Jul 10 2009

Training with Kindness

How do you train your pets? Smack on the rump? The “evil eye”? A raised voice or fist? Here’s another question: How were you taught to train your pets? 

When I was a kid, the generally accepted method was still the rolled-up newspaper. When I cringed along with the dog, my mother said, “It doesn’t really hurt her.” That much was true; our dog was never physically hurt. But you know something else? She never was trained, either. Not even housebroken. 

Animal training methods fall into two camps: traditional, punishment-based methods and reward-based methods. Many of us use a combination of these. I’ve certainly spoken sharply to our dog, Eloise, commanding her to “drop it” (stuffed rabbit, expensive loafer, phone bill …). Her response? She’s a beagle; they’re stubborn. She either clenches her teeth, preparing for tug-of-war, or she dashes about the house in a merry chase. Usually I have to shake the treat box to get her to comply. 

If it’s one of my smart days, though, I’ll react very unemotionally when I see the Jimmy Choo hanging from her jaws. I take a breath, call her over with great excitement and joy in my voice, have her sit, and hold up my hand as if I’m grasping a treat (she knows that gesture). Calmly, I say, “Drop it.” When she does, loads of praise. 

Does it always work? Okay, remember … beagle. Of course not. But I realize I’ve set up the run-and-catch-me scenario over the course of five years. I know it’s an attention-getting device. It’s also a response when Eloise hasn’t had a good walk in a couple of days. I’m starting to think about the psychology of it.  

This handheld clicker sells for $1.49.

This handheld clicker sells for $1.49.

Karen Pryor, author of  Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training (Ringpress, 2002) advocates clicker training. A “clicker” is a cheap plastic handheld device that emits a loud click when pressed. (You can get them for under two dollars at pet stores.) A trainer uses the clicker to show an animal that it’s done something right. The animal quickly learns that the sound of the clicker is followed by a reward. Because the trainer can click immediately when the desired behavior occurs, the animal’s actions can be “shaped” to produce very specific results. 

So Eloise and I are going to give clicker training a try. We’ll report back to tell you how it’s going. In the meantime, log on here to read an excerpt from Pryor’s latest book, Reaching the Animal Mind. 

posted by Claire M. Caterer


Jan 15 2009

Two common reasons dogs bark too much – and what you can do about it

Whether your dog is a high-frequency yipper or a subsonic woofer, excessive barking can be hard on your nerves – and hard on your neighbors.

Here are some guidelines to help you understand and address barking behavior, courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States.

Why is your dog barking?
It’s normal for dogs to bark from time to time, but sustained barking for long periods of time is a symptom of a problem.

Before you can solve the problem you have to determine what causes your dog’s barking behavior. This can be tricky, since barking may occur when you aren’t with your dog. If your dog barks when you aren’t there, try a little Canine CSI:

  • Ask your neighbors what they see and hear (which will also reassure them that you are working on the problem!)
  • Drive or walk around the block and watch or listen for awhile.
  • Start a tape recorder or video camera when you leave the house.

Even if your dog’s excessive barking occurs when you are around, it may take some careful observation to determine exactly what triggers barking behavior. But with a little effort, you should be able to determine the root cause – and then apply the right methods to help your dog bark less.

Common cause #1: Social isolation or frustration
Boredom or loneliness can lead to frustration when you aren’t around – and attention-seeking behavior when you are.

This kind of barking is often seen in:

  • Dogs who are left alone for long periods of time.
  • Dogs left in unstimulating environments, with no companions or toys.
  • Puppies and adolescent dogs (under three years old) who don’t have outlets for their energy.
  • Active types (such as herding and sporting breeds) who need to be occupied to be happy.

To address this kind of barking, you need to expand your dog’s world and increase people time.

  • Walk your dog at least twice each day. Walks should be more than “potty breaks.”
  • Teach your dog to fetch a ball or Frisbee® and practice as much as possible.
  • Teach your dog a few commands or tricks and practice every day for five to ten minutes.
  • Take a dog training class with your dog so that you can work together toward a common goal.
  • Provide safe, interesting toys to keep your dog busy when you’re not at home (such as Kong®-type toys filled with treats or busy-box toys).
  • Rotate toys to make them seem new and interesting.
  • Spend sufficient time with your dog each day – petting, grooming, playing, exercising.
  • Keep you dog inside when you are unable to supervise.
  • If your dog is well socialized and your employer will let you, take your dog to work with you sometimes.

Don’t undo your hard work when you go away! When you have to leave for extended periods, take your dog to a doggie daycare, hire a qualified pet sitter, or have a trusted friend or neighbor provide walks and playtime, just the way you do.

Common cause #2: Territorial behavior
Does your dog bark when he sees “intruders” – like the mail carrier, children walking to school, and neighbors? Does his barking posture look threatening, with tail held high and ears up and forward?

These are signs of territorial barking, where your dog is protecting his territory and his “pack” (you and your family!).

Here are some ways to counteract territorial barking:

  • Don’t encourage your dog to be responsive to people and outside noises.
  • Teach your dog a quiet command. Allow two or three barks, and then say “quiet” and interrupt the barking by shaking a can filled with pennies or squirting water in his mouth. When he’s quiet, say “good quiet” and give him a treat. The noise or squirt isn’t a punishment – the goal is to distract your dog so you can reward the ensuing quiet. You can also throw a toy or ball.
  • Desensitize your dog to the stimulus that triggers the barking. Teach him that people he views as intruders are actually friends and that good things happen (treats, petting, playing) when these people are around.
  • Use attention and praise to reinforce good behavior. When your dog is barking, call your dog to you, have him obey a command such as “sit” or “down” and reward him with praise and a treat.
  • Have your dog spayed or neutered to decrease territorial behavior.

Stay tuned – our next blog post will look at two more common causes for excessive barking: fears/phobias and separation anxiety.

This information is adapted from the HUSUS fact sheet Solving Barking Problems.


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