Let’s Talk About Treats


When choosing food reinforcers it is important to make a strong impression with high value, high flavor items, especially if the job you are asking your dog to do is going to be challenging in terms of competing motivators. (Only use junk foods like Fancy Feast pictured here sparingly, however, and be careful that all commercially made treats are made in the U.S., not China. Fresh, home-cooked meats are usually best.)

Okay, let’s set the record straight once and for all.  “Treat” isn’t a four letter word. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to hide. So, honestly, we really don’t have to be afraid of saying it out loud in front of grandma anymore. I, Sarah Owings, a professional trainer, with professionally trained dogs of my own, yes, even I still carry a pouch of treats with me on walks! Yes, even I still lavish my dogs generously with well timed yummies when they choose to pay attention to me rather than lunge at a barking dog, keep the leash loose when walking through a crowd, or respond to their names when a cat runs by. Even I still run to the fridge for an impromptu jackpot when they come in from the backyard right away when I call. Yes, even I, a professional trainer, still feed my dogs for not jumping on houseguests.  I even toss tasty morsels to them during dinner occasionally too–as long as they are laying on their mats or in their crates instead of pestering us at the table.

Zoë is eight. Maya is somewhere closer to twelve. Zoë in particular has had intensive, highly focused reinforcement-based training for most of her life. When I cue any of her known behaviors at this point, I’m so confident in her response I’d be willing to bet just about anyone $100 she will do it correctly. A few years ago on the outdoor patio of a dog friendly restaurant, I remember cuing her to lay down and she dropped to the ground so quickly the guy at the next table whistled in amazement. “That was scary fast,” he said. “How did you get your dog to do that?” …Well, although I do seem to be pretty good at my job and am deeply committed to this method of teaching and learning, it really isn’t rocket science. My dogs, particularly Zoë, do as I ask, behave politely in public most of the time, and are a joy to live with because they have a GINORMOUS reinforcement history for doing so. It’s that simple. They are reliable because I am reliable. I never ever take their “obedience” for granted. I never assume they are going to do what I ask just because I said so. Even for behaviors that they know well and have done correctly many times, I still do my darndest to pay up for great responses.  I don’t mess around with intermittent schedules of reinforcement either unless there is some specific reason for it, which there never really is.  On the very rare occasion that I don’t have food on me, food easily at hand, or some other type of reinforcer I know for sure will cut the mustard with my dogs in that particular moment, I either won’t say a cue at all or, in a pinch, I will at least try to provide something in exchange: usually a butt scratch and happy talk followed by a release to go do whatever it was they wanted to do in the first place; and if it happens that at my request Zoë or Maya have to actually give up something, and it ends up being a bummer for them, i.e. a withdrawal rather than a deposit in our trust account, I go way out of my way to be sure they get a pretty big paycheck the next time.

zoe kitchen mat

Zoe used to be a big counter surfer but now defaults to her kitchen bed any time I am preparing food or when we are eating dinner. She has a very large reinforcement history for doing so.


It takes 20-30 minutes everyday to prepare my dogs’ food ahead of time, but it is worth it to have everything ready to go for quick and easy access anytime I want to stop for a training break, to reward good behavior on the fly, to deal with a challenging situation such as a guest arriving, or to go on a walk. This batch is a mix of Into the Wild kibble, boiled white meat chicken, and Deli Fresh turkey dog food. The tube is filled with Wellness canned food.

Granted, “treats” is a lousy word for so powerful an influence on behavior. When we humans think “treats,” we picture  unhealthy, rare indulgences that are not usually so good for us like candy bars or ice cream. This mentality ends up making it all too easy to be stingy with our dogs during training. That is why, unwieldy as it may be, the proper term I should be using here really is “reinforcement,” not “treat,” and not “reward.” If a behavior is maintained or gets stronger, it is being reinforced by something.  That is the law of learning. Period. Lots of things reinforce behavior besides food such as opportunities to do fun things, a chance to play with dogs, attention from a favorite person, freedom to move, a great feeling, an exciting event, a sensation of relief, etc. However, food is a primary reinforcer for all living things; so when you feed your dog a memorable treat, in his mind he’s probably not thinking: “Oh boy! I’m such a good dog I got a treat!” He is thinking: “Oh boy! I got food! I’m not going to starve today!” Dogs don’t mess around with survival. As the descendants of hunters and scavengers, they are hardwired to work for a living, and I for one tend to take things dogs are passionate about pretty seriously.


Zoe earns a portion of her morning breakfast doing Relax on a Mat while I finish my coffee

However, for many pet owners, the effort of portioning food as reinforcement instead of dumping it in a bowl twice a day, and thinking in terms of reinforcement all the time instead of just during training class, is understandably daunting. “When can I stop using treats?” is the number one question I have to field during consults; and even after I’ve thought I’ve made it pretty darn clear that although certainly one can branch out to a wider variety of reinforcers besides food eventually, the answer really is NEVER, I still inevitably find myself cringing silently inside a few weeks or months later when these same, quite well-intentioned people say something like: “Fido does (insert difficult behavior here) now and I don’t even have to use treats anymore!” This usually makes me so sad to hear because  what the dog is being asked to do is often pretty hard such getting into the bathtub after years of being terrified of water, or choosing to ignore food left out on a low table, or passing another dog on a walk without barking or lunging. Why don’t people ever declare with equal pride how they remembered to jackpot with fresh salmon or beef that time their dog came away from a squirrel so darn fast? Where does all this shame, denial, and reluctance come from? …Well, people, I’m here to tell you, time to be free of this misconception once and for all. If keeping treats at the ready helps you live more harmoniously with your pet on a daily basis, you are in great company! Many of the world’s best trainers, including almost all zookeepers, marine mammal trainers, and a growing majority of top level competition trainers, professional pet dog trainers like myself, and liberated pet owners everywhere, have accepted food reinforcers–not just as a temporary training tool– but as a way of life. Using primary reinforcers on an ongoing basis does not mean you are a bad trainer, or that you don’t have control of your dog, it means you understand how behavior change really works.

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A Beluga whale at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago demonstrates her trained “bubbles” cue underwater before surfacing to get fish from her trainer as reinforcement.

Of course some jobs we ask our dogs to do grow resilient and remain so even without primary reinforcers, and many dogs will work equally hard for toys or play as they do for food. Some tasks we require of them are also conveniently reinforced by opportunities to go do other fun things that the dog wanted to do anyway such as sitting before being let out the door to play in the yard, or walking on a loose leash past distractions and then being allowed to go investigate afterwards. Dogs lock into these types of consistent reinforcement patterns very quickly. Other behaviors, such as sitting on cue in a quiet room with nothing else going on are simply so easy to do in that context that weaker reinforcers like praise or petting are sometimes enough to keep things going. However, eight times out of ten what we demand of our dogs in order for them to conform to our lives in ways that are more convenient for us is often much more expensive for them than most people realize. When we have expectations such as  coming when called instead of chasing a rabbit or deer, or to please not jump on aunt Tilly, or to walk at our sides instead of sniffing the bushes or pulling over to go say hi to that dog over there, what we are asking is for our dogs to basically give up being dogs. Want Fido to come away from play with a buddy at the park right away the first time you call? Ha! Fat chance unless you have diligently worked to build up a pretty powerful reinforcement history for that particular behavior in advance, a reinforcement history massive enough to trump all that the frenzied fun Fido may be having in that moment.

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Our little Maya used to never come when called from the back yard. But after some solid recall training, followed by ongoing jackpots for fast responses for the past few years, as well as lots of opportunities to go back outside and play some more after responding correctly, her reliability has improved exponentially over time.

