Puzzle Me, Please - Part 2

Puzzle Me, Please - Part 2

Last December we blogged about food puzzles: why they are so great and our list of favorites!  But because this sector of the toy store is SO important and so useful to our dogs, it's worth a second mention.  We've recently created a more exhaustive list of food puzzles, as well as some tips on how to utilize them in the best way for your dog!  All in a convenient downloadable handout for you to save for future reference.  Puzzle away!

food-puzzles-for-dogs-dog-training-colorado

You can download this handout (with links) here!

This lovely handout assembled by Charissa!

Homeopathic Remedies for Anxiety in Dogs

Homeopathic Remedies for Anxiety in Dogs

Homeopathic remedies can be a great help to your dog in situations where they are anxious or upset. While not a substitute for training or more advanced behavioral help (when warranted), the right remedy can help your dog get through otherwise overwhelming situations.

But which remedy should you choose?  That really depends on your dog, the type and severity of the anxiety they are experiencing, and what works best for your routine and budget.  The list of homeopathic products on the market is never-ending, and can be understandably overwhelming. To help get you started, here is a list of our go-to recommendations:

 

How to Use Homeopathic Remedies

  • Test out your chosen remedy with your dog when he is NOT especially anxious to see how they respond to it.  If your remedy makes your dog more nervous or uncomfortable, it's not the best remedy to use!
  • Different remedies work best for different dogs. And sometimes using a "cocktail" of remedies could be the best option for your dog.   So if you try one without success, a different or additional remedy would still be worth a try.
  • Once you have found what works best for your dog, try to administer your remedy 30-60 minutes before the anxiety-causing event (vet visit, car ride, guests arriving, etc.).  
  • For chronically anxious dogs, a visit with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist might be warranted for more complete anxiety relief. 

You can download this blog in a handout form here.

Dogs & Bike Trailers!

Dogs & Bike Trailers!

There's nothing quite as cool as biking with your dog, especially in a town like Fort Collins with a fantastic obsession with both bikes and dogs.

Roo loves biking adventures!

Roo loves biking adventures!

There are several different ways that your dog can participate with you on your bike ride, including (but I'm sure not limited to - bike creativity knows no bounds here) perching in a basket, keeping pace alongside, pulling you out in front (hope you have good brakes!), or riding behind in a trailer.  The first or last options are great for dogs that can't go as fast or as far, or during the months when it is too hot for their paw pads to be on the pavement.  

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Sue Whetton, owner of CycleTote Bicycle Trailers to chat about dogs and bike trailers and how those two things fit together! Sue gave me a tour of their production space and explained a little bit about the process of making bike trailers, which was really cool!  

 

Although CycleTote makes bike trailers for all sorts of needs, according to Sue, the CycleTote bike trailer designed specifically for dogs is their best seller. No surprise there!  We know that several of our 4-legged students love their CycleTote trailers!

Casper the Cattle Dog, on one of his first adventures in his CycleTote trailer!

Casper the Cattle Dog, on one of his first adventures in his CycleTote trailer!

June Bug loves to ride in the trailer!

June Bug loves to ride in the trailer!

In order to facilitate a peaceful bike & trailer ride for both you and your dog, there are a few things to consider.

Roo practiced relaxing in his trailer before it got attached to the bike. Our trailer isn't as cool as Casper & June Bug's . . . we hope to upgrade soon!

Roo practiced relaxing in his trailer before it got attached to the bike. Our trailer isn't as cool as Casper & June Bug's . . . we hope to upgrade soon!

One of the most important elements of successful trailer-riding with your dog is getting your dog used to being in the trailer long before it starts moving.  Sue explained that many of their customers turn the trailer into a bed for their dogs first, simply by taking the wheels off and leaving the trailer in their living room for a few weeks.  This allows the dog to learn how to get in and out of the trailer safely, as well as associate the trailer with relaxing, which can be a big help when adding in the biking element!

