Monday, November 7, 2011

Clicker Training Different Species

Here is Kate doing target training
A few weeks ago I attended the APDT conference in San Diego as part of my continuing education and to maintain my certification.  It is important for dog trainers keep up with current trends in dog training and to do continuing education of some form.  Attending conferences is also a good way to meet others in our field.

One of the big highlights of the conference (at least for me) was Terry Ryan's (Legacy Canine) Click-A-Chick workshop.  This 3 hour workshop involved the art and science of clicker training chickens.  You may be asking yourself, "but, you are a dog trainer, why clicker train chickens?"  There are many reasons why this workshop is such a big hit amongst dog trainers:

1)  Chickens have fast, twitchy movements and it hones the hand-eye coordination needed for effective clicker training as well as help you to become very precise with the timing of your click.

2)  Chickens don't wear collars and leashes so it forces you to train an animal using a more "hands-off" approach.  Many people who train dogs fall back on popping the leash and other methods of physically "correcting" the dog.  When you train other species like birds or cats, you quickly learn that physically correcting or prompting an animal is really not necessary to teach a new behavior (see my cat video below).

3)  Chickens will walk or fly away if you do not keep them engaged. So, you have to be on your toes and observant to make sure they are being reinforced for desired behaviors.

4)  Training a different species with different mannerisms and body language from canines can help develop your observational skills.

Me and the chicks hanging out before the workshop
Here is a video clip from the workshop demonstrating target training (similar to what we do in class with our hands as the target) and the learning theory concepts of extinction and extinction bursts (I don't know why I am talking to the chicken, probably a habit from training dogs).  As you watch the video, think about how some of these concepts apply to dog training:

Here is a clip demonstrating the amazing things you can teach chickens to do (this is from a longer chicken training camp/workshop):

This was an extremely fun workshop and it gave me an appreciation for how different it can be to train non-canine (in this case avian) species. The scientific and learning principles are the same but each species is a little different in how fast they move, their motivators, their level of intelligence and perception and how precise you have to be with timing and reinforcements.  Puppies seem to move in slow motion compared to the chickens.

Here is a clip of some of the tricks my cat learned through clicker training.  Like the chicken, there is no leash and everything is hands-off.  She is learning some of the same skills that I teach in the basic class.  More videos to come in the near future:

So if you want to learn more about  the science of animal learning and why these methods are effective, here are a few good resources

Sunday, September 4, 2011

September is Disaster Preparedness Month: Is your pet protected?

Did you know that September is  Disaster Preparedness Month?  Most of us may have prepared for our  own needs but does it also include our pet’s needs?  Here are some things to keep in mind when preparing your own emergency plans:

1)      Identification:  Your pet should always be wearing an I.D tag or I.D. collar.  Micro-chipping is also essential as shelters and most veterinary clinics are equipped with scanners and collars can break or come off.  Recently a cat showed up in my neighborhood and through her microchip we found her owner who lived over 5 miles away and was searching for her cat for over a month!

2)      Water:  Make sure that you have enough water for each  of your pets.  Most agencies recommend 7 days’ worth of water and allocate a gallon/pet especially if your pet is large.

3)      Food and supplies:  Make sure that you have enough food and other supplies (litter, poop bags, clean up supplies, blankets, bedding) to last 7 days.  If your pet is on medication, make sure that you have enough current medication and that it is easily accessible.  Rotate food and water so that it is always fresh.

4)      Hang Leashes Near the Door:  I keep my leashes hanging near the door so that I can easily find them and secure my dogs quickly in case of an emergency.

5)      Important Documentation and information: just as you should keep copies of your important records, you should also keep copies of your pet’s documents sealed in a Ziploc bag.  Examples include:  veterinarian’s contact information, shot records, dog license information, prescription records, phone numbers and addresses of nearby shelters, boarding facilities and rescues. 

6)      First Aid Kit:  Make sure your first aid kit includes enough items for your pet. A blanket is helpful as well to wrap your pet.  Make sure this kit and your pet’s emergency kit are in easily accessible locations.  Below is a link to purchase the Red Cross’ Pet First Aid kit.  In addition, many agencies offer pet first aid classes (see below).

7)      Crates and carriers: should be easily accessible.  I like collapsible crates that are easily stored and transportable.

8)      Window or Door Sticker:  Posting a sticker on your door indicating the number and types of pets residing in your home will be helpful to rescue workers.  Frees stickers are provided by the ASPCA (see link below) and many pet stores sell these stickers as well.

More Tips and Brochures

Window Stickers and First Aid Kits
            ASPCA Pet Emergency Window Sticker

Pet First Aid Classes:

                American Red Cross Classes
                Petco Online Classes

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

See Me, Hear Me: Understanding Canine Body Language

My dad has been in the hospital and I have been taking care of his female corgi mix until he gets home.  At first, she came into my house like gangbusters trying to push everyone around, claiming everyone’s sleeping places and hoarding all the toys from the toy box.  My female Akita loves her and did not take a lot of her aggressive stances very seriously and, instead, constantly invited her to play.  My 2 senior dogs, on the other hand, were not thrilled with this rude little intruder and displayed a number of behaviors to try to defuse the situation and reduce the risk of conflict. I was able to capture some of these interactions on film and thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss canine communication.