Way back when Zydeco first came to stay with us, almost two months ago now, in my first z-dogs post I wrote about how I was excited to start fresh with a puppy because Zoë is now so easy to live with I’ve kind of forgotten how she actually got that way. Well, now I remember. Reinforcement made it happen. Years and years of consistent, dogged, unflinching reinforcement. Zydy was and still is a great guy at heart but he came to us with very few human-acceptable skills. To be honest, he was pretty much a wild man most of the time, jumping, mouthing, careening around, yanking at the leash, whining, barking, and scrabbling crazily in the car, stealing things, nipping hands, feet clothing, highly distractible, much more interested in the excitement of dogs barking, squirrels running, barking at visitors and other dogs, etc.,  than in listening to me. So, I got out my treat pouch and went to work. From the first moment he arrived, until the last day he left, I reinforced that boy non stop for ANYTHING he did that I liked. I watched him religiously for moments of calm, flickers of focus, fleeting instances of self-control, and all correct responses to cues. Sometimes in the middle of his bigger barking fits, I would have to wait until he took a breath–click! Yep. Half a second of quiet. Caught it! YAY! Was he or I perfect during this process? No. Is he perfectly behaved at all times now? No. But by golly Zydy did gain some better skills, and fast. How did I do it? How on earth did I convince him to do things like let go of that towel I was trying to put in the dryer, to back off and wait instead of chomping my arms or feet, or to sit calmly at the side gate until released, and then to walk calmly on leash all the way to the street instead of bolting and yanking my arm off? For an impulsive, high drive young dog like him, I knew that self-control is an extremely expensive behavior, so I PAID REALLY REALLY WELL FOR IT! I was never stingy. He got the best food, the highest value toys, and every opportunity I could give to release him to go “be a dog” and do whatever he wanted (within reason) after he did anything I wanted. My goal was for him to learn that it is worth it to listen to me every single time, and that listening to me is almost never going to be a bummer or disappointment for him. When working on key life skills such as recalls or Relax on a Mat, I did not mess around with low value foods either, but instead chose his favorite canned wet dog food to build the behavior up as strong as I could. Here’s what his first training session looked like. This is now one of his favorite behaviors to do. Can you tell why?

The world of dog training is filled with politics, polarized opinion, ethical dilemmas, philosophical debates, and controversy–and a surprising lot of it has to do with whether or not dogs should be trained with treats in the first place, or whether one should “fade” out the food later on once the behaviors are complete. But it really all boils down to this: when it comes to expensive behaviors, either you choose to use reinforcement to build and then maintain that behavior for the lifetime of your dog, or you have to use some form of pressure, punishment, or the threat of pressure or punishment to either suppress behaviors you don’t like, or build avoidance behaviors that look like compliance. Thanks to Zydeco’s great reminder these past two months, however, I can safely say without a doubt that reinforcement gets the job done–as long as the humans involved are willing to commit to the project.

Clear patterns of reinforcement build trust. Choose the path of trust wholeheartedly, without any doubt or stinginess, and you and your dog will eventually find yourselves standing together on more solid ground. Once you reach that plateau, stop and consider your progress. How did you get here? Look down. Beneath your feet there is now a shining brick road that you paved beneath your own feet treat by treat by treat. Take those first brave steps with your dog today, and before you know it, you both will be cavorting in the land where pets listen  joyously to their owners each and every time they call, and owners fully respect and understand their pets–not because either of them have to, but because few other pathways in life are more reinforcing to follow than this one.

(If you’d like to learn how to teach your dog this way too and don’t have a clicker trainer near you, I, along with Helix Fairweather and Lynn Martin, have an online pet manners class. www.cyberdogonline.com).

Quick Zydeco Update–He’s Home!

Last week, after a couple practice visits (and a good cry I’ll have to admit) I helped settle Zydeco back in at home. David and Leslie took puppy duty on the weekend, and his mom Christine returned from her 6 week road trip Monday. Although I’m sure he’s raising hell now and then in his own fabulous Zydy way, by all reports, so far he is doing pretty darn well. Certainly each time I’ve gone to visit, he’s looked calm and happy.

First off on transition day, the most important thing was getting his new confinement areas set up so he could be managed during his higher energy times, and so David and Leslie could maintain some of the same structure he had at my house. Because of the need to keep him out of Zoë’s space, with me he had almost no access to furniture, so we discovered right away that total freedom in the living room the first night home turned out to be a wee bit over- stimulating. (What? You mean couches and chairs are not for vaulting practice? Well, what a silly idea! They are so soft and bouncy!) We set up an ex-pen in the living room so he can practice hanging with family without being a doofus, his crate under the kitchen table so he’ll continue be able to go there during meals, and another confinement area in the back pantry for night-time and when left alone for longer periods. The good news is all the work I put in teaching him to be calm in his pen and crate seems to have transferred. YAY!


Calm in pen at my house


Calm in confinement area at his house

I was worried that the transition would be more stressful and confusing, and that for him it would be like losing another home, plus a tough rip in his attachment to me. But, true to his brave heart and all the love he received in that home before he came to me, and perhaps a testament to his improved resilience after six weeks of intensive and respectful positive reinforcement training, our boy seems to have taken this new life change in stride as just another adventure. For sure, he clearly remembered his old house and his family from before. Jumping from the car, he bolted for the front door, then went ridiculously giddy when he saw everyone. He also quickly remembered that Leslie has a great lap!



Without Zydeco, our house seems very quiet and a little empty. Zoë and Maya are much much happier though for sure to get full access to kitchen and yard again and not to be annoyed or worried by Mr. Puppy Pants. My heart has been aching but, as I’ve mentioned, luckily Zydy lives just around the corner. As his honorary “auntie,” I still get to visit. So far I’ve gone over and taken him on one neighborhood walk and one very mellow, very lovely trip to the park. Each time I’ve picked him up he seemed even calmer and more settled in than the last.

relax on a mat on a walk

Zydy revisits his Relax on a Mat on a neighborhood walk during one of my recent visits

Z on a tree

Zydy explores Betty Davis park with me a few days later

 A couple people have wondered if Zydeco’s departure  means no more Z-blog posts. No worries there! I have a backlog of about 15 post ideas and dozens more videos to share. Plus there’s my other Z-dog to celebrate too. Now that Zydy’s gone, she and I can get back to her work learning the Do as I Do protocol. So, lots to come! Stay tuned!

Puppies Who Need The Most…or, Much Ado About Nipping

The Kids Who Need The Most Love...

I’ve had a number of requests to talk about the issue of puppy nipping, and to share some of the techniques I’ve been working on to make life with Zydeco a little less painful. So here goes. I’ve been saving this great message about kids for this very post, because I believe that when Zydeco bites me, as well as anyone else in his close family circle, he is often communicating something profound. Of course, most of the time I get the sense he is just over-stimulated. Something exciting happens, and off he goes, leaping and snapping away like a little land shark at the first thing that moves. However, what about those times when he comes up in a quiet moment out of the blue and chomps my leg or arm? I honestly feel that even as painful as it is, he isn’t attempting to dominate me, or discipline me, or injure me, what he is really asking for in his own inscrutable puppy way, is love.

