Friday, September 16, 2022

Super Athlete Struggles

 The Super Athlete Struggle & How to Avoid It!

Our goal as dog owners is to have healthy & happy dogs that enjoy as much of life as possible.  And if you live in the USA, you can't help but notice obesity is a huge topic of concern for people and dogs.  While many of us are doing our best to think in terms of being healthy and fit plus including that vision with our dogs, the question of how much exercise does my puppy/dog need.  There are some general guidelines out there for puppies ( 5 min at a time per month of age, 5 min X 4 months = 20 min total), but the truth is this is individualized for the dog as any other basic needs.

We start our puppies out slow with a 5 min walk, then 10 min, then 15-20...the more our puppy gets in to trouble, the faster we escalate this to try to wear them out so they will sleep more.  But puppy needs for sleeping is a while different post!  Then our puppies become adolescents and we often apply that same thinking to other forms of exercise; walking, chasing balls, jogging, running beside a bike, etc.  This builds up our dog's stamina so walking a mile every day soon turns into 1.5 miles, then 2, then 3.  At this point we humans often struggle to keep up so we switch to another activity like biking so they can run.  Just to be clear, none of this exercise is bad for the dog as long as you are doing it safely with proper gear and conditioning.

The STRUGGLE begins!

The struggle starts when our dogs exercise needs start to surpass the owner's exercise needs.  Typically my walks are 1-2 miles long, maybe an occasional 3 mile hike but I don't hike this much every day.  Although I probably should!  As a disabled person that could be laid up for days, weeks, and even months in a row, I'd really struggle with a dog that needed a 3 mile hike every day to feel normal.  Often when we seem to not be able to meet our dog's exercise needs, we turn to tossing a ball for a game of fetch.  Again playing fetch with our dogs isn't the problem, but it's the way we do it.  At first we just play 10 minutes for fun, but then when we can't walk 15 min running fast chasing that ball can help our dogs be calm, right?  At least that's the common belief.  But before we know it, that dog needs their walk + 15 min of ball and it just keeps building as we keep finding new ways to help our dogs be tired.

My first Service Dog, Talia, was the prime example of this.  We live in a climate that sees lots of snow in the winter which makes taking walks somewhat dangerous for my balance issues, especially with an adolescent dog that might pull on the leash when something exciting crosses our path.  Both Cam, my German Shepherd and Talia loved to chase balls and our plowed driveway was the perfect place for such a fantastic winter activity.  Or so I thought, but I got stuck in the trap of always needing to add more.  I realized that when we went out and about in public after she played ball she was perfectly behaved, but if we went out without playing ball she struggled.  To make things easier, we just played ball first!  More and more ball!  Then spring settled in and we began walking again, but that didn't change her need to play ball.  Talia was a Super Athlete!  She had amazing muscles and awesome control so she could fly, spin, jump...she was fast.  That might be awesome for a dog competing in agility or other dog sports, but it's not so great for service dogs or even the average pet.

The STRATEGY that works!

The trick to exercise is something we are very familiar with...moderation!  How many of us would eat ice cream instead of supper every day if we could, yet we know that wouldn't be healthy.  Name your most loved activity, and you pretty much want to do it every chance you get but you've learned to moderate your participation in that activity to avoid hurting yourself.  Our dogs don't understand moderation.  Sure they might appear to moderate their food intake if you free feed, but that is nature as a dog that is hungry finds food and a dog that isn't hungry doesn't search for food.  It's up to us owners to figure out a way to moderate our dogs activities so those activities remain beneficial for the health of our dogs.

If you and your dog loving playing dog together, continue to do so but limit how long and how frequently you do so.  Cam, being an old man would still chase balls until he dropped, but his would leave him limping and sore for days.  I moderate his ball play so he chases 6-8 balls and takes a break, then if he's good we might do another session.  Azul is more of a flirt pole chasing dog, but again this can have the same over use issue that playing ball can have.  My best advice for managing this is to create a routine that can meet your dog's needs and fit into your schedule.  The routine should follow this order.

  1. Physical Exercise - fitting your dog's breed, age, and individual desires.
  2. Mental Exercise - often in the form of a training session, but I suggest this be a game based training session.
  3. Calming Activity - something you do with your dog to help you both relax after exercise.
Ideas for physical exercise include fetch with a ball, walks/hikes, tug, flirt pole and games such as Recall Ping Pong and Hide-N-Seek.

