I get a lot of inquiries on why I do not recommend group classes for puppy training or behavior modification so I thought it important to share my reasons with my readers so that perhaps they too can encourage a fun and successful time training their dogs.
Training a puppy:
When you start training your puppy, you want to ensure that both you and your puppy enjoy and learn. The best way to accomplish this is to be in an environment where you have your puppy’s complete attention, where they can engage 100% with you, not be distracted by other people or dogs. This provides a “classroom” where your puppy will learn you are fun while teaching them their basic manners. When you take your puppy to a group class before they have an understanding of their foundation cues (sit, down, walking on a leash, come when called, stay, etc) you, and your puppy, will become extremely frustrated and walk away learning half of what you hoped to. Your puppy will be highly distracted by all the other puppies in the class and pay little to no attention to you. You will become frustrated that your puppy isn’t listening to you, possibly using a bit more harsh voices or leash corrections which will in turn frustrate your puppy because they don’t understand the corrections.
Behavior Modification in an adult dog:
For a lot of the same reasons listed above, private lessons are highly beneficial for addressing, and modifying, unwanted behaviors in older dogs. Private lessons allow you to practice behaviors in your own home at first before moving to a public area. Once your dog has an understanding of what their new “jobs” are, you can move to a public setting to practice and solidify the new behaviors. Until then, you need to set your dog up for success by working in controlled environments.
Don’t get me wrong, group classes have their benefits especially for young pups who need to learn valuable social skills. They are also highly effective for fine-tuning basic commands so that you can “test” your dog’s knowledge and understanding in an environment full of stimuli such as other people and dogs, loud noises, new smells, etc. I typically encourage all my Kinderpup students (puppy training) to attend a group class upon graduation so that their owners can take them into a somewhat chaotic situation to challenge their pup as well as give them the opportunity to play and socialize now that they have an understanding of their basic manners.
So if you feel your dog needs help with reactivity around other dogs, needs a little fine tuning on their stay or recall, needs to learn something new, or you just brought home a puppy, please talk with a professional trainer who offers private lessons to help you and your pup get off on the right paw. Both of you will in turn be excited to learn and conquer new personal goals with each other!
Dog training with the NILF methods simply means that your dog must work for a resource he wants. This resource could be to cuddle with you in bed, go for a walk in the neighborhood, play fetch, get a bite of your sandwich or swim in the pool. The list can go on and on and simply comes down to that the resource is anything your dog deems important and something they wish to have. Requesting that they do something first, before getting the desired resource, means you are teaching them that good dog manners are reward with “important” things versus a dog learning to be pushy to get what they want.
This is very easily achieved in your household just by asking your dog to do simple things in the beginning. Let’s say your dog wants you to throw the tennis ball. They run over to you and drop their tennis ball in your lap while you are watching t.v. Instead of just throwing the ball automatically, you would instill NILF by asking your dog to do a simple sit command, then throw the ball as the reward for sitting. Once your dog has the hang of this simple command, you would ask your dog to either sit longer, lie down, go to his bed, etc. If your dog doesn’t do what you ask him to, he doesn’t get his ball. He may start to bark, nose you, paw at you, or even try to take the ball, all of which you either have to ignore or correct him for and only reward him once he does the simple behavior you asked him to originally.
The NILF concept is especially important for those dogs who show tendencies towards resource guarding and/or aggression. By instilling ground rules from the beginning that your dog can not get what he wants until he does something for you helps them to understand they are not making the rules. They are not the decision makers and in control. Any time I sign on a new client who has a dog who is growling at them when they try to sit on the couch, walk near their food bowl when they are eating, snap at them for trying to take an object away, etc., I always tell each and every one of them NILF must be started immediately. This is for everyone’s safety. At this point I believe your dog has lost their “freedom” and must now earn everything they want. They no longer respect you or your possessions therefor they must go back to NILF and earn every resource they want by doing something. They must respect you and stay out of your space. They must do everything you ask them, and in return, as you start to see their behavior changing, you can reward them with higher valued items. In the end, everyone wins! Your dog listens to you making your house copacetic again and your dog gets what he wants, all by everyone understand the rule of boundaries set by NILF.
Here is a video of my dog, Caleb, when he was 8 months old working for his food using NILF. He had to sit in one spot for 2 minutes to get what he really wanted…his kibble. These simple steps can be started at home with your dog – give it a try!
We all have had a hard time learning a subject or concept in our lives and dogs can have the same difficulties and road blocks along the way. To be proper educators, we do need to watch our dogs for any hints that they are not understanding what we are asking of them during the training phase and know when it is time to take a step back in their training. This means that your dog may not have a full understanding of the previous step of the training therefor they are not excelling at the current task. To help them succeed, we must take a step back to the last task and make sure they understand before moving forward.