The second element that prepares your dog up for a successful trailer ride is the stability and safety of the trailer set-up.  Many bike trailers that we try to utilize for our dogs were originally designed for children or cargo, and so may not have the most secure set-up to make our dogs feel comfortable.  With the right modifications, many of these bike trailers could become great doggie-chariots, but here are a few things to consider:

  • A secure attachment point is an essential safety feature. No matter how much your dog loves the trailer and "would NEVER jump out," there is no reason to risk your dog's safety by having them ride "unbuckled."  CycleTote trailers have several options for connecting your dog, although the most popular option is to a strap coming up from the floorboard. 
     
  • A sturdy cover can be a big help if you plan to do a lot of riding in peak sunshine.  Our dogs can get sunburned and overheated even just riding in a trailer if the conditions aren't optimal.  
     
  • A fender or other covering of some kind can help keep rocks and dirt from getting in your dog's face as you ride.  CycleTote uses detachable fenders-sheaths like the blue one above - it slides over the bars connecting the trailer to the bike seat post.

As far as training your dog or puppy to ride in the trailer, once they have acclimated to settling in the trailer while it is stationary, you can start adding in movement little by little.  Go at your dog's pace - some dogs are naturals who take to the experience right away, while others may take a little more time to get comfortable with the ride.  Check out the downloadable handout below for some additional strategies and tips on making your ride with your dog as smooth as possible!

A special thanks to Sue at CycleTote for sharing her bike trailer wisdom with us!  

teaching-your-dog-to-ride-in-the-bike-trailer

Click here to download this handout!

Happy July 4th - Celebrate Safely with Your Pup!

Happy July 4th - Celebrate Safely with Your Pup!

Hi everyone!  Just a quick note as we are gearing up for the loudest holiday of the year to remind you that more pets are lost around this holiday than any other time of year.  

As you are planning your celebrations, please, please take your dog's comfort and safety into account.  While we love having our dogs with us on all sorts of adventures, unless your dog is truly unaffected by loud noises and vibrations, for this holiday it is best to leave them safely secured inside your home while you go watch the fireworks display.

If you will be leaving your dog when there is a chance that fireworks may be set off in the nearby vicinity, create a safe environment for your dog with the following checklist:

  • Make sure that every door is securely latched and locked
  • Consider leaving a radio or television on at a loud volume to help drown out the firework noise
  • Cover windows with curtains or blankets - if your dog is sensitive to flashing lights, this can really help them feel more comfortable if the neighborhood fireworks display is within view
  • If you anticipate that your dog will be stressed, you can try a homeopathic calming aid like lavender essential oil, Dog Appeasing Pheromone diffuser or spray, or Licks
  • Leave your dog with a food puzzle, like a frozen kong or delicious bone, to occupy them and help relieve stress.  Check out our favorites here.

Or, alternatively, adventure to the mountains with your dog, friends, and family and have an off-the-grid & firework-free holiday!  That's our favorite solution. ;) 

Wishing you and your dogs a fun & SAFE Independence Day!

fireworks-pet-safety-dog-training-fort-collins-colorado-july-4th

Why My Dog is Wearing a Muzzle (And How You Should Respond)

Why My Dog is Wearing a Muzzle (And How You Should Respond)

Do you use a muzzle with your dog to make sure that your dog is safe & comfortable while going out in public places?  While this isn't something that every dog needs, for some dogs that are working through various challenges (including reactivity to any type of trigger, the inclination to eat anything and everything from the ground, polite greetings with friendly strangers, etc. etc.), a properly fitted and conditioned muzzle can provide peace of mind for both you and your dog.  

Shunka wore her muzzle when she was introduced to her new little brother to promote positive & safe interaction between them as they were getting to know each other!

Shunka wore her muzzle when she was introduced to her new little brother to promote positive & safe interaction between them as they were getting to know each other!

However, if you do use a muzzle with your dog, or have ever considered using one, I'm sure you have encountered the fact that not everyone is so understanding and tolerant of a muzzled dog out in a public place.  Whether it is the whispers of "that dog will bite you", the quickly shielded children, or the antagonistic "You shouldn't be here if your dog isn't nice" approach, the stigma of wearing a muzzle can be alienating and frustrating.

It doesn't have to be this way though!  If we use the time we are out in public with a muzzled dog as an opportunity for spreading awareness and positive education about muzzles & dogs, it would go a long way!  Obviously this isn't something that every dog is equipped to do, depending on the level they are working at in their behavior modification process.  But if those of us who can spend the extra brain power to spread positive information about muzzle wearing for dogs do so, all muzzled dogs would reap the benefit!

To get this process started, we've created this handout designed to help you and your dog navigate those tricky social situations with greater ease.  You could have some printed for handing out to those who ask (or comment) about your muzzle-wearing pup, or even disseminate this info to family & friends before a get together where they will be around your dog.  While it doesn't have all of the answers for your individual dog's needs, it can help start the conversation and promote a better understanding about muzzles and dogs.

muzzle-wearing-dog-training-fort-collins-colorado

You can download a printable PDF version of this file here if you would like to have a copy to send or print ahead of your next outdoor adventure. 

Please let us know what you think!  If you would like one of these handouts more customized to the specific situation with your dog, let us know and we're happy to help!

New Adventures Ahead

New Adventures Ahead

This past year has been an amazing adventure for Summit Dog Training.  When we expanded into our very own training facility last August, there were certainly moments when I questioned whether it was the right decision or a really bad idea. In retrospect, it was a GREAT decision; we have had so much fun and we have had the privilege of helping nearly 500 humans and their dogs have better adventures together over the past year. We have been so blessed to have each and every one of you as our fantastic clients, supporters, and friends. 

As we come up on our one-year anniversary of opening our facility, new changes are ahead for us again.  Unfortunately, when our lease is up July 31st at our current space, our landlord has found a tenant to take over the entire building; thus we will not be able to renew our lease at this location.  While this is sad for the Summit team as we have grown to love this space, we are excited about the opportunities to come. 

We don’t have another location we are moving into right away, but instead we are going to get creative with our classes for the late summer and fall.  We already have many of these classes up on our website!  Foundation classes will be held at Bentley’s Pet Stuff in Fort Collins, and advanced classes like Loose Leash Walking, Canine Good Citizen, and more will be held at locations around town for lots of real-life practice!  We are also adding some novelty classes like Free Puppy Playtime and Free Community Doga (yoga with your dog!)!

Although we aren’t rushing to find another space at this point, we will be using this facility-less “downtime” to explore several options, trusting that the perfect space will find us at the right time! 

Roo is always up for a good adventure!

Roo is always up for a good adventure!

Thank you all for your encouragement, support, and positive feedback this past year!  We wouldn’t be here without all of you and your dogs!

Here’s to new adventures!

- Amber & the Summit Team

Equipment Equation: Prong Collar + Flexi Lead = Bad Idea

Equipment Equation: Prong Collar + Flexi Lead = Bad Idea

There are few pieces of dog apparel more hotly debated than the “flexi” retractable leash and the prong collar.  While others have written more eloquently about each of these tools individually (you can see this great list of flexi dos and don’ts here, and prong collars have lots of industry literature outlining their use and pitfalls), I have recently been seeing something more concerning to me than each tool being used a la carte.  Whether you are for or against the use of either of these tools, the concept of using them in combination is something that I believe we should all vote as a bad idea.  Why?

Because the flexi lead and the prong collar are designed for opposite things.

prong-collar-training-tool-dog-training-colorado

Prong collars are intended to correct a dog for pulling ahead of the owner, using the discomfort of the metal grabbing the dog’s neck.  In our behavior quadrant terms, the pulling behavior is suppressed through positive punishment (dog pulls and they get an ouch!) and negative reinforcement (dog stops pulling and the ouch! goes away). 