Mental exercise has a tons of options.  I want to keep the fun going, but instead of fun based on moving I want fun based learning.  There are so many games that you can play to teach your dog skills.  You want to start with a more exciting game that combines moving and thinking, then slowly move to more thinking and less moving.  Here are some of my favorite games.

The Positions Game

The Positions Game is one of my favorite games because it has endless possibilities. The video above shows me teaching basic game concept of rewards are delivered in the heel zone.  The video below is a more advanced version of Azul staying in the position between my legs and moving with me,

Games can be used to teach most everything you want your dog to learn.  If you search this website, you'll find lots of posts about games.  The Focus Around Distractions Mini Workshop is a great place to start, with Day 1 giving instructions on how to play the positions game.  Soon I'll be launching a brand new podcast that is all about games called The Playful Paws!

Monday, September 12, 2022

Resource Guarding

Understanding Resource Guarding

Many dogs struggle with resource guarding in some form or another.  This is a common struggle that often begins during adolescence when your dog is trying to figure out the world around them and their role in interacting in that world. Some breeds were also bred for guarding livestock and/or other possessions. So it's important that we look at the whole picture of each individual when we look at resource guarding as a problem behavior. This is one area where you will want help from a skilled Trainer or Behavior Consultant that can help you take a look at the bigger picture.

In the picture to the left, Azul is sniffing the ground and while you may not think that sniffing a certain spot could have anything to do with resource guarding, I can assure it you it can! Some of my worst longline accidents happened as Azul raced Cam to get to a smell first! This particular day, I had to cover up the smell with my feet to prevent Azul from trying to keep Cam away from whatever awesome thing was located under this dirt.

Before you can undertake training you need to figure out the reason behind the resource guarding.  Work through this list to prepare for your meeting with a Behavior Consultant or qualified trainer.

  1. What types of things is the dog seeming to guard?  Often it’s food, toys, their person/people or other resources.

  2. Who or what is the dog seeming to guard the resources from?  This is commonly the handler, other dogs in the area, or anything moving past them.

  3. What action or behavior is the dog doing when they are seeming to guard an object.

Determining these before your session can help you to better describe your situation to your trainer.  If your trainer asks you to set up a possible scenario of when your dog is most likely to do this so that they can see it in action before your first session, find another trainer!  Force free trainers do not believe in setting up a dog to fail or presenting opportunities that the dog is not prepared for unless it is a last resort.  A trainer may ask you to be prepared to capture an incident on video if you can set something up to record and capture it naturally occurring. In today’s age of web/security cameras, it’s pretty easy to have something set up in an environment where you’ve seen repeated behaviors that concern you.

Bad Advice to Avoid

There is some old school thinking in the control based dog training world that can make resource guarding worse.  You may have friends and family telling you to do these things, but I urge you not to try them.  Possibly you have tried them in the past and if so, forgive yourself for not knowing any better with a mission to learn better ways to help your dog in a more positive way.  Typical BAD advice includes:

  • Interrupting your dog’s meal by playing with their food or taking it away from them when they are young so that they are used to or won’t react when someone does this accidently.

  • Punish your dog for barking, growling, or lunging toward the intruder (person or animal moving toward their resource).  When you punish this behavior, it’s easy for the dog to learn to bypass this behavior and jump straight to an even worse behavior such as biting.

  • Teaching the dog that all possessions belong to YOU, the owner, and that you give permission to access certain resources at certain times.  This basically takes away any self control a dog may have over items in the environment.  It’s much better to teach them self control than to take it away.

Good Advice for Resource Guarding

  • Manage the environment!  I can’t stress this enough!  If your dog is resource guarding their food, set up a feeding area in a room that other dogs or people can’t go near your dog while they eat and put food up between meals.  If your dog is resource guarding toys/chewing objects from other dogs, keep them picked up unless dogs are in separate rooms while working on mat training so that eventually dogs can be in the same room staying on their mat while they enjoy their treat.  If your dog is guarding things from you or other people check out the Trading Games below.

