My Most Important Piece of Training Equipment

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We arrived at our Top Secret Training Location just after dawn.  It was pretty foggy this morning!

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We were greeted by a coyote that was barking his fool head off at us.  He was throwing rapid fire challenge barks and moving back and forth about 40 yards in front of us. I made the dogs heel and we walked directly toward him.  He relinquished the territory, but continued to challenge-bark as he backed away.  We pushed him a little farther back away from our position, then changed course and headed across the wind so we would not be so easily detected.  I was never worried about him.  I’m not the least bit afraid of coyotes.  I do have some concern that Peck might get too friendly with them, so I am careful when I know they are stirring in the vicinity.  Sorry I didn’t get a picture of the yodel-dog, but I was too busy keeping my animals under watch to think about pulling the camera out of my pocket.  Oh well, I’m sure you’ve all seen a coyote before.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring a swampy area where I knew Peck would be too busy to think much about the coyote.  The strategy appeared to work.

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Here’s a shot of my most important dog training equipment.  Everyone who has a dog should have at least one pair of these!

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My wife, who is the family’s self-appointed footwear connoisseur, can tell you that these things ROCK.  Warm and dry all the time!

Besides the interaction with the coyote we also found another sure sign that spring is rapidly approaching.

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YIPPEE!!!

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Slack Leads!

Consequences!

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Once upon a time in a career far far away, I was sitting in an auditorium at a sales seminar, listening to the speaker explain that every purchasing decision is made on the basis of emotions.  The two most common emotions that drive people’s purchasing decisions are fear and greed.  He claimed that nearly every purchase we make is driven by one or both of these emotions.  He asked the audience if anyone could remember making a purchase that was not driven by emotions.  Someone in the audience raised their hand and he asked them what their “emotion free” purchase was.  The guy stood up so everyone could see him and loudly exclaimed, “toilet paper!”  This was met with a roar of laughter from the audience. 

When the laughter had died down the speaker asked the poor guy why he was buying toilet paper.  “Because we were almost out”, he said sheepishly.  “And how did you feel about that?” asked the speaker.  There was a murmur of agreement from the audience accompanied by nodding and a giggle or two.  Every one of us in the room could relate to the mild fear that drove that purchasing decision.

If you want to get kinda philosophical about this, you can think for a minute about what an enormous role fear plays in each of our lives.  What kind of person would you be if there was no fear?  What would motivate your actions in the absence of this emotion?  What would our existence be like if our actions did not have consequences?  More importantly, what the heck does this have to do with dogs?

Everything.  I don’t know about you, but I have to constantly remind myself that each and every behavior, whether it is dog behavior or human behavior, has a consequence.  Think about it for a minute…  It bears repeating doesn’t it?  Each and every behavior has a consequence.

Whether it’s your kid being rude, your spouse being extra kind or your dog jumping on you with muddy paws, each of those behaviors has a consequence.  The likelihood that the behavior will reoccur is directly affected by the consequence.

“Well, that’s all just peachy, Jon, but what does that have to do with dog training?”

Consequences are the “reinforcers” we are always talking about!  If you want to know why Fido jumps on you, look for the consequence.  Why is your daughter so incredibly rude sometimes?  What is the consequence!  If your wife is especially kind and sweet to you on Thursday, what is the consequence?  By identifying the consequences of a given behavior we are focusing on what reinforces that behavior. 

When we have a firm grasp on what the reinforcers are, we are in a much better position to modify the behavior.  If we have control over the reinforcers (we don’t always have this) we are able to design a program to modify, increase, or eliminate the behavior.

In the case of the dog that jumps on you, what are the consequences?  Physical interaction is the first one that comes to mind.  The dog gets to “play” with you even if you don’t think it’s fun, it’s still play to him because he initiates the activity and you respond in a way that satisfies his need for physical interaction with you.   Game ON!

What if the consequence was the immediate denial of attention?  The important part of that last sentence was the word, “immediate”.  The strategy only works if the dog understands the removal of attention as a direct consequence of the jumping behavior.

I chose this particular behavior/consequence as an example because I’m using it right now on a dog that is boarding here at the kennel.  He is a world class jumper who absolutely cannot resist jumping and putting his paws on me.  In order for him to understand that this has a negative consequence for him, I wait until he has stopped jumping before I open his kennel door to let him out.  It takes him a minute to settle down, but he gets better at it every time I let him out for his exercise.  Dogs here at MCK get out for exercise at least 4 times every day, so I use this opportunity even if they are not here specifically for training.  Similarly, I refuse to pet, touch, or make any contact with the dog unless he has all four paws on the ground.  Keep in mind, this dog is not here for training so I have not had any focused sessions with him, but we are seeing a huge improvement in the jumping behavior already after a week here at the kennel.

When he goes home, his humans are likely to continue with their old ways and he will begin to jump on people again, but I can’t do anything about that.  Why not?  Because I have no control over the consequences of these people’s behavior!

So now that you’ve read the long version, I’ll give you the short “Easy Button” version:

Look for the consequence to identify the reinforcer.

Determine if you have any control over the consequence/reinforcer.