Yes. Puppy’s bite. They bite a lot. It is always helpful to take a step back and remind ourselves first of all that nipping and mouthing is a developmentally normal behavior. When my Zoë was a youngster and didn’t try to nosh everything in sight, I was certain there was something wrong with her, and I was right. She had a thyroid issue and simply didn’t have the energy. Puppies are reinforced and soothed by the sensation of things in their mouth in much the same way as toddlers are. Chomping away on any and all surfaces, clothing, skin, textures, etc. is how they learn about the world, how they relieve teething pain and stress, how they express emotions, and, of course how they learn to communicate–in healthy or unhealthy ways–with their owners, and with other dogs. Although it is certainly a frustrating phase to live through, the number one thing I think pet owners can do to help ease the stress of puppy biting is first of all to RELAX about it. The more uptight and tense we are with our dogs, the more they tend to pick up on that stress and dish it back to us…and let me tell you from experience, stressed out puppy nipping is ten times worse than regular ol’ run of the mill puppy nipping.

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Stressed out puppy nipping is far harder on the arms than regular puppy nipping

Zydeco is the quintessential example of this. When those teeth of his begin to flash, saying NO!, pushing him away, trying to restrain him by the collar, or even moving my hands (or clothes) back away from too quickly, that’s all just game-on for him, and he comes on harder. Sadly, on a couple of occasions an unhappy little cycle has sprung up between us where the more he nips, the harder it is for me to remain patient (or slow-moving enough to become boring), and the more impatient I get, the more he nips. But without a doubt, if I were to try any of the methods traditionally recommended for puppy nipping such as lip pinches, striking the pup in the nose, spraying with citronella, scruff shaking, or forcibly holding his mouth closed, honestly, I’d lose every bit of trust I’ve worked so hard to gain with Zydy up till now, and chances are very high, he’d just take those more confrontational challenges on too and escalate further.

Z teeth

But there is good news.  First of all, puppies do grow out of this phase (I promise!); and, as long as you don’t fall into some of the common pitfalls which I will list later on, even if you’ve got what seems like a super hyper puppy that is clearly  convinced your feet are actually bouncing rabbits to pounce on all day, your clothes are the latest, greatest, new, edible, shredible tug, and your hands a couple of tasty teething toys, it does not automatically mean he or she is going to grow up to be an aggressive dog. And secondly, with time, patience, and above all, consistency, it is totally possible to teach your puppy the following key things:  1) to let go and get control when you ask, 2) to refrain from grabbing something in the first place, 3) and that hands are for licking, clothes are for ignoring, and toys–only toys–are for teeth.

Management is of course my first line of defense. I am a huge huge HUGE fan of ex-pens for puppies. I love ex-pens so much I may devote an entire blog post to their many uses and virtues. But sticking to the topic at hand for now, a puppy in an ex-pen can’t bite you. It’s that simple. Set that pen up near you in the house so your puppy can learn in context how to behave when near people. Isolate your puppy in a back room, the back yard, or even in a crate and he won’t get a chance to learn. Reinforce often for calm, quiet behaviors, provide plenty of interesting, appropriate chew items inside the puppy area, proper exercise and attention of course at all other times, and voilá, a huge amount of your problem is immediately solved. I’ve also used the ex-pen set up at my house as a way to give myself a time out when Zydy’s attentions and over-excitement were simply too relentless to be worked through in that particular moment with clicker and treats, or even tug toys. There have been a couple times when he ignored all redirection, and very deliberately came after me.  When that happened, I did my best to calmly step away, close the gate between us, and count to ten. Once he settled, I came right back. Time outs are most effective if you do them in very short increments. Repeat enough times and puppy does begin to learn that persistent, hard chomps really do make you leave, and calm behaviors make you come back.

But way WAY more effective than the time out method is pro-active training. We trainers always tell people to focus on what they DO what their dog to do, not what they DON’T want the dog to do. Okay, so, what’s a good alternative to nipping? How about licking? A wonderful, creative KPA colleague, Dani Theule gave me the idea to jump start Zydy’s licking behavior by dabbing a little butter on my arm. It worked immediately…and with Zydy’s amazing ability now to fast-map cues, very quickly I was able to add the cue “lick” and then to have him generalize the licking to my other, non-buttered arm.

Arms are for licking (not biting)

Arms are for licking

In the video below you’ll notice I also am inviting him to bite a tug toy every few reps or so. I’m pairing “Get it” (bite the tug) with “Lick” as  opposing cues on purpose to teach him right away the difference between my arm and the toy. It also premacks the licking behavior with his love of biting toys. I am pleased in the session with his ability to switch back and forth between the higher energy play mode and the settle down and be gentle mode. At the end, I hold the tug at a very poor angle, basically setting him up to bite my arm (!), but instead of saying Ah Ah! or No! or pulling my arm away, I remember to say “lick” instead…and he immediately withdraws his teeth! YAY! This stuff is so cool!!

I now remind myself to ask for licks during Zydy’s extra excited times such as when greeting me after I’ve been away, or after he’s been playing tug for awhile, and it almost always works! He starts licking my arm and calms right down. I also request licks now when he charges over with that evil gleam in his eye  (“WASSUP, SARAH?!”), and by golly the full-on chomping incidents are decreasing rapidly. The hardest part sometimes for me actually is remembering to use a pre-trained cue that Zydy knows (rather than bust out with Hey!) when he makes a mistake and nails me. But when I do remember. Four out of five times, he usually backs right off…and it works even better when I remember to ask him to Leave-it before I put my hands or some other enticing item into range.

And here’s the same idea with a “Leave-it” / “Take-it” pairing to help him learn not to attack my feet. Note how once again at the end I make a mistake in getting him too riled up and he almost loses control for a moment, but as soon as I let go of him, back off, calm my own body movements and remember to say “Leave-it,” he gets back on track.

One thing I want to clarify is that these training exercises are actually not designed to eliminate the biting behavior entirely, because honestly, I don’t think it is healthy or reasonable to suppress this natural urge in a young dog. Many people ask me “how do I get my puppy to stop biting?” And my answer is, you might as well ask your puppy to stop breathing. The goal of clicker training isn’t to turn a living, emotional, thinking creature into a furry robot that just sits in the corner and looks cute. The goal of clicker training is to build clear channels of communication between animal and human so that you can get off the evil stress-cycle long before it even gets started. Teaching Zydeco cues like “lick,” and “leave-it” allows me to make requests of him that don’t involve force or antagonistic manipulation, and to let him know which behaviors will work to get what he wants from me. It isn’t about suppressing his needs at all…And speaking of getting what he wants, I just want to mention here that it is important to pay well for Leave-it, using your highest value treats, favorite tugs, or anything your dog really really likes. You never want to take the choice of self-control for granted. Particularly not with a dog like Zydeco.

There are three main needs expressed in Zydeco’s biting behavior: 1) the need to connect / get my attention, 2) the need for stimulation / get something exciting to happen, and 3) the need to feel unfettered /un-pestered /and safe (i.e. hands off please you pesky primate!).

Puppy Mouthing

At night just before bed when he’s sleepy Zydy loves to cuddle and do this gentle mouthing behavior on my hands and arms. I allow it because he usually has good self-control and seems to find it comforting and calming.

The first need is addressed well by his new licking behavior. I’ve also been working to reinforce him with attention for bringing me toys, as well as for leaning his shoulder against my legs–which he already likes to do, or putting his chin on my lap–which is friggin’ irresistible. My feeling is…meet the need, and the biting part of how he is communicating that need to me will mellow considerably.

Zydy’s need for stimulation is met with the paired “Leave-it”/ “Get-it” game. He is really learning that if he waits, I’ll invite him to do something fun like kill a toy, chase me around, play fetch, etc. We repeat the pattern over and over and over again: self-control is the doorway to all fun things…and boy has he earned himself a lot of really fun things during his time with me–fun with agility equipment, the privilege of going on a walk or a hike, the chance to play with a chase-it toy, the opportunity to learn new things…the list goes on and on, and he is just eating it up.