  • Work on your dog’s ability to self regulate or use some impulse control.  Resource guarding as an issue often starts in adolescence when the dog’s brain is developing from puppyhood to adulthood when self regulation is at its lowest ability.  Working on training games such as It’s Yer Choice, Zen, or Leave It can help a dog learn to better manage their behaviors.  Check out this blog for more info:

  • If you live in a multi dog household it can be really helpful to teach your dogs to take turns with training sessions, toys, and even petting from their people in low key ways.  Taking turns teaches the dogs that each will get a chance to enjoy what they want if they wait calmly.  Check out the info below about taking turns.

  • Often dogs that struggle with resource guarding have other issues that are making them lash out.  For example if a dog is experiencing pain or anxiety that can make them a bit more testy and they will often lash out due to unrelated stress.  If your dog shares just fine sometimes, but has certain days where they are more likely to guard their resources you need to look at other things that are happening on that day.  If they have had multiple stressful incidents of high stress, the dog becomes trigger stacked and is less able to control their impulses.  Check out this blog about feeling overwhelmed:

Trading Up

You never want to take something away from your dog without giving them back something of equal or greater value.  Especially when a dog may be struggling with resource guarding tendencies. Before you play this game you will need to create a list of things that your dog finds reinforcing.  Add different types of food, toys, and attention or games to your list.

Teaching your dog that there is value in a good trade is a great bond building exercise. I never take items away from my dogs! But I do trade them for items I don't want them to have. As young puppies that mouth everything, we often deal with trying to teach them which items are theirs to play with and which items belong to people so they should not be chewed. At that point in a puppy's life it's easy to trade. They grab your slipper and run away to enjoy it, some people may run after the dog and force the puppy to surrender the item while an experienced trainer often suggests trading the puppy for an appropriate dog toy. Think back to your early puppy days, what did you do?

Fast forward to adolescence, now your teen puppy has a much bigger world to explore. New smells, new sights, new sounds, treasures found out on your walks, distractions that bring your training sessions to a screeching we handle these things during the crazy teen phase form habits that can last a lifetime. I don't know about you, but I don't want to spend my time chasing my dogs when they stumble across something wonderful.

Is your dog already an adult dog with some bad behaviors such as counter surfing, raiding the trash or picking up tasty morsels on your walks? Teaching the value of a good trade may be harder with adult dogs but still very possible.

Here's a couple of guidelines to teach the value of trading.

  1. Always trade up! What you have to offer must be more valuable to your dog than what they have. This is easy with puppies when they steal the slipper you grab a soft tug toy and run the opposite direction calling their name. After a game of tug, you reclaim the slipper and put it where the puppy can't get it again. Adolescents find more valuable items so your trading up becomes more difficult. They've moved on to whatever is in your trash can or on your counter, so what can you offer? I keep high value treats in my fridge for this! It's an easy trade for kitchen manners, but instead of waiting for my dog to raid the trash, I cue them to leave it anytime my dog walks near the trash can and reward handsomely. I do the same for nose touching kitchen counters or other surfaces that frequently hold food. This typically prevents the bad habits from ever starting.
  2. If you can't trade up, don't trade at all! For example, my dogs are lucky to spend a great deal of time off leash or dragging longlines since we live in the country. Azul often finds the remains of wild animals that have been left behind by predators. How can I compete with that? Nothing I can carry with me can compete with that. So I work towards having my dog show me their prize so I can determine if safety is a risk factor. If it's safe I always give them permission to enjoy it, even if it means I sit down and wait for them to finish. If it's unsafe, which is rare but it happens they get a jackpot of treats for leaving it & letting me dispose of it, then we always play a really fun game. This takes time and building up a reinforcement history but is totally achievable with any dog!
  3. Start out with easy trades you can control. If your dog is food motivated, let them play with a toy for a few minutes then let them sniff a food treat. If they drop the toy, mark and reward. Repeat this throughout the day. When they do it every time, start adding your cue. I like to wait till I see my dog chewing on a toy naturally, then offer a trade. Before long, your dog will be bringing you all their toys in hopes of a trade. I trade each and every time my dog offers a trade. If my dog wants to play with me they bring me a toy, but continue to hold it. If they want to trade, they drop it on my lap or at my feet. If they happen to catch me with empty pockets I play with them. My pockets are rarely empty!