Modify the consequence to modify the behavior.

Slack Leads to you all!

Mollify Your Monsters by Multiplying Your Efforts

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I’m still feeling kinda puny after having surgery 3 weeks ago.  That explains my absence from the blog.  I’m very grateful for my friends and family who have helped exercise my critters while I’ve been laid up.  I’m back to walking with my dogs every morning now, even if the walks are much shorter than they’re used to.  I’ve had to take some of my own advice and multiply my efforts in order to provide Peck & Kaia with enough exercise to keep them from going bonkers.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know how important exercise is for dogs.  Not the “throw ’em in the backyard and let ’em play” kind of exercise either.  Nope,  I’m talking about exercise that involves interaction with you.  Unless you happen to be a young, fit, well trained athlete, you probably don’t have enough energy to go mile for mile with my dogs.  I know I can’t!  So I have to find ways to multiply my effort.  This is especially important right now because I don’t have as much strength or energy as usual but my dogs are just as full of vinegar as they always are.

Since my dogs are labs, multiplying my effort by using retrieving is a complete no-brainer.  I won’t go into any of the finer points of retriever training here because we’re talking about exercise.  Tennis balls can be inappropriate toys for some trained retrievers but for others, they are a great way to burn up excess energy without exhausting the trainer.  The Chuk-It toy works well for this because it enables you to throw the ball farther than you normally could.  Dummy launchers are another method of flinging a retrieving  bumper 50 or 60 yards with minimal effort.  These gizmos use a .22 caliber blank to throw a retrieving bumper.  Once again, not always appropriate for a trained retriever, but a great way to multiply your effort.

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Multiplying your effort doesn’t always mean using a gizmo or piece of equipment.  Just throwing a bumper is a great way to get your dog to burn energy with a minimum of effort on your part.  This works especially well when the retrieve includes swimming.  If you have a smooth flowing, safe creek for the dog to cross it’s even better.  This is what we did this morning.

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This is great exercise because it requires enormous effort for the dogs to cross the current.  They have to use all their senses and drive to mark, track and find the bumper.  I get to keep all the usual retrieving rules in place so we’re not backsliding on our retriever training.  Oh… and did I mention that the dogs absolutely LOVE it?

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Multiplying my effort is a very familiar concept to me.  I use it a lot.  I try to remember little things like taking the path back to the truck that doesn’t include any road or well worn trail.  It doesn’t cost me very many calories, but the dogs are much more excited and cover exponentially more ground than they would if we were just plodding down a trail.  Any time you can introduce your dog to a new patch of habitat to explore, you are multiplying your effort.  The novelty of the situation forces your dog to fully engage his senses.  A fully engaged critter burns more excess energy than one that is simply walking on lead with his human companion.  Some times it’s enough just to walk the same area, but take the route in reverse.

So, those of you who aren’t marathon runners, what do you do to multiply your effort so that your dog gets the interactive exercise he needs?  Please share your tips and ideas.  I can always use more effort multipliers!

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Here We Go Again!

I suffered an enormous personal loss last Friday 12/13/13, when my Dad passed away after a long, painful battle with lung cancer.  I have been unable to write anything the last few days, but rest assured that work continues here at Muck Creek Kennels.  We have been training every day just as we normally do.

I couldn’t continue to keep the dogs here if I thought for a moment that I was unable to properly care for them.  In reality I have spent more time than usual with the kennel dogs.  Their unrelenting cheerfulness and goofy antics have sustained me and helped give me the strength I needed to keep moving through some difficult times.

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Over the course of the last week we have been working on recall with Diesel.  Our goal is to have excellent response to the HERE command even in the face of major distractions.  We’ve made some excellent progress!

Jessie, who is here for basic obedience, has also made significant progress in his training.  We are seeing good responses to all his basic obedience commands.  Over the next few days we’ll be raising our criteria and motivating Jessie to show us what he is really capable of in terms of cooperation, focus and response.

Jackson is a young fella who has been through some training here earlier.  I was very pleased to see how he has held on to his previous training and how he is eager to work and learn more stuff.  I know that his owner has plans to breed him with another really nice lab that has been trained here at Muck Creek.  I’m particularly excited to find Jackson to be so tractable and eager to learn.  When the time comes, he and Coco will make some really wonderful puppies together.

Over the last few days I have been rebuilding the doors that connect each kennel to its corresponding outdoor run.  Originally I built the door frames out of wood because that’s what I had lying around.  The dogs quickly showed me the error of my ways as they began to chew on the door frames, reducing my handiwork to a pile of slobbery splinters.

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Luckily, my friends David & Cynthia Froembling of Columbia Sheetmetal had a solution in the form of steel door-surrounds.  I finally got those installed over the last couple of days.  Being a professional sheetmetal guy, David would probably have preferred me to use powder coated screws so they weren’t so visible, but I had a box of regular sheetmetal screws that worked just fine.  The dogs don’t seem to mind that it looks a little… well… screwy!

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Slack Leads!