The final need for safety I haven’t talked about much yet. Basically, Zydy bites sometimes just to get you to let go of him. He chafes against retraint like gangbusters, especially collar grabs when he’s excited about something. Although he likes firm touches, often leans against us, and even cuddles freely, he’s ticklish with softer touches, and often gets mouthy with handling of his feet and back. Recently I made the mistake of allowing the vet to trim his nails. He came out with bleeding quicks and I thought it would be really hard to earn back his trust. But, as you can see in the video, the foundation work he and I have done still holds, and is able to trump one bad experience.

In this session I’m demonstrating some basic counter conditioning–paring the sensation of me holding the Quick Stop against his toe with his favorite food, followed by an example of how to use the clicker to teach husbandry behaviors.

I really like to prepare a dog for the touch ahead of time like this instead of just grabbing him out of the blue. Because we’ve practiced a lot Zydy knows already that when I say “hands” and move towards him slowly like this, I’m about to touch him somewhere. The repetitive, ritualized pattern of the whole thing is reassuring.

So that’s really it. Is our boy a 100% perfect, not-biting puppy 100% of the time? Nope. He’s still usually got his mouth non-stop on toys, bones, cardboard, paper, plastic bottles, squeaky toys, Kongs, dog beds–anything in range–you name it. But the more channels of communication and repetitions of trust I open up between us with that darn miraculous clicker, the less he seems to have to resort to biting to express to me what he needs.

Z-dog or Alpha Dog?

Is this the face of a dominant dog?

It’s no secret. The general consensus among most dog training professionals today is that labels like “dominant” or “alpha” have no real place in our discussion about who our pets are and how we can best relate to them.  One need only look at the long list of citations at the end of this excellent blog post, No Such Thing As Alpha Dogs by Kelsie at Dog’s Life Canine Academy to see that there are plenty of research papers, articles, and position statements out there grappling with this topic. Phrases like “myth,” fallacy,” “old hat,” “detrimental to the human-canine relationship” abound. So I don’t particularly feel a need to rehash things that have been said so well already by many many respected members of not only the dog training, the scientific, but much of the veterinary community as well. The fact that so many pet owners are still in the dark about this veritable sea change of perspective among behavioral professionals continues to startle me on a daily basis, but then again, I just take it as a sign that–like so many other progressive movements and much of the rational, science-based discourse struggling to be heard in this country right now–behavioral science is simply going to take a lot more time to get a foothold in the average layperson’s consciousness. (For a great discussion on why dominance remains such a “sticky” idea in our society, as well as a great alternative, check out Kathy Sdao’s blog “Forget About Being the Alpha in Your Pack”).

My goal for today’s post is to bring the whole discussion into sharper focus around a single individual; because it is one thing to reject the concept of dominance in a broader sense on principle, and quite another to share one’s home day in and day out with a dog like Zydeco.

There is little doubt in my mind that even just a few years ago (and even in some circles today) our boy, Mr. Z, would have been called a dominant dog. Even among those of us savvy enough to switch from labeling dogs to labeling behaviors, many of Zydeco’s behaviors still seem to fall into the dominance category anyway. For example, when barking at strangers he stands tall, leaning forward, high on his toes, staring directly at the perceived threat. With his great big adult sounding barks and all the hairs bristling down his back, he looks skunk-like, and more than a little threatening. In fact, other than the mouth pucker, he pretty much looks like what, according to the 4-H Club’s textbook definition, is typically labeled an “aggressive /dominant” dog posture.


“Aggressive-Dominant or Offensive Threat Posture”

According to this WikiHow article “How to Work With Dominant Dogs”:

Some clear signs of dominance in dogs are pushing ahead of you, barking when given a command, jumping up on people and furniture, marking their territory by urinating on objects, mouthing, chewing and guarding objects and disobeying simple commands such as “down,” or “stay.”

Okay, I’m going to go through each of these in turn….

Pushing ahead of me out doorways so he can bust outside for a quick zoom around the yard, (’cause that’s friggin’ fun to do?) Check. Barking when given a command? Check. (When I ask him to “get in his house” for food time, he tends to bark directly at me first…Wooo! Wooo! Wooo!…And then, with a jaunty little hop, immediately scampers right on in). Jumping up on people and furniture? Check. He doesn’t have much access to furniture right now confined as he is to kitchen and backyard, but he has shown zero inhibition about jumping up onto anything else I’ve asked him to (which is not always a bad thing, particularly if you want an agility or search and rescue dog). Jumping on people? Check. When greeting me or anyone he likes, he’s all puppy hellos. Very normal floppy, paws-up-for-love-and-adoration type stuff. When greeting strangers, Zydeco tends to bark intensely for the first few minutes, and then goes all hyper-puppy (but friendly). If I don’t redirect him, just like any other over-excited puppy, he can jump up more invasively, sometimes nipping arms, hands, and even tearing clothes. Okay. So, I guess, double check on that one (jumping and biting). Urinating on objects? Nope. Probably not old enough yet. Mouthing and chewing objects? Check. (But, really, he’s a five month old GSD for goodness sakes! If an object is in range, anything soft, fluffy, moving, interesting–a leaf, a towel, my feet, a toy– it’s pretty much in his mouth. Annoying, yes. Abnormal? Again, not really.) Guarding objects? Aha! This is where Zydy would definitely have the average Joe fooled. When he’s got stuff in his mouth, he growls, and it actually sounds pretty serious too, deep and gutteral–right up until the moment you realize he’s asking to play and is bringing the toy right to your lap so you’ll throw it again. Is that a guarding behavior? Coming to give up the object? Ha ha! I think not! (But every time he does this playful talking thing, I do think of all the pet owners I know who really stress out about their dogs’ growls and often try to correct them for it–a sure fire way to create a guarding problem that wasn’t there before!) Disobeying simple commands? Well, Zydy is a super quick study actually, and as long as there is no overt pressure, particularly physical pressure, on him to comply, he’s usually quite happy to do just about anything I ask. He has learned most of the basic cues like sit, come, wait, let’s go, get it, leave-it, okay, get in the car, get in your house, hop up, go place, touch, etc. very very quickly… But the one behavior he’s still a little slow on? You guessed it: down. He’ll do it, but is definitely slow to “comply.” And, yep, he does sometimes bark at me too when I ask him for it. Classic, textbook, dominance issue, right? A dog who won’t lay down and submit. (Hint: actually, what’s going on is his down cue is just not quite fluent enough yet, and I also suspect that it takes him a few extra seconds to maneuver his gangly puppy legs into position too. He’ll get it. His latency is actually improving all the time).

What else? Well, when he plays his own games, he’s all devil may care wildness, careening around full tilt boogie like a boy playing Hot Rods or Top Gun (or Transformers or whatever horrible, violent, mass-produced media movie is big with the kids these days), roughing up (and mounting) the dog beds, chomping and shaking his toys mercilessly, destroying plastic bottles with great, gleeful crunches, drowning plushies in his pool, then vigorously “mopping” the kitchen floor with them, and just causing general mayhem. But is all that really dominance? Really? Or just good old fashioned puppy high jinx?


Death to Alligators!

So, maybe the super playfulness is mostly just puppy high jinx. When meeting dogs, however, the dominance issue gets a little more difficult to shake. When he sees a new dog, Zydy’s first reaction is to bark his fool head off, then (after calming himself–because my rule for him is that only calm dogs get to play), when released, he can alternate between highly appropriate puppy behavior and a highly annoying, extremely persistent habit of mounting, as well as what many trainers call T-ing up with head and paws over the top of the other dog’s neck and back. Needless to say, although there have been a couple moments of very nice play for him during these visits, most of the dogs we have attempted to socialize him with have spent a good amount of time snarking at him to QUIT IT! A reaction which, unfortunately, he seems to find stimulating (i.e. reinforcing), and which usually just makes him come right back for more…But I have to say, in my professional opinion, even when I’ve had to physically pull him away from the dog he is persistently accosting, even then, I still don’t think “dominance issue” so much as “impulsivity issue.” When Zydy’s got his head together, meaning, when he’s under-threshold and calm, he’s perfect. Even around dogs, he can stay focused, accept treats, lay on his relax mat, play with tug toys, and even self-regulate and settle himself down in his ex-pen…It’s only when his arousal level skyrockets, that you’d better look out, because at that point it is certainly humpty-dumpty, barky-lungy time. The good news is, impulse control can be taught. The trick is doing it gradually enough, with better set ups for mellower, more structured interactions such as more parallel walks with dogs rather than unstructured free-for-all play for now, that we don’t cause so much frustration that Zydy ends up becoming aggressive to dogs in the long run.

Z meets Franklin_curve

High tail, direct stare, and stiff posture repeatedly led to mounting–but no overt aggression– in this social interaction with an older male dog.

Similarly to when dogs say QUIT IT!, when sensing a correction, or even a flare of grumpiness from a human, it’s true he is likely to bark right back in your face or, on occasion, even leap up, teeth flashing, in what seems to be a pretty provocative way…Now, I want to stop right here and stress that I have never once felt threatened by anything Zydeco has done, and I’ve also never felt that any of the dogs or people I have introduced him to were in any danger whatsoever (besides maybe being overly pestered, jumped on and puppy nipped). As someone who works with truly aggressive dogs regularly, I honestly do trust myself to be able to tell the difference between a puppy losing control of himself and a dog ready to take another dog out at this point. However, I also definitely get a sense with Zydeco that if the relationship we had with him was more pet owner /dominance-trainer typical (i.e. more confrontational), and push came to shove, as he matured, he’d eventually make good on the promise of those pearly whites.

Z teeth

Zydeco shows off his needle sharp pearly whites–all play this time. But if he were consistently threatened and pressured by the people in his life, my guess is he’d use them.

So, if not alpha, what the heck do we call this constellation of behaviors then? Without the easy convenience of labels, it can be hard. And if Zydeco is so over the top sometimes, how is it even possible to teach him to behave without corrections? I mean, positive reinforcement might be great for cute tricks and well mannered dogs, but doesn’t a puppy like this need a firmer hand? Well, although I do love to wax poetic as you can tell, sometimes I feel words are simply not adequate enough. Here is a video of Zydeco’s Greatest Hits so he can speak for himself. When editing I intentionally left out the more challenging stuff he does because I believe in finding success-points and building from there. What this video shows is that when set up for success, our boy absolutely can do it, and he can do it beautifully. Those “bad” behaviors in my opinion are just “growing edges,” things he does in certain circumstances, and things he can certainly learn not to do. Most importantly, those behaviors are not who he is. Check out all he has learned in just a few short weeks and then honestly tell me, if I had not told you of the barking, jumping, mounting, wildness, and nipping, would you even think to call this dog “dominant”?

So, who is Zydeco?

When I was a kindergarten teacher I have a vivid memory of watching a young boy hurl himself with all his might in a furious battle against an unlocked door clearly labeled PULL. True to his German Shepherd lineage, it is important to remember that Zydy was very likely intentionally bred to not only have a strong opposition reflex, but to actually be triggered to even greater levels of arousal by anything even remotely confrontational. Restraint? Limitations? Challenges? Danger? Bring it on. The more you hold him back, the more he’s liable to come right back atcha. Although I don’t agree at all with the use of dogs in warfare, our boy is certainly the type brave (or foolish) enough to run headlong into gunfire or explosions. Ask him to leap fifteen feet in the air into the deep end of a pool after a toy as they do in the sport of Dock Diving, and I’m sure he wouldn’t  hesitate. Set him up in front of an A-frame, or dog walk, and my guess he’d clamber up in minutes just for the thrill of being up so high. I could also definitely see him excelling at Schutzund and protection work too. Being held back and teased until in a frenzy of barking, lunging, fury, then released to take down the “bad guy?” No problem there. (Whether or not Schutzund training would indeed be good for him, though, is another story).

So, taking Zydeco’s genetics into account, it makes total sense why certain intense physical behaviors like barking, biting, tugging, chasing, running, pouncing, leaping, etc. are super reinforcing for him to do. Basically, you could say, he was born to move through the world intensely, so when he gets to do that, it feels great… And what I’ve been calling his “bravery” that’s in the mix as well. If you remember, at a very early age, he had to be a survivor. Running the streets. Starving. Covered in mange. All before the age of four months old? You better believe he has good reason to overreact to certain things after that. Considering the obvious prenatal neglect he came from, plus his natural German Shepherd temperament, and the little touch of fearfulness at the heart of all that bravado, to be honest, I am amazed that he isn’t more iffy around other people or dogs. But no. He really and truly isn’t aggressive; and if we continue to handle him as we have been, he shouldn’t ever be.

Calling Zydeco dominant, simply misses all the really important things about him. For instance, you might completely miss the fact that our boy is a deeply affectionate dog, with a very strong bond to the people he loves and trusts. He greatly enjoys physical closeness, and full body, lap cuddles…Oh, and that shoulder lean he does against everyone’s legs (another on the list of dominant behaviors)? That is actually his way of saying hi. He likes to do the lean so much, I’ve begun capturing it with the clicker, and will eventually put it on cue as his go to greeting behavior instead of jumping up. His mouthing– which he can actually do with very good self-control when not over-aroused– often appears to be his way of connecting to the important humans in his life as well. In the evenings before bed, one of his favorite things to do when sleepy is to snuggle close, take my whole arm in his mouth, and just hold it and chomp gently in a very baby-like fashion. He doesn’t suck or doing anything OCDish. It’s a deeply affectionate, self-comforting gesture, like a tough guy feeling safe enough to show you his gentle side. The thought of anyone hurting or scaring Zydy to correct this expression of closeness actually brings tears to my eyes.

Calling him dominant also belittles how smart and surprisingly respectful he is. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, he has taken to clicker training like a duck to water. It is the perfect training system for him because the learning process is hands off, non-confrontational, highly rewarding, and it requires him to think. It is difficult to think and be impulsive at the same time. By asking him to slow down and puzzle things through, training in this way actually builds up the skill of self-regulation… And, guess what? He’s a master! Never in all my years of working with dogs have I met a clicker-rookie that could fast-map cues to brand new behaviors as quickly as he does. Although certainly he has his normal flitting puppy attention span moments, most of the time, when I set out to teach him something, it’s like he’s read my mind and is already five steps ahead. Every day he challenges me to think up new puzzles for him to solve, and even the more mindless things like running after a Chase-it toy he still tends to turn into an intellectual exercise instead of a purely physical one. I especially love it when he bluffs that he’s too tired to chase the toy anymore. He will even pretend to flop out in the grass with his head down like he’s exhausted. But then, when I give up on my end, and hold the toy still instead of wiggling it around, that’s when he’s up like a shot and pounces…And what do I mean by respectful? Well, it’s a two way street. When I respect him, asking him to do things like leave-it or sit instead of commanding, or worse, grabbing him, and he feels safe, he is supremely biddable. Biddable means when I cue a behavior, he usually hops to it jack rabbit quick–not because he has to– but because he wants to. Voluntary choice makes a world of difference in my book; and honestly, if you really think about it, why would a “dominant” dog choose to do anything I ask–especially if it involves stopping something or giving up something he wants, especially if he knows I’m not going to back it up with a threat? To me, when there is freedom to choose, and the dog’s choice is a wholehearted YES, that is far more powerful than anything I could achieve with a prong collar.

cute steel

Let go of labels and we can finally begin to see our dogs more clearly for who they really are–unique individuals, with their own likes, dislikes, habits, helpful and unhelpful reactions to things, strengths to be celebrated and weaknesses to learn from.