The flexi lead, on the other hand, is best used as something that encourages your dog to run out in front of you, sniff around, enjoy the scenery.  In more scientific terms, the flexi offers an variable schedule of reinforcement for the pulling at the end of the leash behavior – although sometimes when they pull, it produces no give in the leash and they don’t get to move forward, other times the lock unclips and they are free to run ahead.  This variable schedule is like gambling, and it actually can make the pulling behavior stronger (which is why I don’t normally recommend it for regular walks, although I won’t say it doesn’t have its place in the occasional dog’s closet). 

flexi-lead-retractable-leashes-dog-training-colorado

To use both the prong collar and the flexi lead in combination is sending mixed signals to the dog, which ultimately slows down learning (if learning was your goal) or decreases enjoyment of the environment (if you really did want them to have some time to run around and be a dog).  Your dog goes forward as the flexi lead is encouraging him to do, but feels the pain of the prong collar, and now has conflicting signals as to what you expect him to do (which means he may not choose to walk beside you like the prong collar was intended to communicate).  Additionally he has lost the freedom provided by the flexi lead to roam and run without stress or pain in “decompression walk”-style (which is therapeutic on several levels, as beautifully discussed here).

I was going to add a picture of an embedded prong collar.  But as my intention is not so shock, scare, anger, or otherwise flame counterproductive emotions with this discussion, I decided to include a picture of our handsome boys rocking their harnesses in Old Town instead.  But you can always google "embedded prong collar" if you want.

I was going to add a picture of an embedded prong collar.  But as my intention is not so shock, scare, anger, or otherwise flame counterproductive emotions with this discussion, I decided to include a picture of our handsome boys rocking their harnesses in Old Town instead.  But you can always google "embedded prong collar" if you want.

There is also the safety component of using a prong collar with the flexi lead.  If you’ve ever seen a dog run full speed and hit the end of their flexi lead (or long-line, or tie-out) after a squirrel or deer or whatever else they are enthusiastic about, you can only imagine the damage that could be caused by hitting a prong collar with that speed and force.  Prong collars can become embedded in your dog’s skin from misuse on a regular six-foot lead; that risk is magnified the longer the leash gets.

Regardless of how you feel about using either of these two pieces of dog apparel individually, please, please, please think twice before using both on your dog at the same time.  If you feel that this leash + collar configuration is the only solution to your dog’s leash walking needs and challenges, please reach out to an industry professional near you to see if they have any ideas for different equipment (we love front & rear clip harnesses at SDT!) or training exercises to get you and your dog away from this set up that is both confusing and potentially harmful for your dog. 

Keeping your sanity while your dog is on exercise restriction!

Keeping your sanity while your dog is on exercise restriction!

Roo is very active and does not take kindly to being confined without exercise or strategies to replace it!

Roo is very active and does not take kindly to being confined without exercise or strategies to replace it!

Suitable exercise for our dogs – both mental and physical - is a critical component of promoting the calm, relaxed demeanor and “polite” behavior we crave so much in our canine companions.  Unfortunately, sometimes a good exercise routine isn’t possible.  Your dog may be recovering from an injury or illness and thus be on restricted exercise.  The weather might not cooperate for days on end, leaving both you and your dog a little stir crazy! Or perhaps your dog has behavior problems that make walking and exercising normally a challenge.  Whatever the reason, confinement can lead to an escalation of less-than-desirable behavior in our dogs, as their pent-up energy and boredom seeks to find other outlets that are more accessible to them.

Luckily, there are several things we can do to help our dogs through these days or weeks or months where they are confined.  Keep in mind that these are ideally not a long-term replacement for proper exercise, but can be a great help for at least surviving the forced downtime with some remnant of sanity for you and your dog!

