Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Now Offering Group Classes!

In addition to our private classes, we are now offering group classes at Bam Bam & Friends in Culver City. Bam Bam & Friends is a great pet boutique offering natural pet foods and treats as well as pet accessories.

If you are interested, in group training, feel free to contact me at

Happy Training!


Friday, April 17, 2009

To Crate or Not to Crate

Last week I attended a talk at a pet store to hear another trainer speak. One of the attendees was having problems with house training as well as some other behavioral issues and the speaker asked her whether the dog was crate-trained. The pet owner reacted very strongly to the thought of crate-training her dog. She felt that it was cruel to put her dog in a cage. This is not an unusual reaction as many people are not familiar with crate training.

Crate training can accomplish a number of goals. It is a great house training tool especially for puppies. It is a place for your dog to sleep in and to find respite when things are a little too hectic for them. For puppies and adolescent dogs, it is a management tool to keep them confined for short periods of time if you are not available to keep an eye over them.

Dogs should not be crated for more than 3-4 hours during the day while you are gone. If you must leave a dog for more that amount of time and the dog is still learning his/her house manners or still in that chewing phase, consider gating off your kitchen or washroom with a baby-gate and leave the crate in this area with the door open so the dog can freely go in and out of the crate. Crating the dog during bedtime is fine because it corresponds to the dog's normal sleeping cycle. For young puppies that are still being house trained, you will need to check on them during the night to make sure they do not need to go to the bathroom.

Now, I am not dogmatic about crate training. I have had (and still have) dogs that were never crate-trained. However, these dogs had several things in common: they tended to be older rescues, were already potty-trained, had excellent house manners and were beyond the chewing stage. So, these were dogs that did not need supervision and management. In such cases, baby gates are an option for confinement, if necessary. In addition, crating is not a panacea for dogs with severe separation anxiety or fearfulness. For such dogs, you should consult a professional for help.

Nonetheless, I feel that if you are getting a puppy, you might as well start off with crate-training because helps with house training and the puppy can always get more freedom as she/he gets older. You will often find as crate-trained puppies become adults, they will voluntarily go into their crate when they are tired, not feeling well or need some space. My 15 month old dog just recently earned her big girl privileges and has been allowed to periodically sleep in the living room overnight with the crate door open. Often when I wake up in the morning, I find that she has gone right back into her crate to sleep. To her, it is a place of refuge, her den. Here is a picture of her sleeping in her crate, even when the door is wide open.

I don't think Kiku thinks her crate is such a bad place, do you?

So, the poll for this week is: Is your dog crate-trained? Answer the poll on the right-hand side of this page.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Using Life Rewards To Reduce Reliance on Food Rewards

You reach that stage in training your dog when you have been using food treats to teach a dog a new behavior and it is time to fade out the reliance on food treats. Your dog knows the behavior, knows the word that goes along with the behavior (i.e. the cue or command) and performs the behavior reliably. So, how do you fade out reliance on treats? One way is to become a human slot machine and make it unpredictable as to when the dog gets a food reward and when the dog receives praise and petting. We all know how motivating slot machines can be. I always make sure that the times my dog does not receive a food reward for performing the behavior correctly, that I reinforce the behavior with effusive petting and praise. During this process, I stop using bait bags or fanny packs because dogs at this point already associate the bait bag with training sessions and essentially view the bait bag as a doggie vending machine. Instead, I will hide treats in my pockets or put them in various locations in the house where the dog can’t reach. In other words, I make it unpredictable as to when and where a food treat will come from.

There is another method of weaning dogs off food rewards that many people don’t take advantage of and it is a very powerful method of training dogs without treats. It is using life rewards as the motivator. Life rewards are activities that the dog naturally likes to do. A life reward can be going out for a walk, going outside in the back yard to look for squirrels, meeting another dog, or playing a game like fetch.

For example, before you take your dog out for a walk (life reward), ask your dog to sit or lie down before putting on the leash. My dogs have learned that sitting quickly will get them out the door that much faster. When you want to play fetch or tug, ask the dog to perform a trick like “go to your bed” or “sit.” Some dogs are very toy motivated and this is a great way to reinforce behaviors. All of these activities can be motivating for a dog and your dog will perform the requested behavior to get the life reward. Every dog has a different motivator or life reward and your job is to figure out what that is.

Sometimes, even your laughter and effusive praise alone are motivating for a dog especially when it is coupled with a natural behavior or tendency. There is one trick that I have taught my dogs without the use of food and that is to shake hands. I own akitas and a shiba which are part of the so-called Northern breed group (Akitas, Shibas, Huskies, Malamutes etc). One of the characteristics of this group is that they use their paws a lot. So, capitalizing on the breed’s natural tendencies, I attached a verbal cue (the word “shake”) to the pawing behavior and rewarded my dogs with verbal praise by being very enthusiastic whenever they offered their paw to me.

Recently, I taught my Akita puppy to run through my legs and sit underneath me whenever I said the phrase, “Where’s Kiku.” I used a treat as a lure to guide her through my legs and then asked her to sit to teach her entire chain of behaviors. Pretty soon, I noticed that she was performing the behavior with unusual speed and reliability, even from long distances. In fact, she performed this trick with even more speed and reliability than for just sitting directly in front of me or in the heel position. When you think about it, it is pretty unnatural for a dog to go through your legs and sit directly underneath you. I realized that because this trick was so cute, she would get a huge reaction when she performed it correctly. After all, sitting is so boring but when your dog runs between your legs from 10 feet away and sits, now that is exciting. Every time she did it correctly, I would start cracking up and hugging her. When she performed this trick in group classes or in front of an audience, people would start clapping and laughing. Kiku’s response demonstrates the importance of verbal praise and petting. For many dogs, this is a life reward. Kiku, in particular, is very responsive to human laughter and gets very excited when people laugh or giggle.

Here is a picture of Kiku performing the trick and you can see from the look on her face that she is reacting to the laughter from the photographer who thought this was the cutest thing ever.

The moral of this story is to use life rewards to reinforce the tricks you have taught your pet whenever possible and as another method of diminishing the use of food treats. Don’t underestimate the value of the human laughter, verbal praise and petting as a life reward for your pet. For many dogs this can be motivating. Sometimes we get so engrossed in the mechanics of training and how our dog is performing that we are too stingy with our verbal praise and petting.

Here is my question to you: what life rewards does your dog find motivating and how do you use these motivators to train your dog?

Happy training and remember to give your dog pawsitive feedback!

Los Angeles Dog Trainer: