Cali and Koala love Hanukkah, after discovering their Jewish-dog cores this year.
It all started last year. We were on a road trip during Hanukkah. I found a creative solution to celebrating without setting fire to our hotel room and being evicted into the winter night: a little advent box for Hanukkah,
Each night, we’d open the tiny cardboard drawer, eat the treats that were inside, and turn the drawer around to show the lit candle image.
I saved the box, and this year, I filled the drawers with dog treats, offering a different treat each night. This provided something easy and fun for Hanukkah without having to actually buy gifts.
Deni and I called the dogs over each evening and lit the candles. I said the blessings in Hebrew. Then we gave the girls their nightly treat.
By day 4, they’d really caught on.
We did a mid-day app-powered candle-lighting with friends in Israel. As the family in Israel lit their candles and (it was only noon in Montana, so we weren’t actually lighting yet) sang the blessings, Koala woke from her nap, raced upstairs, and sat next to me, wearing an expectant look. Seconds later, Cali emerged from the bedroom, shaking off sleep, and joined Koala.
Blessings finished, I chatted with my friends for a few minutes. The dogs sat. And waited.
I finally caught on — they were waiting for their treats!
They eagerly assembled later in the day for the real lighting, with cookies.
It had taken only 4 repetitions of blessing, then cookie, for the girls to learn that all they had to do was show up while the human was mumbling something unintelligible and they’d get a surprise treat. Why does it take so many more repetitions (like, 100) for them to learn to … say … put a toy in the basket to get a treat?
All good things, even Hanukkah, come to an end. Koala looked devastated as she watched me carry the Hanukkah box down to the basement. Don’t worry, girls; we’ll save the magic treat box for next year. Happy Hanukkah!
Of course, we can’t go there right now, so we cannot see the dogs in action (yet).
Several organizations in the U.S. are also training COVID-sniffing dogs, but the Finns got there first.
The dogs will sniff samples voluntarily provided by arriving airline passengers, and the passengers and dogs will have no contact. This is a good model, since some people are afraid of — or allergic to — dogs.
The dogs are extremely accurate, and can even detect COVID-19 before the standard testing can: Anna Hielm-Björkman, one of the researchers, said that the dogs may be better at spotting coronavirus infections than PCR and antibody tests. They “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive but will become PCR positive within a week,” she said.
Dogs’ noses are truly amazing, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can do!
I’ve written about Working Dogs for Conservation before, but I thought it was time for an update. They’re on my mind because we spent a recent Sunday hiking around a beautiful Montana property as part of a fundraiser for them. Tough work, I know, but Cali and Koala decided that we were up for it, so off we went.
Working Dogs for Conservation trains dogs to search for all kinds of rare and endangered wildlife and plants. They’re based here in Missoula, and they do a variety of interesting projects here and around the world.
Locally, besides the hike / run fundraiser, they also partner with REI to clean up popular dog-walking and hiking areas.
But their real work is in conservation, obviously. A new project in Arizona uses telemetry — remote data collection and transmission — and radio-collared ferrets to hone their dogs’ ferret-tracking skills. They use the telemetry equipment to locate ferrets. The handler doesn’t know the exact location of the ferret, only the general area. The dogs signal a find by lying down next to a burrow that has a ferret inside. The handler can then check the data report to verify the dog’s find. The dog’s reward is a ball game. (Cali would love this job!)
The dogs in training are good at this. They successfully identify burrows where a ferret is or has recently been 97% of the time. I don’t know about you, but I probably make a lot more errors than that in my work …
Their dogs also identify watercraft infected with invasive mussels in Montana, detect invasive insects and weeds, combat poaching and trafficking in endangered wildlife … and more.
There’s a lot to like about Working Dogs for Conservation. They train rescued shelter dogs, for one. They’ve started a program called Rescues 2the Rescue that networks with shelters all over the US to identify high-energy, intense dogs. These dogs are hard to place in family homes, but are often ideal candidates for search, detection, law enforcement, or other skilled work that requires a high drive. Rescues 2the Rescue matches up the candidate dogs with trainers and organizations who can employ them.
They also really “get” dogs and respect dogs’ abilities. “Their extraordinary abilities help us collect more and better data in the field, and their potential to find conservation targets is seemingly endless,” the website says.