The dangers of calling a dog like Zydeco dominant are obvious. Once you put him on that nefarious pedestal, all that remains of the courageous and at times highly sensitive soul that he is, immediately gets reduced down to a stereotype. Instead of a complex individual full of the potential to learn, grow and change, now he’s just an unfeeling four-legged creature that needs to be brought down a peg or two to fit into the human world “for his own good.” But lets just picture for a moment what the dominance paradigm really might mean for a dog like Zydeco. Grab him when he’s naughty and steals things? Lip pinch him for nipping? Alpha roll him for acting defiant? Knee him in the chest for jumping on people? Scruff shake him for growling? Shock him for barking? Yank him by a prong collar, or helicopter him for lunging on leash? Are you kidding me? This isn’t the type of dog that will go down without a fight. He has heart. That’s what he was bred for. If mishandled in these ways, I’m certain our Zydy could eventually even earn the more damning title of “dangerous dog,” most likely after taking a chunk of whomever was on the end of the leash that day right along with him down that scary scary road where humans are not to be trusted, and you’ve always got to watch your back, teeth at the ready, because the world is not a safe or happy place to live in.

Fortunately, however, that dark reality just ain’t gonna happen for Zydeco. Not on my watch anyway, and not on his mom’s watch either. After a rough start, he drew the lucky card in life in finding people willing to bust their butts to teach him coping skills rather than correct misbehavior. As his honorary “Auntie” I intend to stay in our boy’s life, keep up his lessons, and continue to support my good friend and her family in the ongoing, and I’m sure at times exasperating adventure that will be life with Zydy full steam ahead. After spending the last three solid weeks, almost 24/7 with this boy (only two more weeks to go!), I’ve gotten to know him well. There is simply no doubt in my mind that even when he is loud and annoying as all get out, even when he’s acting a complete fool, this is one fabulous dog; and the very things about him that make him hard, are also what make him great. So, who is Zydeco really? My final answer to that is: he’s a “Z-dog.” Being a “Z-dog” has no set definition. To me it means transcending all labels; for it is only by adamantly refusing to let ourselves or anyone else make the mistake of calling him “dominant,” that Zydeco can truly reach his full potential by being allowed the space to be wholly himself.

So, How Are Zoë and Maya Doing?


Oh, yeah, right…Zoë and Maya…

No way around it, Zydeco has been pretty all-consuming since his arrival three and a half weeks ago. Not only is he an irresistibly charming puppy, with all the puppy needs for time, attention, playtime, and management that entails, he is also simply what I call a LOT of dog. Even when confined to just the kitchen, he fills the house with his presence, his big dog barks, his crackling energy, and his raucous play. However, on the flip side, he also has turned out to be surprisingly easy to live with in some ways too. Believe it or not, but our little rebel is actually quite respectful of the gates, for example. He rarely jumps on them, or tries to push through when we open them–even if our hands are full of grocery bags or laundry baskets, and he hardly ever cries when I leave him in the kitchen anymore at all. After tucking him into his own bed at night I can now get a full night sleep upstairs and he doesn’t make a peep until our sleepy hello cuddle time the next morning (which is friggin’ adorable!). He is also 100% potty trained at this point, and other than roughing up the throw rugs now and then, so far completely non-destructive in the kitchen. I hardly ever have to crate him.

But…there I go again… No matter how hard I try to make sure my girls are getting equal time and attention, Zoë and Maya are admittedly a little shoved to the sidelines these days, patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for me to be done with puppy so they can get some fun time with mom too. Zoë, I’ve discovered, is not all that good at waiting her turn. She stresses and demand barks more often than I’d like to admit, and unlike Zydy, has repeatedly tried to knock down the gates, forcing me to fortify them with chairs. It is difficult for Zoë and Maya to be blocked off from the kitchen because so many of their important default rituals take place there, such as laying on the bed under the stove while I make up their dinner, or hanging out in their open crates while we eat our meals…and Maya is really missing her favorite spot on the back patio where she likes to pile up all her “babies” (stuffy toys) around her on a dog bed, where she’ll often stay for hours surveying her yard for squirrels.

Then there is the fact that, although her tolerance for puppy shenanigans has greatly improved in three weeks, Zoë still isn’t too thrilled to have a dog in her kitchen. I haven’t pushed very hard for actual interaction between them as a goal so much as tried to counter condition their trigger points living in close proximity with each other because, to be perfectly honest, I just don’t think their personalities will ever mesh well. They just really push each others buttons. For example, there is something about the way Zydeco comes blasting in the backdoor, that no matter how much chicken rains from the sky on Zoë’s head each time it happens, the sound of the dog door and his galloping feet still tends to startle her straight to the snarly-snarkies for a few moments…and, of course, what does Zydy do when that happens? He escalates, and eggs her on. Then Maya jumps in, and it can very occasionally erupt into total barking bedlam around here for a minute or two now and then.

But Zoë has been benefiting from this experience also. In the same way that accomplishing a hard thing stretches who a person is, she is stretching. She used to be completely intolerant of intense dogs like Zydeco at much greater distances, but living with him like this, some habituation is definitely taking place. It hasn’t been perfect or completely stress free, but my goal of having them at least tolerate each other safely with barriers, and to live relatively peacefully under one roof, is well on its way to being realized. One thing I’ve done is I’ve worked very hard to pair anything annoying or startling Zydy does with things I know Zoë’s absolutely loves–usually foods–and by golly, it is working. Most of the time puppy can full on leap at her barking (which I’m convinced he sometimes does just to stir the pot) with no more than 3′ of fence separating them, and instead of her usual teeth and devil growls, Zoë brightens with a look to me clearly saying: OH BOY! I KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS! WHERE’S My TURKEY? Other times she can’t help but snarl at him a little bit, but recovers almost immediately (Zydeco can too), and is responsive to cues again in seconds. This is a blessing really because Fred has been away and I am often here managing things on my own. If I couldn’t get control of these situations quickly, we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands. But anyway these are big changes for Zoë. So, although I do struggle sometimes with the guilt of putting her through this, I’m also really proud of how she’s handling it overall.


Zoë, Zydeco, and Maya all offering relaxed downs during group dog time with visual barriers removed.


Group dog time on the patio. Zoë and Maya were so happy to be allowed in the backyard that day!


Group dog time with Zoë tethered for safety, Zydeco practicing Name Game, Attention, and Leash Walking, and Maya just getting treats for being cute.

There are many methods for dealing with dog aggression out there. But when you are a one woman show, counter conditioning, and good old differential reinforcement for alternate behaviors is simply the easiest to implement. I have been doing some gentle CU-style approach–click–then retreat type games, as you’ll see in the video, but I still keep the treats flowing the whole time. I know I’ve slightly blown Zoë’s diet while puppy is here (however, I have increased her exercise), but my girl just really loves her food, and she has such a long history of working for her food in this way, I’ve decided to just stick with what she knows, rather than attempt B.A.T. or C.A.T.  Zydy loves food, fun, and anything that is a stimulating. Maya is just happy when she gets to be with me instead of on the other side of the gate…and, although there certainly have been frazzled, pull my hair out moments when it’s the witching hour and all the dogs are barking at once, I certainly do love fully committing myself to making all three of these very special dogs as happy as I possibly can.