For instance, when I first started teaching my dog, Caleb, how to do nose work, I moved a little too quickly from the stage of having him find the odor to the stage of having him mark the odor’s location. Caleb was catching on quite quickly that his task was to search for his food which would be placed within view, no higher than his head, at the time. He seemed to be flying around the house finding his food with no problem so I decided to challenge him. The next time I hid his food I put in closed cabinets and drawers and he did exceptionally well. Where the issue came in is that when I decided to build off of Caleb’s current odor marker (sit at odor source), I didn’t work on the smaller steps to get to the final picture I wanted. In my mind, I wanted him to sit there patiently, or for longer than 15 seconds, to know that he was positive this was the location of the odor. However, to Caleb, my lack of a quick praise meant to him this must not be the location and he would get up and start searching again. Clearly this was my fault for not teaching him what I wanted him to do in a clear manner before getting to this step.
Andrew Ramsey helping Caleb understand to keep his nose at the scent location.
Caleb getting the idea to keep his nose where the odor is strongest.
Caleb practicing his nosework with Andrew Ramsey.
Luckily, at about this time, Caleb and I went to work with the amazing and knowledgeable Andrew Ramsey of Ramsey Nosework. Andrew immediately pointed out to me that I was doing a few things incorrectly so we took a step back in Caleb’s training to get him to understand that when he found the odor he had to mark the spot by staying still with his eyes locked on the location for several seconds before the reward came. The subsequent sessions were so much more fun for Caleb because he now had an understanding of what he was suppose to do. Since returning home from our lessons with Andrew, we have worked on Caleb’s focused alerts in the house and are almost ready to move to the outdoors with this sport he so thoroughly enjoys now that he understands his job.
So, if you feel your dog just doesn’t understand what you are asking of them, take a moment to step back to the previous step and make sure they are comfortable with that step before moving on. Example of this can be if you are asking your dog to do a 5 minute sit stay but they keep breaking at 4 minutes – take a step back to releasing your dog at 3:50 and build up from there; if you are asking your dog to do a down at a distance of 6′ from you but they don’t do it until you have asked them multiple times – take a step back to a distance where they feel comfortable and down automatically; if you are asking your dog to jump through a hoop that is 3′ off the ground but they keep running under it – take a step back to a height your dog consistently jumps through then slowly raise the hoop. Doing this will help both of you enjoy your training together!
As with most things we do in life, being confident plays a very important factor when training your dog. I can not stress this enough to my clients as I see it affect their ability to feel comfortable training their dog. What do I mean by this?
If you are not confident that you are doing the right thing for your dog, whether that be your worry of your timing for their reward, that you are not being clear enough or you are not doing it right, or being too mean, all these will affect the way you interact with your dog leading you down the path of self destruction. When I train a dog, whether it be my own or a clients’, I make sure that I feel wholeheartedly that I am doing the right thing and I am confident with my request for the dog, whether it be asking them to do something new or correcting them for a wrong behavior.
I had a client who was training her Labrador to be a mobility service dog and one of the cues I teach all service dogs is how to “under” which means to go under a chair, table, bench or desk to be out of way of foot traffic whether the client is at work, out to dinner, at the doctor’s office or on public transportation. This particular dog was having difficulty understanding the concept that she had to crawl under the chair and stay there. As with all lessons, I let the owner try several attempts on her own the way she wanted to do it which was bribery for a morsel in her hand. Well, this lab, as shy as she was, found out she could just put his front legs and head under the chair and be rewarded then quickly jet out from under the chair. The owner was becoming quite frustrated and saw her dog’s behavior as a sign that she did not enjoy the task and the owner wanted to give up. However, what I saw was a dog who was nervous and didn’t feel comfortable with the task. But I knew that I was not asking the dog to do anything “mean” or “abusive” and helped her out by guiding her under the chair with a treat in front of her and a gentle, soft pull of the leash and collar. And guess what……she did it on her first attempt with me!
Caleb’s “under” my legs at a local restaurant at 6 months of age
Caleb “under” at 5 months of age
Caleb’s perfect, calm “under” at 5 months of age
Just a couple of pictures of Caleb practicing his “under” at 5 & 6 months old.
This is just one example of how being unsure of what you are doing to/with your dog can possibly hamper their learning abilities whereas being confident in what you are doing/asking can teach your dog (and quite possibly yourself) something new. Don’t be afraid! Stand up for yourself and your decisions that involve your dog’s training, you’ll be amazed at what you both learn!
This video does not show training, but it captured a time where I pushed Caleb to do something because I was confident he could do it. And boy is he proud when he finally picks up the tire and carries it!
It’s week four of my 10 Important Dog Training Tips series! Over the past three weeks I discussed the importance of keeping things very clear through “no grey areas”, why consistency is key and creating attainable goals. Week four covers the importance of repetition during the training phase.
