Saturday, February 19, 2022

Using Enrichment to get the Behaviors We Love?


In the post titled, "What is Enriching for Your Dog?" I discussed specific criteria that all enrichment activities should impact.  In this post, I'm going to specifically talk about 3 of those criteria.  

Enrichment should:

  • be an activity that has interaction between the participants.  
  • effect the response a dog has to a particular action.  
  • lead to evidence based, behavior changes. 
If enrichment is to be in the form of interaction between participants, the owner and the dog, that means that it must be enjoyable for at least one of those participants.  For example, we as owners may not like spending time in the frigid temps, but if we choose to own a northern breed like a Husky we do it anyways.  Azul is working dog, if I want him to keep me safe and continue to alert to medical conditions which happen to rely on his sense of smell, I need to provide him the opportunity to use scents in ways that make him happy too.  Basically, we spend extra time sniffing outside throughout the day for him and he keeps tabs on my smell 24/7.  All the enrichment sniffing he does, then acts as a reward for his hard work.  But instead of coming after a behavior that I love, the sniffing often comes before the behavior I want him to repeat.  It's a win/win for both of us because he gets the environmental interaction daily and I receive the medical alerts as needed.

Enrichment must effect the response a dog has to a particular action.  I've done extensive learning when it comes to how a dog's brain and nose work together to process scents.  Science has demonstrated that dogs use a different part of their brain to process chemical or hormonal based scents then they do process typical environmental scents.  Since Azul's medical alerts are based on a chemical/hormonal change in my body leading up to a migraine he uses that half of his scent sense often.  The sniffing of the environment allows him to keep the other half of his scent sense engaged and sharp.  The more he practices processing various scents every day, the better he will be at providing the alerts I need, therefore the enrichment sniffing impacts Azul's ability to do this task.

Enrichment must lead to evidence based, behavior changes.  I've worked to provide Azul with some type of scent based enrichment every single day since I brought him home as a puppy.  I've spent extensive time tracking my medical episodes and Azul's activities and behaviors at the time of the episode.  Through this tracking, I've gathered the evidence to know that Azul's alerts are stronger when his needs for enrichment sniffing are met and he is less likely to alert  as early if he has not done his enrichment sniffing activities.

Walking Manners

Switching gears from a Service Dog task, to a behavior most dog owners want from their dogs I'm going to show you how enrichment can help you with leash manners.  Starting with loose leash walking that is often challenging for most owners, I'm going to break down a few things you can practice to improve your dog's ability to focus while walking close to you.

Most people teach the heel position through a combination of luring a dog into position, capturing when a dog automatically steps into position on their own, and shaping activities to help the dog learn exactly where you want them to walk.  Most often in the beginning, food is the primary reinforcer for these training sessions.  While you are using the food as motivation to repeat the behavior, the dog is often sniffing the food or your hand as they are learning.  As a puppy grows up and advances in training, we often slow down the amount of food we deliver with longer gaps between reinforcement.  This is where enrichment starts to come into play.  Our dogs should find the act of simply being with us in this position as an enriching or reinforcing activity we do together.  Then as we walk, we stumble upon something that smells really awesome such as tree that was peed on by another dog.  At that point, the dog often stops interacting with their person to reach the smell or in other words, they begin pulling on the leash.  A common trainer suggestion at this stage (and something I do with Azul) is stop moving in the direction of the scent, stopping before the dog can actually reach it.  This often will stop the pulling as the dog moves closer to their handler thus interacting again until they are close enough to reach the smell they want.  The enticing smell becomes self reinforcing.  If we make our dogs stay in a heel position for long durations, they are not getting this reinforcement and often they are not finding the walk very enriching either.  It may take a bit longer for a dog to learn this way and they may get over-excited and forget what they have been trained to do in these situations, but the more you practice this you will see improvement in your dog's leash manners.  You do have to watch for signs of frustration during this type of training, because if this is frustrating your dog will likely stop trying because they are not sure what you want.  Consistency is the key here!  If you don't take your dog on enough sniff-a-bouts, where they are free to sniff the environment they will struggle a whole lot more with learning not to pull your arm off on walks.  Punishment or corrections based training might stop the pulling, but at what consequence to your dog and to your partnership with your dog?

Jumping on People and/or Furniture

This is a common puppy problem that carries over into adulthood for many dogs.  Often people jump to corrections or punishment for jumping issues.  Force free trainers often focus on managing the environment while teaching a cue for sending a dog to their mat when a guest comes to your house or sitting and waiting for the person to come to the dog.  Positive reinforcement training of cues can be very effective, by using management and training most people will see progress in their dogs learning not jump on unwanted things, especially when the jumping is due to over-arousal.  However, what often gets looked over is that some dogs have a basic canine need to JUMP.  This is especially true for herding dogs that were bred to have a very active life style such as Aussies & Border Collies.  It's super common to see these types of dogs in an agility ring where they can practice running and jumping in an approved environment and when desired by the owner.  Many smaller dogs also have an issue with jumping that is driven by their breed instincts and the simple fact that they are too short to greet people that are standing up.  

Agility is awesome for people who love to compete, but can become an expensive hobby real fast.  Instead, I choose to do K9 Parkour with my dogs as an outlet for some fun on our walks and to train appropriate behaviors based on the environments we are in.  If you're not familiar with K9 Parkour, it is basically agility done in your natural environment instead of a show ring.  You teach your dog to jump up on surfaces on cue, to place only their front paws up, only their back paws up, moving around objects, standing still on top of objects and other such skills in a fun way that helps your dog learn to navigate their world.  By starting small and working up to bigger and better Parkour activities, you help to build up your dog's body condition in a way that is healthy, teaching controlled movements which also reduces the risk of injury during typical doggie activities.

Calming activities can also be very enriching, so if your dog is jumping out of over-arousal, this type of outlet can be amazingly helpful.  This often starts with mat/place training and/or food enrichment toys.  But it doesn't have to stop there!  There are many other enriching activities you can do with your dog that can encourage calm, relaxed behavior.  Enrichment sniffing can be calming for some dogs, but can also lead to increased arousal if not done in the right time & place.  Cooperative Care training, gentle massage, and K9 yoga can also help teach your dog to calm themselves down in exciting situations.  Like most behaviors that I want to train, I use games to help with calming activities too.  There are tons of games you can play to help teach your dog to have an On/Off switch or move more easily back and forth between excited and calm.  The act of playing the games can be very rewarding and enriching for your dogs while being fun for you!

Additional "Bad" Behaviors

As a Trainer and Behavior Consultant, my role in helping you and your dog develop a partnership that you both love that is based at looking at the big picture surrounding those behaviors.  What emotions are present when the behavior occurs?  How is your dog's breed impacting those behaviors?  How are your dog's needs impacting those behaviors?  And how is the environment your in impacting your dog's behavior?  Then it's my job to help you find creative solutions that will fit your lifestyle and build the partnership you want with your dog.  If you are struggling with a behavior your dog is doing that is driving you nuts, it's time to reach out to a skilled Trainer or Behavior Consultant!

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