Get in the “Car”–Zydeco’s New Favorite Behavior

Zydeco has been on two outings with me to the park so far. On both occasions the car ride over was in itself quite challenging. Although we had gone to check out the car a couple of times and I’d thrown lots of treats around, actually being able to travel calmly was another thing entirely. When I put him in my car crate the first time, as soon as the door closed, Z. began panting, whining, spinning in the crate, and barking. Once we arrived it was really difficult for him to settle down before being let out. After some pretty intense whining and scrabbling at the bars, he finally managed to pretend settle–barely…But as soon as the door opened, the first thing he did was hit the pavement and explode barking at a man walking past us about 50′ away. Luckily, the park was mostly quiet that morning, however, so the rest of the time we were there he did okay.

The second trip out I tried a doggie seat belt in the back seat instead of a crate because that is how he normally travels with his mom. It was slightly easier to quiet him this way because I could talk to him and feed treats over my shoulder, but even so, by the time we arrived, he had tangled himself completely up and was still pretty stressed before I even opened the door. This time when I let him out, the entire park itself was too stimulating, with far too many people to bark at, and I had to basically carry him back to the car and take him home.

So I’ve made an executive decision to back WAY off on the whole going out of the house idea for right now. It is really time for me to walk the talk a little better and do what I tell my clients to do all the time and that is: start from a point of success and build from there. Basically, if the dog can’t ride in the car, the dog probably can’t handle outings yet. My goal now is to turn my car (which luckily is very similar to Zydeco’s mom’s car) into a calming “home base” instead of over-stimulation central.

Zydeco is actually very successful here at the house, and in the front yard. He is focused, responsive, able to relax, a quick study, and generally a pretty happy boy. So, I’ve decided to build his car riding skills here at home where he CAN do it instead of where he can’t…and if that means from the front porch instead of the garage or the street for right now, so be it.

Here he is playing the “get in the car” game up and down the porch stairs. He learned the cue almost immediately and seems to enjoy the running up the stairs part the most. I like this set up with the crate up high because it simulates having to jump into the crate when it is in the car. From the porch Zydeco also has a good view of the traffic and pedestrians below–but all far enough away that he can still remain responsive. Once in the crate we’ve been playing our good old Relax on a Mat with canned dog food to lick–yummmmmy!

Next step will be to move the crate to different spots in the yard, and then to the top of the stairs leading from the front gate–a little closer to the street action, and see if he can also relax and comfortably play the game there too. He also needs more work on relaxing in the crate with the door closed. When he can do all that, then we’ll go back and practice in the actual car again.

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!


The World Beyond “NO”

bunny beds

This morning I was somewhat hurriedly trying to get chores done. The rabbit room was really a mess, and clean up had taken an hour longer than usual… So there I was, sweaty, hot, covered with rabbit hair, feeling accomplished at getting a pretty big job finished, but also more than a little grumpy, grimy, and hungry too. Last on the list was washing rabbit beds, and then I could finally have a shower and breakfast…. But of course, while I was trying shove the beds in the washing machine, you know who came to investigate.

Now, as with most young dogs, and particularly with working breeds, Zydeco’s first response to anything interesting, smelly, fuzzy, crunchy, crackly, bouncy, novel–that also happens to be moving–is going to be to try to grab it with his mouth. I can only imagine that the aroma of rabbit plus the sight of me hurriedly shoving the fuzzy beds into the washer must have stimulated a pretty strong predatory reflex as well.  Zydeco’s need to get things in his mouth, however, seems a little more intense than most, so intense I think I’m going to have to devote an entire post  to parsing out all his different mouthing behaviors, what they might mean, and all the creative ways I’ve been attempting to work with it…. But anyway, true confessions, my first response this morning when he started jumping and snapping at the bed in my hands was to pull it out of reach with a reflexive LEAVE-IT! right on my lips…Hey, I was just about done with my chores, man! I wanted breakfast. I wanted a shower. I didn’t want to stop what I was doing right then and deal with silly puppy antics…. Plus, if I let him have the bed, wouldn’t I be reinforcing a bad behavior? And wouldn’t it be setting a bad precedent to allow him to access to dirty laundry? Shouldn’t laundry, socks, paper, people food, human skin, cloth, plastic–all these things simply be off limits? Period. No ifs, ands, or buts? In other words, shouldn’t I teach him in no uncertain terms that these things, (and biting in general) are all just a great big NO?

Okay. So these are reasonable dilemmas when raising a young dog.  On the one hand, I am certainly very aware that if I allow Zydeco to snatch things from my hands, and that behavior continues to work for him, I’m going to get more snatching–which is just not an easy behavior to live with. But on the other hand, as I grow in experience as a reinforcement-based trainer, I am getting better and better at seeing that there is in fact a whole world beyond the word NO… and to my great good fortune as a trainer and as a human being, it is getting easier and easier go there–even when dealing with “hard” puppies like Zydeco.

That split second when Zydeco leaps for the bed, and I hold it out of reach is actually an excellent opportunity for both of us, more of an open doorway to better communication than a closed one–if I let it be. Zydeco’s behavior tells me loud and clear what would be most reinforcing for him in that moment, and there I am: his access point to that big thing he wants. In the classroom, we might call this a “teachable moment”.

Okay, so stepping into the world beyond NO for a moment, here’s what I did. I quietly waited for Zydeco to offer me some other more acceptable behavior than leaping and snapping. He’s been with me now for a few weeks and he knows the drill. When I hold still and look at him without saying anything, his job is usually to sit or lay down. I don’t tell him to sit. I want him to understand that in that context of me holding something in my hands –even a super enticing fuzzy bed covered with rabbit hair–sitting calmly is the behavior most likely to work for him… The tricky part is I have to live up to my side of the bargain too. Anytime  I see him controlling himself, sitting, and waiting, it is my job to reinforce him with something. The best reinforcement of course is the thing he was telling me loud and clear he wanted, but if I had been holding my grandma’s heirloom quilt, say, instead of some shabby old rabbit blankets, I would have given him a treat or access to another toy instead.

So, in just a few seconds, we had shifted from a NO! moment to a lovely, calm, quiet, YES! moment instead. Puppy was sitting and waiting. The image of politeness. So, I thought why not? …And JACKPOT….dumped all the beds on the floor all at once.  Whooee!! Did he ever have a ball with them! OMG! Just think about it for a second….highly concentrated rabbit scent, fuzzy material, small tossable fleecy shapes—it was puppy heaven! Our boy sniffed every inch of those beds, and then proceeded to repeatedly chomp them all over in ecstasy (without shredding them I might add). Then he rolled and squirmed all over them like a cat OD’ing on catnip, flipping them in the air and pouncing on them, and finally, best of all, began biting and shaking them, which sent hair flying in all directions–something I needed done anyway! I quickly ran him outside to let him finish the job so I wouldn’t have to sweep rabbit hair from the kitchen, and we proceeded to have a ball tossing rabbit beds around together in the grass. So, by saying YES! instead of NO!, not only did puppy get a huge reinforcer for self control, and a great enrichment activity ta boot, but letting him do behaviors that he was born to do like sniff, bite, and shake also gave him a very helpful job as well–a job that worked as a big YES for both of us.

So what if I had to take my shower and eat a little later? I mean, look at this video! How fun is this? Totally would have missed the opportunity if I’d stayed in the land of NO! instead of YES! Thank you, Zydeco, for the great reminder! 🙂

Look Ma! I Can Play!