Check out this organization. Better yet, if you’re in a position to donate or volunteer, consider helping them out.
Cali barked at someone walking past our back gate. I shushed her. When she did it again, I ordered her inside.
Koala looked at me quizzically, then walked to the door and asked to go in. Deni told her that no, she had to stay outside. Her next look clearly asked why Cali got rewarded for barking — and why she was being punished.
For Cali, going inside is punishment. But spending time outside is often, for Koala, punishment.
The dog decides what’s a reward — and what’s not.
In our relationships with our dogs, and especially in training ,the dog decides what’s rewarding and what’s not. If a dog doesn’t care much about food, most food treats won’t be rewarding enough to motivate her to learn or to do something she really doesn’t want to do. If a dog hates having her ears rubbed or dislikes pats on the head, some types of physical “affection” can be unpleasant — not the bonding experience the human might be aiming for.
Cali knows that getting her ears done is worth more — both in number and in value — in treat-payment than getting the newspaper or putting a toy away. She knows that some great things, like coconut ice popsicles and opportunities to play snuffle-mat, are free — while others, like her special meat treats, have to be earned.
Cali’s pretty strongly food motivated, but if she’s got a tennis ball and a prospective ball thrower, she’s not at all interested in any kind of treat. And when she’s at the vet and the tech wants to lead her somewhere — whether a soup ladle is involved or not — it takes an extremely high-value treat to get her to go. Koala, on the other hand, will pretty much do anything for a treat.
For some dogs, especially the high-drive dogs who tend to excel at search, scent detection, and police training, active play with a ball or tug toy is the best training reward they can imagine. Other dogs will give the toy — and the human offering it — some side-eye and then (again) demand their pay — in food.
The owner or trainer or dog-walk can have whatever ideas they want about what the dog should like or want. But if something isn’t rewarding to the dog, it’s not going to work. That’s true whether the human is trying to train, get the dog to do something — or get the dog to stop doing something.
It’s worth figuring out what foods work best as treats and what non-food rewards — praise, petting, toys or other play — work for your dog. Save the very best ones for special occasions — times you need the dog to come over in a hurry or cooperate with a particularly unpleasant experience (ears, nails, vet) — and use the “good” and “very good” ones for everyday training and rewards.
Dogs have already demonstrated their ability to sniff out viruses, which apparently have unique odors — either from the virus itself or from the body’s response — that dogs can detect before an infected person is symptomatic. Dogs are ideally suited for this job. Their detection ability is better by far than available detection equipment, and they can easily travel and work anywhere that humans gather.
Coronavirus-detection dogs could be more accurate than taking people’s temperatures. Their potential to sniff out contagious people who have no idea they are infected could make it safer for people to travel and resume other activities. A similar project in the UK aims to deploy these canine superheroes to airports to screen passengers.
Airports offer so many opportunities for working dogs — I wonder how the vegetable-sniffing dogs, the explosive-sniffing dogs, and the virus-sniffing dogs will all get along. Koala would like to point out that all of these hard-working airport employees deserve potty parity. She’s appalled at the conditions of the airport restrooms she’s expected to use while working and traveling and believes that the dogs who actually work at the airport deserve far better!
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about dogs learning to generalize — to apply a cue in different environments. Dogs can also learn to specialize.
What I mean by that is that they can learn that a cue or rule applies only in very specific situations. For example, I have a TV-watching sofa in the basement that is dog-friendly. I have a living room sofa that is not dog-friendly. The dogs know that they are allowed on the downstairs sofa but not the living-room sofa. (Though, when’s she’s feeling grumpy, Cali has been known to sneak onto the living room sofa, quickly jumping off when I approach and faking nonchalance as she heads to the bedroom …)
Even more specific — the dogs know that they are allowed on the bed only when a particular blanket, the “dog-proof cover,” is on the bed. When that cover is being laundered, Cali will poke her head into the bedroom, scowl (yes, she scowls), and stalk off.
Koala knows to check with her mom about getting on beds and furniture in new places when they travel; she recognizes when a “dog-proof cover” has been deployed and it’s safe to jump on. She’s also much better than Cali about following the rules.