1.      Routine Enrichment

Look at your dog’s normal daily routine.  Evaluate the toys that they have access to all the time.  Evaluate their food consuming process.  What does this look like?  Then ask yourself if there are any ways that you could tweak this routine to make it a little more interesting to your dog? 

One of my favorite places to make changes is the food consuming process.  If you have a dog that eats out of a bowl, either all at once or grazing all day long, this is a HUGE missed opportunity for providing natural enrichment to your dog with little to no extra effort on your part!  Instead of feeding your dog in their bowl, here are a few different ways you could spice it up:

  • Put the same amount of food into a food puzzle toy.  A few months ago I wrote about my favorites; one of my colleagues Laura of Delightful Doggies in Denver has another great blog post with additional options.  
  • Scatter the food on the floor instead of in the bowl.  This is a great way to engage your dog’s “seeking circuit” and turn eating into a fun scent work game.  As they get the hang of the game, you can make it more and more difficult to find some of the pieces.  Scattering the food and then covering most of it with a towel or other mat is a great way to increase the difficulty and engage your dog’s problem-solving abilities. 
  • Another method for making an occasional meal a little more exciting is substituting in a raw bone for your dog’s regular kibble (or raw) meal.  Before doing this, I would consult with your veterinarian to make sure that this is appropriate for your dog.  Here is a great blog post by behavior specialist Sarah Stremming that provides some more insight into WHY dogs need to chew. 
  • Instead of feeding in the bowl, have your dog “work” for each piece of kibble doing training skills (see point 2 below).  Not only will this enrich your dog’s eating routine, but when you and your dog are ready to hit the streets again you’ll have some extra solid skills to make that more enjoyable for both of you!

This routine enrichment can be dished out with your dog’s toys as well.  Don’t have unlimited toys around for your dog to get bored with.  Keep most of them put away, and each day hide a few “new” (have been kept out of sight for a few days) toys around the house.  Encourage your dog to search for them, and when they find a toy engage in a game of tug (assuming that’s appropriate depending on the reason your dog is confined) or swap for a tasty treat.

2.    Training Games

The Name Game & Targeting are two low-impact training skills you could be rehearsing with your dog while they are confined.  Of course you can always do other things as well, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with too many options at first!  If you and your dog beat these two training exercises and are looking for more, contact us and we can write a 2.0 blog post to give you more to do!

  • Name Game:
    • Level 1: “Ping-Pong": Drop treat on the ground for your puppy to see; wait for your dog to collect treat and look back up to you for the next treat.  Mark the eye contact with your marker and drop another treat.  Continue to repeat until your dog is giving quick eye contact with you after collecting the treat.  Practice in low-distraction environments first, then start taking the behavior to new environments, gradually building on the level of distractions.
    • Level 2: Respond to Name: After your dog is promptly returning their attention to your face after collecting each treat, say your dog’s name right before they turn back to look at you again.  Mark & reward their eye contact, tossing the treat away to reset for the next attempt.  Continue to occasionally cue the look with your dog’s name followed by marks & rewards when he responds correctly.  If he is too distracted to look at you, avoid repeating his name with no response.  Move away from the distraction to increase his focus and try again.
       
  • Targeting:
    • Level 1: Touch Nose to Target: Present your open, empty palm close to your dog’s nose and C/T any movement or glance in its direction.  Reset the target by removing your target hand after each C/T.  Repeat until your dog is offering a nose-to-palm target at this distance.  Move your hand a few inches further from your dog’s nose so that they have to move farther to target it.  Practice at a variety of distances (all at an achievable level at this stage) and directions (above and below your dog’s face).
    • Level 2: Follow a Target: Present your hand 1 to 2 inches away from your dog’s nose and C/T any movement towards it.  Repeat until your dog is warmed up to the game. Move your hand away from your dog’s face slowly and C/T for any movement your dog makes to follow the target.  At this point, the movement towards the target is more important than actually making contact with the hand.  As your dog becomes more confident with following the target, integrate different types of movement, switching the speed and direction that you move your hand.  C/T for correct responses. 

