Snuffleupagus

I always loved Mr. Snuffleupagus. Maybe that’s why I immediately found the idea of a snuffle mat appealing; I like the name. Too lazy to make one, I’d sort of been looking to get one for Cali, but hadn’t actually done anything.

Then, at my friend Tom’s house, I saw one for the first time. I knew that Cali would love it. The idea is that you bury kibble or treats in the mass of fleece strips, and the dog uses her nose to sniff and snuffle — and find the treats.

Cali loves food (she’s a golden, after all) and she loves using her nose. Perfect.

Tom told me that he got it from a fellow trainer who lives nearby. That’s “nearby” in Montana terms, which may not mean what you think it does.

In any case, Deni and I decided to take a nice drive one Sunday afternoon. We met trainer Joni Muir, who makes these mats during long Montana winters. We chose two colorful mats and were on our way.

Unsurprisingly, the highly food-focused girls needed little guidance. Their noses work just fine, thank you.

I took Cali’s upstairs. While I’m working, she often hangs out with me. When we need a break, I take a few minutes to hide treats in the fleece forest. I keep telling her not to watch while I hide them, but she doesn’t listen.

She then spends about 10 minutes finding them. She first does a survey of the entire mat and nabs the obvious ones. I’m using Charlee Bear treats, and they are always tucked out of sight. So the obvious ones are not obvious to me.

She then does a methodical up-and-down sniff of the entire mat, in rows. Then a second survey in columns. She is very thorough. Only once have I found a single overlooked (oversmelled?) Charlee Bear.

Koala joined us upstairs a few times while Deni was away, and I set them both up with their mats. Cali was a little pushy and got started a few seconds ahead of Koala, the instant I put the first mat on the floor. Even so, I think they had a photo finish, both scenting and scarfing their treats in a few minutes.

I suspect that, the more we use the mats, the more they will smell like food and the harder the girls will have to work to suss out the hidden treats. But their noses are so much more sensitive than mine that I can only speculate. Freshly hidden treat could smell completely different from day- or days-old treat residue. Only the dogs know!

 

No Time to Train?

Cali brings a red bootIt’s a paradox: Training a dog takes a lifetime; but everyone has time to do it. How’s that?

Dogs, like humans, continue to learn throughout their lives. It is, in fact, possible to teach old dogs new tricks, and doing so enriches their lives (and yours).

At the same time, each training “session” can be only minutes long.

People often think training a dog takes hours a day and requires special skills and they just don’t have time for it. Instead, they spend hours cleaning up messes made by unschooled puppies or rearrange their schedules to walk their reactive dogs very early in the morning, hoping to avoid other dogs. Or, rather than spend 1 minute a day brushing their dogs’ teeth, they spend hundreds of dollars annually and accept the many risks associated with sedating their dogs for a professional cleaning.

Here’s the thing. You have the time — and the skills — to teach your dog the basic manners that will make your lives (yours, your dog’s, your family members’, and your guests’) better.

Young dogs can only handle a few minutes of training at a time. Even if you’re doing formal training, such as teaching tricks or putting behaviors like sit, lie down, or keeping 4 paws on the floor when greeting people, on cue, you can really only actively train for a few minutes at a time. Under 5 minutes for puppies; maybe 10-15 minutes for older dogs. But 5 minutes is fine for them, too. You can cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes.

Training doesn’t have to be formal, though. You’re teaching your dog how to behave all the time, whether you think about it or not. What makes it informal training is thinking about it — how would you like your dog to behave? And how do you teach her what you want? Then, build that into daily routines.

You feed your dog, right? (I hope so!) Teach your dog to stay out of the kitchen or in a specific spot, out of your way, while you prepare her meal by guiding her to the spot and saying, “Wait on your mat,” — or any cue words you want. As long as you use the same cue each time, you’re fine. The dog will learn to associate the place, and the words, with meal prep. The other piece of this equation is a “release” word that gives the dog permission to come over to her bowl once her meal is ready. It can be the same release word, like, “OK” that you use for other things, like going out the front door or greeting another dog or … just about anything you’d like your dog to wait for permission to do.

Your dog already knows how to sit and lie down, but putting those behaviors on cue control means that you can ask for them. All that means is teaching the dog to associate hearing a word, the cue, with doing the action. In other words, learning that sit means sit. One way to build this association is catching the dog doing the behavior and naming it. Another is using a lure, like a cookie, to induce the dog to sit (or lie down, etc.) while introducing the cue. Many trainers practice eliciting the behavior before using the cue to be sure that the dog learns to associate the right behavior with the cue and not, say, think that “sit” means “sniff my hand for a cookie.”