Grandma’s Rule

Jessie’s training is underway.  One of the things I’m doing to address his overabundance of energy is letting him romp with Diesel.  It does them both good to burn off some of their energy and it allows me to work each of them in the presence of a powerful distraction.  Diesel has enough obedience for us to expect good responses even with a moderate level of distraction.  Jessie is just getting started so our expectations are much lower for him.

I let them run around the exercise yard and roughhouse for a about 20 minutes or so, then I put Diesel on lead and walk him through some Heel/Sit exercises while Jessie is still running around in the yard.  After a few minutes of this with Diesel, I turn him loose and put Jessie on lead and do a few simple Sits and try to get him to hold his Sit in spite of the distraction Diesel provides.

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This is just part of their daily training, but it’s a convenient way to get them both some exercise.  The obvious challenge is to keep them both connected to me.  They can get so involved in their chasing and roughhousing that they forget about me, so I call them back every few minutes and put them both in a SIT, then release them for more fun and games.

Another variation of this involves retrieving which Jessie LOVES.  I know I’ll be using his love of retrieving for a motivator as his training progresses.  By building some simple rules around a game he enjoys, we get the added benefit of those rules beginning to have relevance in other activities, whether we’re working or playing.

The principle behind this kind of training is called the Premack Principle.  We could spend a lot of time describing this in behavioral terms, but most of us already have a thorough understanding of Premack as “Grandma’s Rule”.  Simply stated, Grandma’s Rule is this:  “You can have some ice cream as soon as you eat your peas.”  So… for Jessie the “peas” can be a SIT and the “ice cream” is a retrieving bumper being tossed so he can make a retrieve.

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I’ll try to get some video of this so you can see it in action.  Until then…

Slack Leads to you all!

Diesel Makes a New Friend!

Bailey is a really sweet Golden Doodle who is staying at Muck Creek Kennels over Thanksgiving.  Diesel was pretty skeptical about her at first.  He has some fear of other dogs that could stem from being bullied as a puppy.  It’s not really very helpful for us to make assumptions though.  It’s much more important for Diesel that we move on and learn to interact courteously with other dogs.

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Bailey is the perfect pal for our boy, Diesel, because she’s around his age, she’s female and she’s about as sweet and friendly as a dog can be.  Naturally I took all the necessary precautions when I introduced them.  I didn’t expect any trouble, but we can’t be too careful either.

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We were hearing a lot of frustration-barking from the kennel because they were both curious about each other and they couldn’t wait to get a good game of “chase-me-chase-you” going.  I let them run around in the exercise yard together for about a half hour under my close supervision.  The pictures speak for themselves.  They had a blast!

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I just put them back in the kennel a little while ago and the kennel is finally quiet for the first time today.  I think they wore each other out!

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Enjoy this sunshine and Slack Leads to you all!

Slack Leads Please!

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I’ve never worked with a real sled dog before.  Oh sure, I’ve taught a Husky to sit and helped a lady teach her Malamute to stop counter surfing.  But I’ve never worked with a genuine, authentic, mushing dog, you know, the Iditarod running, sled hauling, snow tracking, monsters that can pull 3 times their own weight across the frozen white wastelands of the North.

Sometimes I imagine that a lot of my clients are trying to get their dogs involved in sledding, at least it appears that way when they first start training.  As soon as they clip the lead on their dog the animal starts pulling, the handlers arm is fully extended and they are running after their dog just to keep themselves upright.  Off to the sled races with Fido!

The first step in fixing this annoying and dangerous behavior is realizing that our goal is a Slack Lead.  Always.  Period.  We need to understand that every time we let our dogs pull us, even if it’s just one measly little step, we are rewarding the very behavior that we find so troublesome.

When we first start teaching a dog HEEL, we need to understand that HEEL means no pulling.  We certainly can’t expect the dog to understand this if we don’t get it ourselves.  So often I hear people say, “Oh yeah, he knows what HEEL means but he pulls anyway.”  Nope.  Sorry.  Neither you nor your dog understand what HEEL means if the dog is pulling and you allow the behavior to continue.

There are several methods I use to teach HEEL.  I vary the method according to the intelligence and  personality of the dog I’m working with.  But one thing is the same, regardless of which method I use:  Slack Lead.  You can’t teach a dog to HEEL by letting him drag you through your neighborhood while he barks at cats and kids on bicycles. 

It’s always easier to teach HEEL in a distraction free environment.  Ok… let’s call it a “low distraction” environment because I’ve seen some dogs that can be distracted by the nothingness of nothing.  Anyway, whether you’re using DRO in a positive reinforcement regimen or you’re using a more traditional approach with collar corrections, you STILL need a low distraction environment and a slack lead to teach the dog anything.

I tell my students that there is no way to teach a dog anything useful with a tight lead.  When I see a handler trying to correct a dog with a tight lead I call it “Nag & Drag”.  I hope that my carefully crafted voice correction will help them to remember that they need a Slack Lead to train.

So, what tricks, tips and strategies do you use to get a slack lead?  I can share my own thoughts some other time.  Right now I’d really like to hear what works for you and your dog.  Maybe I can use your ideas on my next Iditarod contender!

Until then, Slack Leads to you all!

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