Fixing Real Life Behavior Problems

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

The key to changing unwanted behavior is pretty straight forward. We teach other behavior to replace the stuff we don’t want to see anymore (e.g. we teach standing on all four paws when we want to see less jumping up on people). The truth is, in training sessions this is pretty easy and we get quick results. But, what about real life? What do we do to make sure our good results show up outside of training sessions?

First, make training look like real life. Will you have a treat bag on all the time in real life? No. Okay, slip a couple treats in your pocket and ditch the bag for now. Will you always be sitting, standing, on the floor, or in a particular room in real life? No. Okay, train in various positions and in various rooms. Create a picture of what real life with your dog looks like and train for that.

Then, make real life look like training. Teach your dog throughout your daily life with him.

IMG_9994Use your cues. Bring your training cues into everyday situations. This is the stuff you worked so hard to teach your dog in training sessions, behaviors on cue. Now we are putting that to use in the real world with our dogs. Most of my clients learn “mat”, “touch” (hand target), “come,” “sit,” “down” and other cues. Use those as needed. You taught them – why not benefit from them? Your dog will quickly learn these cues work for him in many different parts of his life. Reinforce generously.

Notice your dog. This is hard for some of us. We are used to cueing behavior (above). But, we are not as used to noticing when our dog is doing something right on his own. Let’s work on that. We want our dogs to self-regulate. We want them making the right choices without having to be told. Look for him doing that – notice it. Reinforce good choices every time you see them. (Reinforcement is an investment in his making more good choices in the future).

Reinforce creatively. Food works. We all know that. So, yes, use food. And, let’s also think of other things our dogs will work for. Play comes to mind. Praise? Meh. But, praise with a big smile followed by play, or food, or a walk, or access to other dogs – that’s pure gold. Mix it up. Always reinforce behavior you want to see more of, whether you cued it or whether your dog offered it on his own. But, make the type of reinforcement you offer a surprise. Good surprises reinforce good behavior.

I often talk about creating a culture of learning and teaching. That’s really what this is. We are making our life with our dogs a nonstop exchange of good for good. We are helping our dog choose good behavior. We are there to support that behavior with good things for dogs. Old fashioned training was a top-down sort of thing. This is a back and forth exchange – communication between two species. Cool stuff. Magical moments that – all put together – make up real life.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with dogs who have challenging behavior problems.

What Gets in the Way of Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’ve been thinking a lot about why people don’t train their dogs. It’s one of those Holy Grail questions for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants. Why won’t my clients do what I tell them to do? We laid out a great training plan. But they just won’t do what I said.

DSC00639The excuses are as predictable as they are vexing. I didn’t have time. I’ve been so busy. I’m not coordinated enough. I don’t have the right tone of voice. I’m not good enough. Then there are the ones that blame the dog. He’s stubborn. He’s dominant. He won’t do it. He’s too old – too young – too dumb – too distracted. We trainers hear these things – and believe me, we’ve heard them all – and it’s tempting to respond to each one individually in voluminous detail. Of course, in our heads we are much more succinct. No. That’s not true. Stop saying that. Just stop it. Stop.

It’s funny. As I’ve been thinking about this, it’s become very clear that we trainers complain about clients in very much the same tone that clients complain about their dogs. We label our clients. Then we tell stories about them using those labels. You see where I’m going here? It’s exactly what we do with our dogs. Stubborn. Dominant. Distracted. All labels. Each equally useless.

So what’s really going on? Here’s what I think. Those of us who really love training do it because it’s freaking fun – thrilling – a hoot. The process is equal parts suspense (will it work) and joy (of course it will – always does). In other words, our behavior (the act of teaching our dogs) is reinforced. Trainers, professional or hobby enthusiasts, thrive on reinforcement from – wait for it – our dogs. Success. Seeing it work. It’s why we train. It’s what keeps us going.

Side note: dogs learn when they begin to see their actions affect the environment around them. We humans are the best candidates for showing them how that works. Flip side. Trainers learn when we begin to see our actions affecting the environment too – and our dogs fill that bill for us. Who’s training whom? Can’t tell? Good, you’re doing it right.