Here’s the daily routine part: You do stuff every day that your dog could and maybe should sit for: Put down a bowl of food, put on a leash for a walk, go out a door or down stairs, pet your dog, allow your dog to greet a visitor. Practice using the sit cue and waiting for the dog to sit before doing these things. The meal itself can be the reward for sitting nicely while you’re serving it; for other behaviors, you might reward with attention and petting or use very small treats as rewards. (Very small treats means maybe one Charlee Bear or piece of kibble; not a huge dog biscuit. The idea is to teach the dog, not make him obese!)

Some behaviors are more challenging. Teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash, for example, takes a long time. If your dog is very reactive to people, cats, or other dogs on walks, you may need to call in a trainer for assistance. But for basic manners, and even fun things, like shaking hands or bringing you things you’ve dropped, spending a few minutes a day teaching your dog will produce great results. Besides, it’s fun!

Resources for Finding a Dog Trainer

In last week’s post, I described some things to consider when choosing a dog trainer for your puppy or adult dog. Here, I’ll provide a few resources to help you locate a suitable trainer.

Professional organization listings

Two professional dog training organizations that I have been involved with have directories of positive trainers. These are a great place to start your search — or continue it if efforts to get recommendations from dog-obsessed friends have failed:

Pet Professionals Guild — This is a 100 percent positive trainer group that is very serious about continuing education. They publish a journal and a blog; have regular webinars, workshops, and conferences, and are a truly dedicated group of professionals.

Their mission statement: The Pet Professional Guild is a membership organization representing pet industry professionals who are committed to results based, science based force-free training and pet care.

APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers) — The APDT is dedicated to “least intrusive, minimally aversive” training approach. This is a mostly positive approach that emphasizes humane and effective strategies to change behavior. They offer a ton of resources, have huge (really fun) conferences, and are also very dedicated professionals.

Dog training clubs

Many cities and counties have dog training clubs. These vary widely in their size, philosophy, and what they offer. St. Petersburg, Florida, has a very active club where you can find puppy classes, obedience, Rally, agility, other dog sports, and much more. Google, ask fellow-dog owners, and dig around to see what your city offers.

Shelters

Many shelters offer classes, especially to people who’ve adopted their dogs. But most are open to the community, reasonably priced, and focused on basic manners or obedience.

Ask lots of questions

Whichever path leads you to a potential trainer or class, ask about the approach used and what equipment is recommended. If anyone says to bring a choke or prong collar to your first class, run! If you’re advised to do something that seems off, ask for an explanation. Follow your instincts; your role is to teach and protect your dog. You do not have to hurt him to get him to behave!

Most trainers love to talk dogs. If you have questions about (mis)behavior, problems, or simply are new to dog-parenting, ask, ask, and ask more questions.

Don’t be put off if the trainer suggests more classes. Building a relationship takes work and time. Training classes are a good place to learn what to do. And, realistically, most people don’t practice much between classes, so continuing to attend ensures that you continue to work on behavior problems in a calm place where you have help — which beats yelling at your dog in frustration whenever she does something “bad.” Even “frivolous” classes like trick training and scent work are great for building your relationship, improving communication with your dog, and just having fun together.

How do you choose the “right” trainer?

A tiny black lab puppy learns to sit on cue
Even very young puppies love to learn

So, you’ve got a new puppy, or a newly adopted dog — or you just want to work on some behavior or other things with your dog. How do you find the “right” or “best” trainer?

Get recommendations … but use caution. Ask a lot of questions. Ask both the person recommending the trainer and the trainer:

What approach does the trainer use?

Is it a clicker trainer, a mostly dog sports or competition oriented trainer, an obedience trainer, a trainer who works with all kinds of dog/human teams from pets to service dogs to dog sports nuts?

Trainers who use mostly or entirely positive methods are the best choice for most dogs — certainly for puppies — and for most people. A trainer who is expert in a specific type of training is a good choice for advanced training.

When you are just getting to know your dog, the focus should be on building a connection and communicating. A positive trainer will help you develop skills in communicating to the dog what you want her to do and also in understanding your dog’s communication with you. That is the best foundation for your relationship.

A more “traditional” or obedience focused trainer might introduce punishments for “bad” behavior — things the dog does that you don’t like. At any point in your relationship, but especially at the beginning, this has the effect of cutting off communication with the dog. The dog begins to worry about what might trigger the next punishment. Often, you’ve given the dog little or no (or very unclear) information about what you do want her to do. On the other hand, when she does perfectly normal doggy things, like having accidents, if she’s a young puppy, or eating some interesting smelling thing, unpleasant and scary things happen. This does not build trust.

Red flags to look out for: Trainers who advocate using harsh tools, like prong collars, on puppies or very early in training; trainers who routinely use shock collars or who expect you to use them for an extended period of time (more than 1-2 uses); trainers who emphasize the need to “be the alpha.”

Does the person do classes, private training, or board-and-train? A combination?

You may have preferences for a class vs. private; board-and-train might sound tempting. Think through the options.

For a puppy, a great combination is a puppy play with short training classes. The opportunity to play with other puppies in a supervised, appropriate (size, age, play style) group is essential to developing good doggy social skills.

If you have an older dog, classes and private training are good options. Private training is ideal for focused work on a specific problem. Classes that focus on reactive dogs or trick training or scent training or some other fun or serious topic can also be helpful. It’s good to see how other dogs and their humans do things, it’s fun to meet the other people and make connections. General manners or basic obedience classes, Canine Good Citizen training, or classes geared toward teaching manners for dogs who are out and about with their humans are all fun and helpful. They tend to focus on things that every dog needs to learn: walking nicely on leash, staying calm around other dogs and people, not jumping, settling quietly. Your options may be limited, depending on where you live, but I hope you can find something that works.

Board-and-train might be a good choice for some adult dogs for some types of training. I do not recommend it with puppies because the puppy should be forming her primary bond with you / your family — not with a trainer. Obviously it can work; many service and guide dogs spend their puppyhoods with families and then transfer their bond to their new partner. But given the choice, I think your new puppy belongs with you.

Choosing board-and-train to work on a specific problem or if you need to leave your dog for a time period anyhow (maybe during a 2-week no-dog vacation) could work out well — if you are realistic in your expectations.

The trainer, likely an experienced professional (choose carefully), will probably make a lot of progress with the dog during the training weeks. But when you get back, you and the dog have made no progress at all. That is, the dog has no reason to behave any differently with you in your home environment than she did before you left.

Many dog owners mistakenly assume that the trainer imparts knowledge to the dog and the dog then knows exactly what to do in similar situations from that time forward.

For example, your dog goes nuts when she sees another dog, a squirrel, or a cat when you’re out for walks. The trainer spends 2 weeks working on this, and is able to walk the dog calmly through a park filled with squirrels, cats, and other dogs out for walks or even playing off leash. So you’ll have no more problems, right?

Wrong.

Your dog is going to go just as nuts with you as she did before the training, unless and until you work with her to change that.

The trainer has taught your dog an alternative behavior, but the dog still needs to learn that she has to use that behavior with  you. That requires undoing an established pattern (the dog going nuts, you freaking out …) and learning a new one. This will be much easier since the dog has already learned the new pattern, but…

Board and train is not a replacement for work, lots of hard work, with your dog.

I’ll cover more trainer-selection criteria in another post.

 

Farewell to Chaser, a Dog Who Changed the (Dog) World

Photo of Chaser & Dr. Pilley, from Chaser’s Facebook page

How many dogs get a New York Times obituary?

I have to admit to a stab of apprehension every time I saw a post on Chaser the border collie‘s Facebook page since she turned 15. But in the end, I saw the news in the NYT: Chaser passed away last week peacefully, of natural causes. Her dad and trainer, John Pilley, passed away last year. Together, the two of them changed the way millions of people think about and understand dogs and the dog-human relationship.

Anyone who has spent significant time with a dog and really paid attention to that dog knows that dogs can pick up some human language. After all, the entire notion of dog training is based on teaching them to associate our words and gestures with specific actions. But Chaser took understanding of language far, far beyond simple cues and responses.

Chaser understood grammar. In fact, Chaser’s knowledge of grammar often surpassed that of my students. I had to teach them about subjects, objects, and indirect objects before they could understand exactly what she had learned to do …

Chaser hit the TV talk show circuit when she had learned to identify more than 1,000 items by name and category. She knew the unique names of 1,022 toys. More than that, though she could put each of her dozens of balls into the “ball” category while also recognizing each by its own name. Same with Frisbee-type disc toys.

OK, I’m pretty average as a dog trainer, and even I have taught dogs the names of toys and categories. Not as many as Chaser, but I knew it was possible.

But the grammar bit: She learned to understand requests that entailed taking toy1 to toy 2, which required her to distinguish both toys by name and understand which was the direct object (toy1) and which the indirect object (toy2).

It’s so much more than the grammar though. It’s the idea of that complex level of thought, understanding — and communication — occurring between a dog and a human. Chaser made it clear to anyone willing to see that dogs really can learn so much and that their limitations are more in humans’ inability to conceive of how to teach them than in their capacity to learn.