Zydeco and I are so fortunate to have Jaime Rosier of Goldilocks and the Hound Hikers (http://www.houndhikers.org/) on the socialization team. Today Zydeco had a blast meeting Skylar, a little firecracker of a girl that taught him some really nice lessons today about how dogs play…. Ohhh, it was lovely to see Zydeco finally getting the invite from a more playful dog for a change since none of the other dogs in his life are interested in this sort of thing, and honestly, other than some attempts at mounting (which Skylar said a very clear and appropriate no to), he really was pretty darn polite I have to say. He has some good skills. I particularly like the tumble, roll, I am so cute when I’m upside down aren’t I? technique! 🙂

Lesson #1: You don’t just jump into bed with a girl. You have to charm her for awhile, roll around a little, and look really really cute first. Then, if you are really lucky, she might play with you.

Lesson #2: The grownup dog initiates the play, and stops the play when she is done. This is non negotiable.

Lesson #3: Some girls play rough–but as long as we remember the “time out” rule, it’s all in good fun.

Lesson #4 When done playing, it is polite to offer a lady a drink from your pool and go sniff around the yard a bit.

Lesson #5: NO MOUNTING ever! Not acceptable, not allowed, no way, no how. (Skylar VO: “You are much to young for me anyway, young man! Mind your manners please! “:)

Choices, Choices

Hiya! I’ve got several other posts in progress, but this morning murwill1 on You Tube asked a few great questions about the Zydeco Lesson Go Place video I posted yesterday that has inspired me to write up a discussion of my choices in that session. It is really validating I have to say, when people watch my videos so closely, and take the time to notice the little details. Watching other skilled trainers work–mostly on You Tube and DVDs, but also at seminars and at Clicker Expo– and thinking through all the whys and wherefores of what they were doing was how I learned most of what I now do today too.

If you didn’t watch the video yet, click on the link above to see it. Then my discussion will make more sense.

murwill1 asked: “Why do you feed sometimes in his mouth and sometimes on the mat? Also, when you use the sweater that is something different? That is not cued like the place mat?”

Normally it is a good idea to only focus on one criteria at a time when teaching something new, but I’ve taught this behavior so often and am getting to know this puppy so well, I can get away with this slightly accelerated “short hand” version, combining a number of teaching goals at once all in one, short, minute and a half long training session.

Teaching goal #1: shape the behavior of actively targeting the mat. I accomplish this by initially clicking him the moment he steps onto it, and then quickly switch to clicking for the entire behavior chain of going to the mat and laying down. How did I know he was ready for that shift in criteria so soon? It is almost hard to define, and I don’t always get it right. Shifting criteria midstream…Hmmmm…I’m tempted to call it a “gut feeling,” but it probably has much more to do with just being obsessively observant. I probably noticed him just beginning to buckle his legs a little on a few reps and by delaying the click slightly, I could now capture the act of laying down instead of only stepping onto the mat.

So the clicks tell him: going to the mat and laying down is correct. (Note: watching myself work here, I see that I am breaking one of my own rules of duration training accidentally. Normally, for me, the click ends the behavior, which means Zydeco is actually free to get up after he hears it. Instead, the pattern I’m creating in this session is: go to mat–click–get fed on mat, then get released with an OKAY!–and get fed again. It’s slightly sloppy, but he seems to figure out what I want anyway. Dogs are very forgiving a lot of the time. Next session I may clarify the entire pattern to this: hear “Go Place“—> puppy goes to mat and lays down—> puppy stays there for X amount of time —-> hear “OKAY!” —-> puppy gets up—> CLICK! — treat toss). Why do it this way? Because this behavior is a chain of little behaviors linked together, and the best way to sustain a chain usually is to put the reinforcement at the end. (There are exceptions to this of course).

Okay, so, with the criteria of “go to mat and lay down” in mind, I feed one treat on the mat to reward him for going there, then toss another treat to reset him to offer the behavior again. However, he was looking so nice and settled on the mat each time, very quickly I decide to switch criteria to goal #2.

Teaching goal #2: staying on the mat until the release cue OKAY! I begin to establish the criteria of duration now by feeding multiple treats in place, either directly to his mouth, or between his paws on the mat. Sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes four treats in a row. I like to keep him guessing so he’ll stay there and wait. Once I start feeding in place, I now want to add the release cue OKAY! Note: Zydeco has learned the release cue already during crate training, and impulse control games with toys. Notice in the video how he hops right up each time when he hears OKAY! That tells me he is pretty fluent with that cue. I treat after OKAY each time because it is a cue and when he responds correctly, he gets paid, and I toss that treat to maintain the pattern he already knows that OKAY! means move.

Teaching goal #3: shaping the right emotional response to the Go Place mat. Zydeco gets excited with lots of treat tossing and movement. When he gets excited, he attacks the mat, roughs it up, and even mounts it. That is not the emotion I want attached to this behavior. For me, Go Place is active, engaged, but very focused. It is not goofy, amp up time. Keeping the sessions very short, and alternating between chasing treats, to calmly eating treats in place on the mat helps build the calm focus I’m after. You’ll also notice I’m deliberately speaking very softly to him, and feeding in a deliberate, almost boring way. These choices are also intentional and the goal is to help him remain calm while he works.

So why teach a Go Place with one mat and a default Relax on a Mat with another? Same reason as above: emotions are everything. Although the Go Place mat and his fuzzy relax sweater look similar, that is just by chance. This cream colored Snoozy Go Place mat in the video is just what I had available.  It might even be better if they looked a little different actually. For me, Go Place is active. As I said the emotions I’m hoping to shape and capture are: engaged, focused, calm. But because it is on cue, this is a working behavior. A working behavior can be very different emotionally than a default behavior.

During Z’s work on the relax sweater, I never cue it, and I only feed in position in a very slow, calm way. I also did all the initial work on the sweater with lickable foods like canned dog food and baby food. Licking is also very soothing.

In these two pictures, you can really see the difference in his body language between the two emotional states:

Zydeco Lessons: Go Place

Go Place: mouth closed, eyes focused on me, muscles poised to move again

Zydeco Lessons: Relax on a Mat

Relax on a Mat: mouth open, eyes squinty, muscles loose, posture comfortable, ready to stay there awhile

So, there we go. Several teaching goals all captured in a single, 2 minute lesson. (Have I mentioned that I love clicker training yet?). The long and short of it is: there is no one, perfect, cookie cutter formula to teach a dog anything. The more experience you have–particularly with observation skills– the more you can bend the rules, and go with the flow. As long as your learner is responding well, getting rewarded often, and having fun, you are probably doing it right.

Please keep asking questions, peoples. Articulating out loud why the heck I’m doing what I’m doing when I do things with dogs is super helpful for me too!

Have I Mentioned That I Love Clicker Training?

Go to place is a basic behavior I’ve taught many many times, but I honestly never get tired of watching the light bulb moment where the dog goes: “Aha! That is what I’m being clicked for. Got it!”

Zydeco is quickly becoming one of those rapid-fire super-learners I was talking about in my previous post. He has taken to clicker training like a duck to water. This is one of those puppies that I’m convinced would respond to more invasive or forceful methods with escalating aggression. If he even senses any physical or social pressure, he comes right at ya locked and loaded… But because clicker training is so hands-off and respectful, look how thoughtful and studious he is while learning his Go Place cue. I particularly love the little jaunty twirl he adds each time before laying down. (Our boy does it with style!)

Zydeco responds best to quiet, calm, short, focused sessions like this, followed by more active play. Already he has learned the following behaviors to near fluency: Name Response, Recall, Get in Your House (crate cue), Sit, Down, Leave-it, Take-it, Touch, OKAY!, Let’s Go, Wait, and now Go Place. He now also has a default sit at gates and doorways, when he sees the leash, when he wants something, and a default settle much of the rest of the time (when he’s not playing, sleeping, or raising hell that is). He is amazing!