3.    Nose Work Challenges

This is somewhat of an extension to the enrichment suggestions in part one, but it is a next level game that can be very exciting and easy to play with your dog at home.  Nose work is teaching your dog to search different environments and scenarios for their target odor.  At first this target odor is the smell of their treat, or their favorite toy.  The beauty of this game is that it can be adjusted and tweaked until you run out of imagination! The sky is the limit, and there are lots of options that you can do right within your own four walls.

  • Start out with a few cardboard boxes of various sizes, all large enough for your dog to put their head inside comfortably. 
  • While your dog is crated or restrained in a different room (no peaking!), arrange 2-3 boxes and place a treat inside each one.
  • Release your dog and present the boxes to them, and let them start searching on their own.  When they find a treat, you can reward with an extra treat from your hand!  A bonus for completing the search!
  • When they have finished searching all of the boxes, you can return them to their waiting area and repeat for another try.  You can move the boxes around a bit to make it look a little bit differently.
  • After your dog is starting to get the hang of searching the boxes, start reducing the number of rewards you are setting into the boxes at the start.  Instead of filling all 3 boxes, only plant a treat in 2 of them.  Your dog will start learning to eliminate boxes that don’t have food odor in them.   Continue to reward your dog from your hand as well when they find the treats!
  • You can rearrange the boxes and add more as much as you want, as long as your dog is enjoying the game!
  • For progressing farther than this, I recommend finding a Nose Work class near you or looking at resources put out by Nose Work organizations like the NACSW.

Whatever you do with your dog while they are confined, try to keep it simple and fun.  And remember that when you do start introducing exercise back into their routine, take it nice and easy and recognize that they might be a little out of practice on their leash walking manners!  But with all the work you will have been doing while you’ve been confined together, I’m sure you both will be back to your normal routine in no time!

April is Canine Fitness Month!

April is Canine Fitness Month!

Guest post by Jennifer Holmes, a Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT), a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CCRP), and a Fit Paws - Master Trainer (FP-MT).  Her company, K9FitnessWorks, offers group classes & private lessons specializing in canine fitness.

April is National Canine Fitness Month!  What is Canine fitness?

You may have seen articles, Facebook posts, or seminars on canine fitness.  What is it?  Why would my dog want to take a fitness class or even go to a Certified Canine Fitness Trainer?

Fitness by definition is the quality of being conditioned physically to perform a role or task in life.  When we think of our fitness it brings up images of the gym, outdoor activities, or working with a trainer for a specific sport purpose.  Fitness can also be a way to improve muscle, tendon, and nerve health so you and your dog can function at the highest health capacity in your favorite activities. 

Ryder loves Canine Fitness!

Ryder loves Canine Fitness!

It fills my heart with passion to talk about the benefits of a creative, fun exercise plan for your pup and you to bond.  In the 70s and 80s I taught my dogs to sit, down, and shake because it was fun time with my dog.  I did not realize I was also teaching them body awareness.   Body awareness is the dog knowing where it’s body is in a certain space. Why is this important?  When your dog runs for a ball or catch a Frisbee in the air their body spins and twist in different directions.  If their muscles are trained to handle the speed and spins they will safely grab the ball or catch the Frisbee.  When their muscles are not conditioned because they have been in the house and yard all week then you play on the weekend, your dog can have muscle, tendon, or disk injuries during spins to catch their favorite toy.  As a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner since 2012, I have seen the various injuries that can occur during innocent ball throwing. The biggest impact owners can do for their dogs is a creative exercise plan to strengthen up their muscles, tendons, and nerves.

3 tips you can do RIGHT. NOW. to improve your dog body awareness:

1.     A quick couple minute warmup before ball or Frisbee play by a quick brisk walk to wake the body up, stimulate the nerves, and improve muscle reaction time.