Just like when you were learning your time tables, and you would work through flash cards night after night to remember what 2×2 and 7×7 equaled, your dog must practice commands over and over to fully retain the information.
How many repetitions you ask? Well, this depends on how clear you are when teaching your dog what you want and how much your dog wants to do the desired behavior. I have seen some dogs learn a behavior in less than 10 repetitions while it may take another dog 30 repetitions to learn the same behavior. However, I think it important to note that repetitions are successful when there is consistency in what you are asking your dog to do as well. If you pay close enough attention to your dog, you will soon learn their body language to let you know they get it. For example, when I am teaching Caleb a new behavior, I know that once he starts wagging his tail very happily it is because the behavior clicked in his head and he now understands what I am asking of him. Almost like he’s proud of himself for figuring it out lol.
You can check out a video I made specifically for this blog where I start teaching Caleb not to forge forward when he transitions from a sit to a stand.
Along with how many repetitions it may take your dog to learn a behavior, you then have to add in the months of practicing that behavior in all settings to ensure your dog understands he has to perform the same behavior no matter if it is in your living room, around your neighborhood or at the local park. It is important to remember that you never push your dog and expect him to perform with out any hiccups in new environments if you have not set him up for success. This means, you don’t take your dog to a high stimulation environment and practice his behaviors if you haven’t practiced them in lower stimulation environments first.
Welcome back to my series of 10 Important Dog Training Tips! Last week I discussed the importance of keeping things very clear through “no grey areas” in my blog, 10 Important Dog Training Tips: Week 1 – No Grey Areas, This week covers the rule of consistency which can be interchanged with, and is quite similar too, that topic.
*Remember, all of these are discussed for the important time of the training phase of any new command, trick, sport, etc.
Much like the concept of keeping things black and white, consistency is vital for the success of your dog. It is one of the most important tools in dog training, no matter the sport. If you are not consistent with your requests from your dog, there will be too many “grey areas” and your dog will become confused leading to more errors in your dog’s decision making.
The following are clear examples of consistency that most of us deal with on a daily basis with our dogs:
Let’s say I do not want Caleb to beg for people food, especially while I am sitting down to eat a relaxing dinner with family or friends. At this point I request Caleb to “down” while we enjoy our meal and never feed him food from the dinner table to discourage the act of begging. Then one night, while he’s behaving, I toss him a piece of my steak to enjoy. The next night, I am very disappointed in Caleb when he is sitting, staring at me while I eat dinner. I can’t believe he is begging! I yell at him, tell him to “down” and don’t understand why he’s misbehaving. I have no one to blame but myself in this situation as I clearly showed Caleb the previous night that there is a possibility of receiving a yummy morsel of food at the table. If I had kept his training consistent, by not feeding him, he would have continued with the right choice of not begging.
Another great example is teaching your dog to wait while his food bowl is placed on the ground before being released to enjoy his meal. Every meal I require Caleb to stay in either a “sit” or “down” while I place his food bowl on the ground and walk away. Caleb knows
he is to stay in that position (time of stay varies) until I release him to eat. Now, let’s say that one morning I am running late for work and I place the food bowl on the ground without asking him to do a behavior first. I am too busy worrying about time to notice that he broke routine, and I didn’t correct him. In fact, I rewarded him for it (by letting him get his meal for misbehaving)! That night for dinner, Caleb rushes me for his meal and I yell at him questioning, “What is wrong with you?! You know better!” Again, Caleb’s mistake is my fault due to the previous meal mishap and my inconsistency.
Besides consistency in what we expect of our dog, we must also be consistent with what we say and do to encourage success. For example, can anyone see the problem with these commands of “sit”, “down”, “off” and “sitdown!” being used interchangeably? I will show you….. If I ask Caleb to “sit” and “down”, expecting the separate known behaviors, then one day he doesn’t listen when I ask him to “sit” and I get angry so I deepen my tone of voice and tell him very sternly “sitdown!”, I can in no way get angry with Caleb if he decides to “down” as this behavior is also the correct choice with the command I just gave him.
Another example I come across with 90% of my clients is the misuse of the command “down”. Most dog owners use the command “down” to have their dog lay down, yet I also
hear them use the same command when the dog is jumping on them, on their guests or on
furniture. In reality, if we tell our dog “down” in any of these situations, we should expect our dog to lay down. However, because we are picturing just having the dog to keep off of something, we accept the response of them stopping the undesirable behavior instead of expecting them to actually lay down. This is a prime example of us not being consistent with what we ask and expect. In this situation, there should be two separate commands to help the dog understand, such as now using the command of “off” to keep paws off of things.
The last important example of consistency that is commonly mishandled by owners, is that of the rate of reward or punishment. If I am training Caleb to “shake” and I do not reward him frequently in the training phase, I can loose his interest and stop seeing progress in his understanding of this new behavior. Just as, if I don’t use a form of punishment (verbal correction, leash correction, time-out, etc) every time it is warranted, Caleb will not learn that there is a possible consequence for the incorrect choice.