Along with teaching your dog trade the resources they have for the resources you have, there are several great games and training sessions you can do to help change your dog's emotional state about resource guarding. Before you can do that you need to understand how your dog's emotional states shift from stage to stage. Check out the September Struggles & Strategies Post about Understanding Behaviors.

The Whole Dog Journal has a post about helping puppies with resource guarding that has lots of great tips about management and training surrounding this problem.

I also do many 1-on-1 sessions with many clients who are struggling with dogs who are doing resource guarding behaviors as this is one behavior that can progress rapidly and have serious complications develop overnight when not addresses. I can help you take a step back and figure out what emotions are driving this behavior and create an individualized plan to keep everyone in your house safe while we work to change your dog's emotions regarding resources. Contact me to set up your session ASAP!

Leash Manners

Leash Manners - What's important to you and how do you tell your dog what you want?

What is Leash Manners?
Before we can talk about leash manners we have to make sure we are all on the same page. People have various different definitions for positions they like to have their dog walk in. Let me start by saying there is not one way, the right way, or one size fits all approach to leash manners. In this post I'm going to explain various positions and cues that I use. Not so that you'll train this way too, but so you know what I mean when you read about leash manners in this blog.

Leashes & Tools
I use various different leashes to predict the type of walk I plan to take with my dogs. Typically I'm using a longer leash (6-10 ft) when hiking in low traffic areas and shorter leashes (2-4 ft) in high traffic areas. This helps my dog(s) decide how close I want them to stay and how carefully I want them to pay attention to me vs the environment. I have found that a 2 ft leash clipped to either a waist belt or shoulder strap is the best set up during public access training. You want your dog to be able to lay down in a heel at your feet, but not have so much leash that either you or your dog are tripping on it.

I also use a Y-front Harness
**Harnesses do not cause pulling!"
But they do make it easier for a dog to self reward because they can lean into a pull to reach a smell or other distraction. For that reason, I suggest using a harness with a front and back clip for all adolescents and continue to do so until the dog has the leash skills for all environments. For the best control you must use a dual clip leash or adapter so that you can use both front and back clips the same time. If you use only the front clip and the dog pulls hard the harness will twist and potentially harm the dog's leg that it gets pulled inot. If you use only the back clip, the dog may pull hard enough to hurt you. The dual clip provides tension on both to turn the pulling dog back around so they can't continue to pull toward the distraction.

Cues I use & their meaning to me

Loose Leash or Relaxed Walking: This is more a exercise walk where I want my dog(s) to enjoy all the environment has to offer, so they can walk anywhere they want as long as they are not pulling me.  I've used multiple cues over the years to help my dogs remember to avoid pulling me.  In previous days, I would tell my dog to stop pulling with a cue "easy" or "enough" or some other harsh voiced term.  These are called Non-Reward Markers and can easily become aversive, especially if we've paired these with leash corrections.  The newer, more educated me has learned that dogs struggle more when we tell them not to do something and instead we need to tell them what we need them to do.  I've worked my way through several cues here to finding something that works for me and this might be something I'm constantly tweaking.  The more I use the same cue word over and over again, the easier it is for ME to allow my emotions to show through with voice inflections and when that happens I change my cue.  Currently I tell Azul to slow down, wait for me, or far enough as his reminder or I might give him an alternate cue that he can't do from far away such as Walk Nice, Check In (look at me), U-Turn (follow me the other direction), etc.

Loose Heel:  This is a relaxed heel where I want Azul at my side, but don't necessarily need him to pay 100% attention to me, staring up at me.  For this type of heel I use "walk nice" with Azul and I've also used "with me" with previous dogs.  This is what I use mostly in public places, but I also use it out on the trail if we are walking passed another person on the trail or something is heading our way such as a jogger, bike, or another dog.

Heel: This is the formal, competition style heel where the dog is to give me 100% focus while there shoulder is in line with my knee and they are looking at me.  We use this for crossing roads or passing other dogs if one of them is anxious or over-excited.

Wait: For when I need to pause for a moment which could be at an intersection, when I need to check my phone, or any reason on our walk that we need to simply stop and stand still for a moment.  Azul can sniff and look around, but his feet should remain still without stepping any direction as he waits for my next cue.  If I'm doing something where he doesn't need to remain still, I'll use the cue "Wait Here A Minute" which allows him to be more flexible but he knows I'm not moving for a minute.