Wylie, Deni’s German Shepherd guide dog several years ago, learned an interesting lesson: Puppy Wylie was chasing wild turkeys in the front yard of Deni’s Montana home when the turkeys played a little prank on him. They led him on a wild chase … right into a wasps’ nest. Wylie never chased turkeys again. Unfortunately, he failed to generalize the “don’t chase wildlife” rule and continued chasing deer until he had some firm training.
Dogs generalize and specialize about all kinds of things. They learn which things are their toys and which things they are not allowed to chew on — even when they share a home with small children whose toys look a lot like dog toys. They learn what they are and are not allowed to eat. They might know to bark at some noises and not at others or that they can get on the bed only when invited.
Dogs’ ability to specialize and generalize can get humans into trouble.
What if, for example, you have been strict about not feeding the dog from the table, teaching your dog to lie quietly while you eat. But … your spouse sneaks her treats on the sly.
You’ve begun to notice that, although the dog behaves while you are eating alone, if your spouse is there, she begs. Even worse, whenever anyone else is over, she hovers hopefully, testing each new person to see whether he’s a stickler for your rules — or is a softie, like your partner.
This points to a universal human failing: Inconsistency.
The dog has learned not to beg from you at the table. She has not generalized the rule to “no begging at the table.”
Instead, she has taken what you intended as a general rule and figured out that not all the humans know or care about this rule. Indeed, she has exploited the begging loophole (along with her long blond eyelashes and her talent at manipulating your humans…) to establish two different rules: She has determined that the specific rule is “do not beg from mom” and the general rule about begging is “it depends.”
Then, she has decided that she needs to figure out which rule each new human uses. Some will be sticklers; some will be softies.
Unfortunately, the more people in a household, the more likely it is that they will enforce rules inconsistently. Even in a household of one, alas, it is possible (likely!) to enforce rules inconsistently, leading the dog to learn rules that are quite different from what was intended.
I’ve recently heard not one but two experienced trainers, trainers I admire greatly, say that dogs don’t generalize.
The most recent incident was in a training class. The trainer was talking about practicing at home and said that dogs don’t generalize as a way to explain why the dog’s reaction to a cue or a piece of training equipment might be different at home than at the training center.
Generalization, in a dog-training context, means that the dog can recognize a cue in different environments. Some examples:
Your dog has been to your neighborhood dog park a bazillion times. She’s been to the dog park near your parents’ house a half-bazillion times. When you take a road trip and stop at a dog park you find near your hotel, she immediately recognizes it as a dog park and runs off happily to play.
Your dog has a toy box. Your sister’s dog has a toy box. Your parents’ dog has a toy box. Your dog happily helps herself to toys from the toy box at each home. You visit a dog-owning friend for the first time. Your dog homes in on the toy box, grabs a toy, and the dogs start playing.
Your dog knows to sit quietly and wait while you prepare her dinner, waiting until you say, “OK” before gobbling her food. She does this whether you’re at home, in a hotel, at your mom’s, or anywhere else.
You’ve taught your dog not to jump on visitors. A new visitor comes into the house. Your dog has never met this person before, yet she knows not to jump on him.
I could go on, but I am guessing that you get the picture.
Of course dogs generalize. They could not possibly learn otherwise. No one could. There is simply no way to create and practice every single scenario where the dog will be asked to sit or lie down or wait for food or not jump — or do / not do anything you might imagine.
Dogs learn togeneralize as they learn to learn — with repeated practice. With a new puppy (or newly adopted dog of any age), you start teaching the dog house rules. You also (one hopes) teach basic manners, things like not jumping on people, not mouthing people, not barking every time the next-door neighbor walks past the window. Then, other members of your family ask the dog for the same things. And visitors do. You ask for them when you are in the kitchen, the living room, the basement, and the back yard. And on a walk or a road trip.
Your dog learns, after experiencing this phenomenon a few times, that the cue applies everywhere. The dog then generalizes that knowledge to other cues. Verbal cues: “Sit,” or “Quiet.” Visual cues: the toy box or dog park. Routine cues: you putting on the shoes you always wear for walks or closing down your laptop at 5 pm. These cues, and similar cues, take on meaning that applies even if you are not in the same room or you’re visiting someone else’s house or the toy box looks and smells different.
By the time you’ve taught your dog a few cues, she’s figured out generalization.
You can also teach your dog to specialize, which I will talk about in next week’s post.
It’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!
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.
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.
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?
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.