bumper stickers. Remember the “Visualize World Peace” stickers?

The connotations of a word like “odorize” certainly don’t fit for us, but perhaps for a dog?

Odorize this!

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Send Reinforcements!

Dogs are constantly learning. Your dog watches you, hears you, smells you and gathers information about your every move. When Fido is lying on the kitchen floor with only one eye open he may appear to be sleeping, but he is really gathering information about your activity and learning about you and your habits. If you have a tendency to accidentally drop a morsel or two on the floor while preparing a meal, how long does it take Fido to learn about that? If you think Fifi is cute when she sits and begs and the begging makes you smile, how long does it take Fifi to figure that out? Of course, the answer is not very doggone long!

Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly reinforcing behaviors that we see in our dogs. What is reinforcement anyway? The definition of reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will reoccur. When my female Lab, Kaia, was a puppy she quickly learned that lying on her back and pawing at the air made me smile in amusement. My smile reinforced her behavior and the behavior is still present and often repeated to this very day.

The most common form of reinforcement is called “appetitive stimulus”. An appetitive stimulus is anything that the dog wants. Some good examples of appetitive stimuli are food, water, praise, touching or petting, safety, freedom and social contact with other dogs. Any time a dog (or a human for that matter) performs a behavior and the behavior results in appetitive stimulus, the behavior is reinforced.

If your dog barks outside your door and you let him in, you have just reinforced barking at the door. If you smile when your dog jumps and puts his front paws on you when you come home, you have just reinforced jumping on people. If your dog makes sad eyes at you while you’re eating and you toss him a tasty bit, you have just reinforced his use of “sad eyes” and you are virtually guaranteed to see the behavior the next time he sees you eating. These are all very common forms of reinforcement of common behaviors.

Some of the less obvious instances of reinforcement are just as powerful, even if they are not as obvious. When a dog growls or snaps at a source of fear and this makes the fear go away, his growling and snapping are reinforced. The classic example of this scenario is the mailman or paperboy who drops his paper at the door and then leaves. From the dog’s perspective, there is the approach of a feared stranger and the fear promotes barking and snarling. Moments later the feared stranger departs, seemingly as a result of the barking and snarling. The dog has just learned that barking and snarling makes scary things go away. What will this dog do the next time he is confronted with a fearful situation?

Similarly, we could be walking a dog and notice the approach of another dog a block away. Our dog then begins to growl which is an instinctive response to fear. If we then move to the other side of the street or turn around, we have just reinforced his growling because the growl resulted in him getting exactly what he wanted, freedom from the fear.

I’m not saying that we should charge headlong into fearful situations when they occur. What I am saying is that we are constantly reinforcing different behaviors in our dogs. By raising our awareness of this fact we can structure our activities in such a way that we reinforce behaviors that we actually want rather than behaviors that can get us and our dogs into trouble.

Virtually every learned behavior has at least one reinforcer. Can you think of other, less obvious examples of specific behaviors and their reinforcers? We’d love to hear about it! Please take a moment and tell us about them!
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Some thoughts on “release”.

Whenever we are working with our dogs or even playing with our dogs there is a flow of “energy” going on. When we put the dog in a SIT, that energy builds up inside the dog until we release him from the sit. The constant flux of desire and drive within the animal is stopped up for a moment. When the pressure becomes too great, the dog either breaks SIT or he loses interest because he can’t maintain the pressure of mental concentration any longer.
The manner in which we raise and lower this pressure while working with our dog is a huge factor in training and learning. We want to keep excitement and arousal high, but not so high that we lose attention and response. Excitement and arousal are simply other words for internal pressure. I like to think of canine excitement and arousal as emotional pressures within the dog.
Try to think of your dog as a 1 liter bottle of your favorite soda. Now… shake the heck out of the bottle. You already know exactly what is going to happen if you spin the top open with a quick twist of your wrist. Pepsi is gonna be flying every which way and you are going to be wet and sticky!
This is similar to what happens when you put your dog in a sit and release him with a loud, staccato voice-cue and an exuberant hand/body gesture. Depending on the amount of pressure in the dog, he could come flying up into you face, lick your nose, put a paw in your chest, land on your foot and promptly run through the nearest flower garden, stopping only to pee on the roses.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s probably not the response you were hoping for. What if you had opened the cap on that soda bottle as slowly and gently as you possibly could?
All dogs need to be taught to SIT. They should be taught to RELEASE as well. Some dogs literally must be gently taught that RELEASE or OK mean that they are free from the SIT or DOWN. I’ve worked with a lot of dogs who quiver in anticipation of a release cue and I’ve found it helpful to release them as gently as possible to avoid the sudden burst of behavior that is so common when dogs are released.
This is what it might look like when I teach a dog to release. We walk at heel. I cue, SIT. We wait the amount of time that is appropriate for our level of training. I gently remove the lead from the collar. Grasping the collar, I quietly say RELEASE and step forward allowing the dog to follow one or two steps. I don’t let the dog jump or bolt, but release my grasp on his collar as smoothly as possible, with as little fanfare as possible. Again, think of opening a bottle of Pepsi after it’s been bouncing around in your backpack for an hour. SSsssllllooooowwwwwwllllyyyyyy
We can also think of times when we want to encourage maximum pressure and maximum release. In the duck blind I allow maximum pressure to build within the dog. My blind has a hole where the dog can look out and watch all the action. The dog has a full view as a loud bang is followed by a duck hitting the water. This dog is now about as excited as a retriever can get without actually bursting into flames. When I send the dog on a retrieve, I expect to see him quivering at the starting line. I use an obvious gesture and release with exuberance. I encourage the dog to use all his available energy. If, on the other hand, the dog is so under so much pressure that he is apt to lose focus, I may try to turn down the pressure by sending him with a less exuberant cue.
We can adapt our release to other situations. All the dogs at my house have a place where they lie down during the human’s meal time. When we have finished the meal and cleared the table, they are released to perform crumb patrol. By the way, this is never allowed when people are seated at the table.
When the meal is finished, I quietly say, “OK” and the dogs are free to perform crumb patrol. When we only had one dog living with us, we weren’t as conscious of this phenomenon as we are now with 5 or sometimes 6 dogs in the house. When you have a herd like that, it’s important not to allow a lot of food motivated pressure to build and release too quickly. Actually it’s a good thing to have a handle on that pressure no matter how many dogs you have living with you. It’s just easier to see when you have bunch!
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