Directional Cues:  These are advanced cues that I give my dogs mainly on longline sniff-a-bouts: left/right, this way (move in my direction), go around/this side (avoid the obstacle by staying on the same side as me), this way (walk my direction or change directions with me).  These cues I begin teaching in adolescence, but continue to teach throughout life as we increase our communication skills as a team.

Teaching Heel or Walk Nice

I use the same methods to teach heel and walk nice!  However with young dogs that are still learning I only use the "walk ice" or "with me" cue.  I don't teach the formal heel until my dog is starting to come out of adolescence and learning to control themselves a bit more.  Of course we still have to cross roads and such with my younger pups, but they are often still trying to figure out the loose heel position so I only use that cue.  

With my very young puppies I work to teach them that reinforcement comes in the position by my side.  I do this without any cues and when they are figuring it out I and the "walk nice" cue.  Here is a video of puppy Azul doing practice exercises in the house.  I do a lot of practice in the house and outside I wait for my puppies to choose to be at my side, offering lots of reinforcing treats when they make this choice.  They are always free to move away and sniff any time they want, but earn reinforcement every few steps when they stay at my side.  This is where I add my cue.  You can see lots of videos on YouTube about teaching this stage.  But this is often where the training assistance stops.  Yet, as dog owners we need to be able to take this into the real world.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when moving out into the world, is not having realistic expectations for how long puppies can maintain this position without moving off to do doggie stuff.  That's because even as a puppy, our dogs are individuals and all progress at different rates.  The key is to adding in distance & duration in heel slowly.  Here are a few ways that I add distance to my loose heel position.
  • The Cone Game:  Set cones, cups, or even paper plates about 5 feet apart in the beginning.  Let pup explore as you walk up to the first cone, stopping and giving your cue then luring into position if needed.  Use your lure or target hand if necessary to walk to the 2nd cone in the loose heel position.  At the 2nd cone release them to sniff until you get to the 3rd cone. And alternate between loose heel, then sniff, then loose leash, then heel, changing back and forth at each cone.  Slowly increase the distance between the cones.  If pup is struggling, I'll increase the distance between the cones that will be free sniffy time and keep the distance short for the loose heel position, slowly working toward getting them to the same length.  If you set up 6-8 cones, you can do a U-Turn at the end and walk back the other direction or stop and take a break.
  • Use things that naturally occur on your walking path to help teach the loose heel during your exercise walks.  The walking trails that I use tend to have small foot bridges occasionally, so with a younger dog I will always ask for a loose heel on the bridge.  This allows for safety incase others come across while you are there, but also provides an unchanging distance that your dog will be in position before they are released.  They learn that switching surfaces between the trail and bridge predict the expected walking position.  I then look for other naturally occurring surface changes along our walking paths.
  • Use approaching distractions to predict the need to walk at your side.  We all have had a pup that struggles with jumping on people when they first met.  However they can't jump on someone while in the loose heel position.  So when we see people approaching we work on heel or a sit/stay while those people walk passed.  This also provides safety for other things that might be passing us; traffic at an intersection, dogs walking near us, and pretty much anything moving toward us.  
I want my dog to have a really good understanding of this cue before I take them into pet friendly stores for additional socialization environments.  This is a good place to build up duration using a shorter leash inside places that are not your home.  Check out this video that shows Azul's skills at different ages.

Now this video isn't here to show you what to expect at any certain age, but more to show you that progress takes time!  Avoid comparing your dog's skills to others their age because every dog is different.  Work the dog in front of you!

If you'd like more info about advanced your dog's heel skills to the next level, check out the post from Canine Coach, Elliot Brooks at the Crazy2Calm website.

Once your dog has learned what YOUR criteria for walking in a loose heel is, you can add the cue you want and slowly add in distance, duration, and distraction.  Then you can use this in practice sessions where you are working on focus around other dogs.  

Check out my previous blogs on Why Sniff-A-Bouts are ImportantTaking a Sniff-A-Bout & Walking Your Adolescent that were part of my June & August Themes.

Hard Realistic Expectations

 Last year I wrote on blog on how to set you and your dog up for success creating a plan that had realistic expectations.  Jump over here to...