2.     A few repeated sit-to-stand exercises to warm up key muscles they will use to play ball or catch the Frisbee.  (Cue your dog to sit, then cue them to stand, then back to sit, etc.)

3.     Throwing the ball or Frisbee straight to limit the amount of twisting they have to do while in action to catch the toy.

Echo & Ryder balance like pros - working on those core muscles that will help them avoid injury in agility!

Echo & Ryder balance like pros - working on those core muscles that will help them avoid injury in agility!

At Summit Dog Training, we offer fitness classes to help you help your dog have the fittest life they can!  Our Intro to Fitness class covers warmups, cool downs, and more creative ways to strengthen your dog for play.  I also offer 1-on-1 fitness sessions to create a specific plan for you and your pup to live a long happy life.

The next Intro to Fitness classes will be starting Saturday, May 13th at 9:00am & Saturday, June 17th at 10:00am.  Check out the Summit Dog Training website for more info!  In honor of Canine Fitness Month, we are offering 10% off fitness class tuition through April 30th.  Use promo code APRILFIT.

A couple of students from our last Intro to Fitness class had this to say:

“Thanks Jennifer! It was a super fun class.” - Shelley

“Echo and I just finished a series of 6 weeks in Jennifer's Canine Sport Dog Fitness Class. By the end of the classes I gained so much knowledge on how to strengthen and assess Echo's body condition. It was so much fun working with Jennifer and I would highly recommend her talents to all dog owners whether in a canine sporting event or just with a family pet.” - Barb

The Beef About Treats

The Beef About Treats

If I had a dollar for every time a student (or, more often, a prospective student) voiced a concern about using treats to train their dogs, I’d be able to afford . . . a lot of really nice treats.  Like the freeze dried goodness that my dog goes bananas for but I rarely ever purchase for myself because let’s face it, $15 for a 6-ounce bag is a little absurd when you train your dog more than once a month.

This “beware of the treats!” concern is commonly faced by positive trainers around the globe, although it comes disguised in various forms:

“It’s inconvenient to carry treats with me.  Can’t I just use ‘Good girl!’ as my reward instead?”

“I’ve trained dogs for 50 years and never had to use food!”

“My dog will get fat if I give him treats!”

“If I use food my dog will never respond when I don’t have food!”

And my personal favorite:

“I want my dog to do it because he respects me, not because I have food!”

If you have had (or currently have) one or more of these questions causing second thoughts for you about training with treats, let me give you a huge WELCOME! to this blog and THANK YOU! for reading this far already.  That shows a willingness to consider the answers to these concerns, for which willingness I want to provide you a little reinforcement.  After you watch this video of Smiley the blind dog chasing his owner in the snow (I bet you can’t help but smile back at him a little bit), we’ll get back to the treats. . .

Ok, back?  Smiling a little bit?  Good.  That’s one little taste of what a treat or other food reinforcer does for your dog – promotes happy feelings about their relationship with the bearer of the treats – YOU!!!  This is called associative learning, or classical conditioning – pairing something really good with other things to make those other things also really good

So, in a slightly more abrupt (and occasionally sarcastic) tone than I might use if I was looking you in the eye or talking with you on the phone or answering your email inquiry (I try to be mostly courteous and polite in those situations), let me answer "your" questions:

1.     It’s inconvenient to carry treats with me.  Can’t I just use “Good girl!” as my reward instead?

Not until you have built up “Good girl!” as an alternate form of reinforcement that is reinforcing to your dog because it has a history of often being paired with good things (read: “treats”) from you.  Otherwise the words “Good girl!” are rather meaningless as motivation for most dogs. Perhaps this is better understood with a human example.  Your boss at work probably finds it inconvenient to pay your paycheck every two weeks.  He would probably rather give you a slap on the back on Friday evening saying “Good work this month buddy, keep it up!”.  If he did that instead of paying you dollar bills, would you go back to work on Monday morning?  Just like you, your dog deserves a payment for jobs well-done.