Which brings us to Dr. Pilley. Chaser was a brilliant dog. But many other brilliant and capable dogs have lived and died with no fame or recognition; without learning or reaching their potential. Dr. John Pilley showed the world what was possible. He pushed back against the doubt, the disdain, the dismissive derision of his colleagues and of the journals that demanded extraordinary testing and re-testing before publishing his research.

He was one of a very few dedicated individuals who believed in dogs’ abilities and who put in the hours and years of effort to make the world see what’s possible. Thanks to him and a few others, centers to study dog cognition are popping up at universities around the world and we’re learning more and more about how dogs think and learn and understand.

Very few animals are memorialized in the New York Times. But if ever a dog deserved such an honor, it was Chaser.

A Perfect Day (for Cali)

Cali, a golden retriever, swims in a riverI’d like to get out and hike more. It’s summer in Missoula. I’m an outdoor novice; I don’t go camping (which means I have Missoula all to myself on summer weekends) and I can really only do easy hikes. Even so, I like to get outside in our short, but stunning, summers.

But Cali’s not great off leash. She gets engrossed in something and next thing she knows, she’s miles away and 20 minutes have passed.

There are many wonderful trails where I can’t or wouldn’t let her off leash even if she were more reliable. They’re at the edge of vast wilderness, have too many tempting smells and critters to follow, and I’m not willing to risk losing her. Every weekend in the summer, the Missoula NPR station reads our lost dog reports, and sometimes there are pictures at the trail heads … it’s sad and scary.

So, when I have a little time and it’s a nice day, I face a dilemma. Do I pack Cali into the car and go off somewhere to satisfy my desire to hike? Or do I choose an option that will be more fun for her?

Hiking is fun for her, but still, it’s usually a long walk on a short leash in a pretty place that she’d love to explore, if only her mean mom would let her.

Compared with one of our standbys, a large open area inside Missoula where she can run off leash, and where I usually throw a ball for her to chase … well, no contest. Especially in the summer when there’s water to play in!

I feel a little bad each time I decide to head there rather than gear up for a more adventurous outing, but then, as I make the turn off of Reserve St., and Cali knows for sure where we’re going, her excitement reassures me. This is what she’d choose. This or a trip to Big Dipper ice cream (or both).

She dances with excitement as we get out of the car and I dig out her ball; she squeals with joy as I release the leash. Then she’s off, running, the instant I throw the ball. She doesn’t bring it back, of course, so I walk to her, she lets me take it, and I throw it again. And again.

We walk along the irrigation ditch, currently full of cool water. We walk through a wooded area. When we get to each of the two little pools, I throw the ball into the water for her to swim after. Now she does bring it back, over and over, so I will keep throwing it upstream. Her favorite thing is to get out of the water and drop the ball at my feet. Then, just as I bend to pick it up, she shakes off, sharing the cool water. We both get back to the car dirty, tired, and happy.

I think that she has more fun doing this, even if it’s the same outing two or three times a week (or daily) than she would if we went to new and interesting places … where she had to stay on leash. It’s not that dire; there are a few other places where she can be off leash. But in the summer, this spot, with the trees, water, and open space, is pretty hard to beat. Instead of worrying about taking her more places, maybe I need to focus on taking her more often for perfect Cali days … a swim, some mud, maybe a little ice cream!

Those Puppy Eyes …

Cali looks up, licking her lips
Who can say ‘no’ to these eyes?

That sad puppy look your dog gives you… that look that Cali uses every time we’re within a block of her favorite ice cream stand … that look has been perfected by dogs over millennia. It’s no wonder we’re helpless to resist it!

It turns out that dogs’ “expressive eyebrows” enable them to raise their inner eyebrows in a way that makes their eyes look larger and, to humans, sadder. A study found “compelling” evidence “that dogs developed a muscle to raise the inner eyebrow after they were domesticated from wolves.”

What’s more, it’s mostly our own fault for breeding these manipulators: A Science Daily report on the study suggests that this eyebrow muscle, which wolves lack, “may be a result of humans unconscious preferences that influenced selection during domestication.”

It’s working out well for the dogs. The expression elicits a strong response from most humans who feel protective toward the “sad” or “worried” dogs. Dogs who use this eye movement get adopted faster from shelters, according to the study.

The muscle difference evolved very quickly, according to researchers, and seems to have had an outsize impact on human-dog relationships. Eye contact plays a huge role in dog-human communication, and the dogs have clearly learned to use their anatomical gift to full advantage.

Humans pay close attention to eyebrow movement, even if we aren’t really aware of it. “In humans, eyebrow movements seem to be particularly relevant to boost the perceived prominence of words and act as focus markers in speech,” the study points out. It hypothesizes that we’re especially tuned in to eyebrow movement because it “is a uniquely human feature.”

Or was. Until the dogs figured out how to hijack it.