So what gets in the way of training? New trainers (clients) give up when they haven’t had that first sweet taste of success. It’s like the first episode of a new TV series. If it’s lackluster, you might not keep watching. But if there’s a hook, or even the tiniest bit of a wow moment, you’ll cancel dinner plans and binge watch the whole season. Trainers, even new trainers, depend on reinforcement. Absent the reinforcement, the behavior dies. Training fails.

Now, I’m not blaming your dog for not reinforcing you properly. That’s not how this works. He’s potentially as bored and checked out as you are. What we need here is just a little spark, something to get the conversation started between you two. We need to set the table for that first taste of back-and-forth reinforcement. Some delicious quid pro quo.

Do this: start simple. Just a taste. I intentionally teach hand targeting to all my clients first. (Now you know my secret). It’s the appetizer – the ice breaker – the first reinforcer for the dog and the human. You do this and I do that. Oh my goodness, I did that and you did this. And we’re up and running. Easy peasy.

But hold on, not too fast. Start simple, yes, and build gradually. Set yourself up to succeed every step of the way. Set your dog up to succeed, too. When we rush the process things can falter and we end up starving ourselves of reinforcement. Our dog stops responding and we lose that thrilling feeling of success. We pushed too far too fast. That’s when all those labels and damaging stories we tell about our dogs start creeping back.

Stop it. Just stop.

Dail it back and shake it off. Get yourself tall cool glass of winning. Work on something easy with your dog – maybe a trick that makes you laugh. Taste the success. Show your friends. Make them laugh too. Reinforce the dog’s behavior generously. Move around a bit. Go for a hand target or a sit. Reinforce again. Feel the reinforcement. Then, and only then, are you ready to circle back to the main course of incrementally more challenging tasks. Take it easy on yourself and your dog. Little by little. Sure and steady.

Here’s the bottom line. You can train your dog. And here’s the bottom line to the bottom line. You can learn to love training, too. Okay and here’s something even better. You’re in control. Yes, I’ve had some philosophical thoughts about control in the past, but what I mean is you can set all this up to work for you. For your dog. You can do this.

And when you feel like you can’t – email me – use the subject line “I’m stuck” if you want. I’ll help you clear your head so you can get back up to the buffet for another plate full of reinforcement – rich and delectable success.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX.

The Hurricane Dog Training Challenge

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Hurricane season ends November 30th, and not a moment too soon. This season was particularly brutal, with three major hurricanes hitting U.S. shores in less than a month. The most impactful for us in Houston, of course, was Hurricane Harvey.

IMG_7901The storms this year, and Harvey in particular, got me thinking long term about what we all need to teach our dogs so that we are well prepared for next year’s hurricane season and the ones to follow. These aren’t quick fix tips. This is a training challenge for all of us for the next six-months ahead. What can we do now so that our dogs are best prepared if the worst happens – again?

The Hurricane Dog Training Challenge.

Potty Training. During the many long nights and days of Harvey’s deluge, I got more texts and emails about dogs not wanting to go outside to potty in the rain than any other subject. There were few easy answers at hand. We were in the middle of a crisis, all of us  including my dogs and I.

One former client posted this great photo of sod she’d purchased and put under her carport. It’s a great solution if you’d thought of it ahead of time.

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I leveraged a cue I’ve taught my dogs: “go outside go potty” to get them revved up and out the door. This rather dark video is an example from Sunday Night in the storm.

The Training Challenge: Retrain Potty training with a cue for going going out. Here’s a link to my potty training handout for your review. And here’s a link to my potty training video. Be sure to add the cue, as I did.

Crate Training. Thousands of dogs (yes thousands) ended up at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. They, along with the other dogs at shelters around the area, were required to be under control and safely confined. Many other dogs were crated as they were rescued from flooded homes and remained in crates for long periods of time.

A disaster should not be the first time our dog has to spend time in a crate. It would be so much better if all our dogs were familiar with their crates as a safe comfortable place for transport – or to just relax (as much as is possible in a hurricane).