With all the concerns going around social media regarding the movie Max, and how it will affect the Belgian Malinois breed, I thought I would share my story of owning a working dog.
I once believed that any dog could flourish in a home as long as there was clear direction, consistency and a balanced relationship between owner and dog. I believed that no matter the breed, it could be done by anyone. Over the past few months I have quickly realized that this can be quite a fantasy. I have shared my life and home with different breeds of shelter dogs, most mutts of unknown origins and they all lived well-balanced lives. Once I started my career in dog training and behavior, learning the facets that contribute to how dogs learn and develop, it became clear to me that dogs, much like humans, are pretty similar from one breed to the next. Several years later when I dipped into the world of dog rescue and became a dog foster mom I started feeling empathy for all these “unwanted” dogs. I would say, “If they just had an owner that taught them right from wrong from the very beginning.” “If they just had an owner who understood dogs they wouldn’t be here.” I truly believed that no matter the dog’s breed they could survive in any pet home as long as the simple rules of consistency were followed.
Today, my views have changed.
I am now the proud owner of a true “working dog” who drains me of my mental and physical energy on a daily basis. I am not stating this as a complaint but as a fact. I knew when I decided to purchase Caleb that I was purchasing a type of dogthat required daily mental stimulation, exercise and challenging activities to keep him out of trouble. I thought I could handle it with no problem being my background as a dog trainer, knowing the ins and outs of keeping dogs mentally and emotionally healthy. Well I am here to say that owning a working dog is not as easy as it looks and I now understand why so many dogs end up at the shelter, left in back yards, or worse, euthanized. Owning a working dog is a serious commitment that must be looked at with a completely open mind, and heart.
These dogs excel at so many activities because they are truly incredibly intelligent creatures. Their lineage comes from years and years of cross-breeding individual dogs who each have the desire and drive to work to their maximum capability and then even further when asked. Take the border collies who have been bred to herd sheep. If you purchased a puppy from a breeder who has been breeding Border Collies to work a ranch 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and you take that puppy home to your apartment in the city, work 8 hours a day and just take him for walks, you will soon have a monster on your hands because you are not allowing the dog to do what he is bred to do. You are essentially keeping a tiger caged.
And the movies and television shows we watch with the perfectly scripted characters of Lassie, Benji and Rin Tin Tin (to name a few) don’t help the general public understand the intensity some of these dogs require with daily training. And I’m sure my love and respect for the German Shepherd Dog stemmed from watching them star in movies like K-9, Rin Tin Tin and others. But we have to remember these dogs are trained to perform these acts and more than likely have a trainer behind the scenes that spends countless hours and minutes every day training them.
I am now the proud owner of an extremely intelligent German Shepherd from Belgium working lines. This means Caleb is the offspring of specific breedings to produce dogs that will excel at Schutzhund, French Ring, PSA or any other protection work, obedience, search and rescue, agility, etc. With that said, the flip side is that these dogs typically do not flourish in a home with little stimulation. They must have regular opportunities to challenge themselves, learn new behaviors, fail at attempts and recover from those fails ready to try again. Your average “pet dog” does not have this same drive. They are quite content to sit at home until the family returns, have a play session, possibly a nightly walk, then sit down and relax as an entire family. A working dog reaches this point only after working.
A great example of this is something I have learned with Caleb and his desire to
learn new things. If Caleb attempts something new, let’s say climbing a wall, and he falls off ultimately failing in his attempt, Caleb will actually pull me back to the very beginning and try it all over again on his own. He does not accept failure in his life. And when he does accomplish something that he considers to be a task we should all be proud of, like jumping up on to a high surface for the first time, he will bark a couple of times as if he is congratulating himself. I also find Caleb actively seeking out new obstacles, such as ladders or big boulders to climb, just to do it.
It may seem like I am bragging about my amazing dog but I am sharing because these are things one rarely encounter with a “pet” dog. These are occurrences that are typical for a working dog and I feel strongly in sharing that every person must thoroughly consider if they can provide a mentally rewarding home for such a dog. If you’ve read my past blogs, or watched any YouTube videos, you have heard me say over and over how important mental stimulation is to any dog, it is absolutely critical for a working dog.
Please understand this blog is not to scare you away from owning a beautifully smart working dog, it is simply here to warn you to do your due diligence before deciding on what breed and breeder. I love Caleb with all my heart and he amazes me each and every day with his intelligence and bravery. He has learned more in these past 10 months than any of my previous dogs ever learned. I know I will have more fun with him than I ever expected simply because he will challenge me to think of new things to do with him, challenge me to learn new training techniques and games and challenge me to stay active and mentally healthy.