2.     I’ve trained dogs for 50 years and never had to use food!”

Great job!  That’s quite an accomplishment.  There is certainly more than one way to get the behavior you want – coercion and force is one method, and motivation (toys, treats, praise, etc.) is another.  Modern scientific research supports the latter, methods that promote a positive bond of trust between you and your dog.  If you’ve been using other motivators like toys and play and positive time spent together and that’s been working for you and your dogs – that’s wonderful!  If using coercion and force to get your dog to listen is your jam . . . think about how you like to learn new skills (does a punch in the face help you learn algebraic equations?) and get back to me.

3.     My dog will get fat if I give him treats!

This is perhaps a good time to explain my definition of “treats.”  A treat is a tidbit of food that is desirable to the dog in the given environment. For most training sessions, it doesn’t have to be fancy, or high caloric or fat content.  In fact, for many of my clients, I recommend that their dog train for the kibble that would normally be put into their bowl.  Higher value reinforcement (traditional “treats”, chicken, cheese, liver, etc. etc.) are reserved for when you take your dog to high-stakes situations with lots of distractions.  If your dog gets fed for “free” in a bowl every day – why not turn that food into motivators for good learning?  If you still aren’t convinced, there is this great video that is going around Facebook illustrating a common phenomenon – a dog choosing to “work” a food puzzle for its food instead of taking the “free” food in the bowl right next to it. 

4.     If I use food my dog will never respond when I don’t have food!

Our goal with treats is never to build behavior that is dependent on the treats to occur.  Our goal with food rewards is to build behavior that has such a strong history of reinforcement that your dog 1) clearly knows how to do it and 2) excitedly wants to do it – with or without the treats to back it up.   With marker training (a different blog topic, probably coming soon!) we rarely have our treats out to prompt the behavior we are building.  The treats come as a response to the behavior, rarely the antecedent.  This way, we are building behavior that doesn’t need a treat to happen, and eventually is only sometimes followed by a treat reward.  In human terms, we can make these withdrawals on the behavior bank account as a result of all of the cumulative deposits (treats to reward the behavior) we put into the account when building the behavior.  But just like your bank won’t let you withdrawal $1000 in small, unmarked bills if your balance is $10, you have to build up that balance first!

5.     I want my dog to do it because he respects me, not because I have food!

 Oh boy.  Where to start on this one. . . let’s see. . . how about with the definition of respect.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines respect as “high or special regard; the quality or state of being esteemed”.  Force and manipulation, often the physical applications of the "respect me!" demand, don’t foster esteem and special regard. Additionally, while this type of authoritarian dictatorship may promote the absence of bad behavior (i.e. your dog doesn’t come near you because they have learned that you are scary, thus they don’t annoy you with x, y and z behaviors), it does not really encourage the presence of good behavior.  Can I let you in on a little secret short cut to your dog’s esteem and highest of high regards?  Show them that you control the cookies.  And the toys. All good things happen because of you.  Pretty soon you are a god among dogs – at least, among your dog(s).  This benevolent leadership fosters a positive relationship between you and your dog, built on trust and a healthy dose of mutual respect. 

At the end of the day, this is really what it boils down to – mutual respect.  Maybe you really can’t use treats, for a real reason that I haven’t addressed here (food allergies, dog doesn’t like treats, etc. etc.); maybe you don’t have an extenuating circumstance but still aren’t convinced that training with food is the way to go.  That’s ok.  But you can still apply the principles behind this methodology – respect your dog enough to be willing to PAY for good work in some way (the opportunity to go chase a squirrel up a tree is a GREAT reward!).

And if you still aren’t willing to do that, maybe let your own boss know that you are willing to sign a new contract agreeing to work for high-fives, handshakes, and the occasional punch in the face for bad behavior!