The Training Challenge: Teach or Review Crate Training. I used Susan Garrett’s Crate Games to teach my dogs to love their crate. Here’s my short video intro to some Crate Games concepts. And here’s the link to Susan’s excellent DVD.

Leash Walking. I’m the kind of guy who scanned the TV coverage during Hurricane Harvey looking for the dogs. Some didn’t have leashes but most did. Dogs being carried through the flood water dangling a leash. Dogs on leash swimming through the flood water. Dogs leashed up on boats floating through their neighborhood. Dogs in the baskets of helicopters with their humans – leash on collar – the other end wrapped around a tightly clenched fist.

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Our dog’s leash should be a comfort line, the symbol of the safe emotional connection between the dog and human. When or if a crisis occurs, the leash is a life line as well – an essential training tool – but also a reminder of the dog’s routine of calm self-control outside the home.

The Training Challenge: Teach our dogs to comfortably wear a harness and walk calmly and confidently on leash. This is my favorite YouTube video for leash walking. It’s by my friend and colleague Kelly Duggan.

Building Trust. I couldn’t imagine getting in a basket dangling from a helicopter. It would be a first-time-ever thing and I doubt any of us have prepared for it. I can’t imagine (as many of you have experienced first hand) coming downstairs from the second floor to get in a canoe and paddle out my front door. What is the training for that? I’ve stayed at hotels with my dogs, but never in a shelter with 10,000 other people. There are no practice sessions for this either. The idea is surreal for most of us – but each of these situations was all-too-real for a lot of folks and their dogs during Hurricane Harvey.

I’ve listed three specific things above that we can work on to prepare for next hurricane season: potty training, crate training, and leash walking. Think of these Training Challenges as a framework for the much more important overriding project of building trust between us and our dog.

Teach these core values to your dog as a way to build trust and keep communication open on a daily basis.

  • You (dog) are safe with me. Let’s create situations in which our dog can learn to look to us for direction and support in novel situations (we traditionally call this “training.”) We’ll use nonthreatening and nonviolent methods to achieve this. We’ll also be careful not to lead our dogs intentionally into danger or into situations they perceive as dangerous. We’ll comfort our dogs to help them through situations that are overwhelming, scary, or painful without concern that we are “reinforcing fear.” We aren’t.
  • Humans are reliable and consistent. We are not, but we can learn to be with our dogs. We don’t threaten and harm them in the name of training one minute and then treat and pet them the next. We reliably and regularly use reinforcement based nonviolent training techniques that encourage our dogs to think and, when in doubt, to look confidently to us for instructions. We don’t stray from this path.
  • You (dog) can relax with me. Every day, often many times a day, I sit on the floor and do nothing with my dogs. There are no cues (commands) and no expectations. We just hang out. If one of the dogs initiates play, we play. If they want to lie down, we chill. If they approach for some cuddles, I lean in and touch them.

This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of many ways you build trust between you and your dog. I really like Susan Friedman’s video about how teaching and learning can help us build trust with animals. Take a look at it and let me know if you like it too.

Muzzle training. Just a brief note about this. Many of our dogs have a history of biting. Dogs under unique and extreme stress (think Hurricane) are more likely to bite. Let’s continue to build and maintain muzzle training – or start teaching it if we haven’t already. Here’s my favorite muzzle training video by Chirag Patel.

Take The Hurricane Prep Dog Training Challenge. In Houston we’ve had three 500-year floods in the past three years. I don’t think we can say whew I hope that never happens again anymore. It probably will. I hope not, of course. But, the odds don’t seem to be in our favor.

So over the next six months, from now until the beginning of next hurricane season in June, will you join me as we get our dogs ready? Start now. Let me know how you’re coming along. Post your progress on social media with the hashtag #michaelsdogs so I can see it. You can also email me. I love getting video and photos.

I’ll do the same. I’m teaching my dogs all these skills as well and will post regularly to Facebook www.facebook.com/michaelsdogs and Instagram. I’ll try to get more active on Twitter too. Follow along online and look for the #michaelsdogs hashtag.

Let’s do this together. Even if the worst doesn’t happen again (fingers crossed) – we still get a stronger more enjoyable relationship with out dogs out of the deal. And really, how cool is that?