Many signals that dogs put out are very subtle to the human eye because they are so different from primate body language. Often dogs show us these signals to let us know that they are uncomfortable or stressed.  Conflicts arise when we humans fail to recognize these signals or we misinterpret the message our dogs are trying to convey. 

Recognizing and understanding canine body language is critical when trying to manage multi-dog households.  Perhaps more importantly, understanding the messages your dog is trying convey can help you forge a better relationship with your dog and help you and your dog navigate through situations that make him/her uncomfortable. Here are a few common signals that are important to be on the look out for:

Lip Licking

This is a behavior dogs will often perform when they are under stress or unsure of what is happening around them. What distinguishes this behavior from a dog “licking his chops” is that it is more frequent and more like a tongue flick. It is a behavior that Turid Rugaas terms a "calming signal" (see book reference below). A "calming signal" is a behavior that dogs display to each other to prevent or reduce the risk of conflict.  It is a way for a dog to try to defuse a situation and calm the other dog (or person) down or even to calm themselves down.

In the photo above, my male Akita just came into the house to find my dad’s dog sleeping on his bed and also blocking his path. He paced back forth several times in front of her licking his lips before he finally walked past my dad’s dog and found another place to sleep. My Akita is not very confident and tries to avoid conflict as much as possible so the lip licking not only shows his discomfort approaching the new house guest but also his attempt to walk by her in close quarters without triggering a reaction or make her feel threatened.

In the videos below, the dogs show this behavior in response to the camera being too close to them:

Head Turns
One of the more common signals a dog will emit is the head turn away from another dog or person. This is another behavior that Rugaas considers a "calming signal."  I most often see this behavior when a dog is being approached by another dog or human and the dog is not quite comfortable with what is happening or when the dog is trying to show the other dog that he/she is not a threat. In the picture below, my shiba inu is not very comfortable with my dad’s dog and is turning her head away from her to avoid direct eye contact, which can be threatening to another dog. 

The dog on the left is emitting a calming signal to avoid
confrontation with the dog on the right.

Another scenario where I see head turns is when a dog or puppy is being hugged or kissed by a human being and the dog is not comfortable with this show of affection. Hugging for a primate is a normal expression of affection but is not comfortable for most dogs.  Often accompanying the head turn in this scenario are other calming signals such as lip licking or yawning (see below). This is probably one of the most common situations where humans fail to read the signs of the dog’s discomfort and if ignored can lead to a growl or dog bite to the face.

This dog is doing both a head turn and lip lick

In the picture above, my shiba inu is not comfortable with someone taking a picture so close to her when she is on her bed.  She is displaying both a head turn and lip lick. When you see this behavior in this type of scenario, it is best to give your dog more space.

This dog is merely tolerating being hugged. Note the head tilted away from the person.
The ears are also tilting backwards.
The picture above shows my dog being hugged by someone he knows fairly well. You can tell he is straining to turn away from the person. While he is tolerating being hugged, he is not really enjoying it. He is a shy and somewhat fearful dog that I rescued as an adult. Therefore, this is a situation where I would tell guests not to hover directly over or hug this dog, especially young children. Even though this is a large dog, the same rules would apply to a small dog that shows the same behavior. In fact, I rarely grab dogs around the neck or kiss them on the face.  I find that most dogs would rather be petted and given a little more breathing room, especially from strangers.

It is important to respect these signs and reduce your pet's stress and discomfort by not putting them in situations that make them uncomfortable. Working at a dog’s comfort level helps build a more trusting relationship. One way to do this is to approach an unsure dog by turning the side of your body to the dog. Hovering, hugging and direct eye contact can be intimidating to a dog and can provoke a dog to growl or bite. Most dogs are comfortable approaching a human when the person's side is facing them and the person's head is slightly turned away (a calming signal).  This is especially true of fearful dogs. 
This dog is more comfortable being held but then my face is also not close to hers and I am not hovering over her or trying to make direct eye contact.  Note the relaxed expression and mouth.

Colleen Pelar who has written several excellent books on raising children with dogs has the following videos on her website demonstrating the stress and calming signals dogs exhibit when they are being hugged or kissed. When you watch these videos, try to identify the calming signals. The videos can be found at:



Body Turns

Another "calming signal" is a body turn.  Often when dogs approach each other one or both will turn their bodies rather than approach head on. If one dog approaches and the other turns away very deliberately, the dog is signalling that “I am not a threat.” It can also be a sign that the dog turning away does not feel comfortable or does not want to interact.

These two dogs do not know each other very well and are
cautious around each other.  The dog on the left is blocking the other dog's path and the dog on the right turns her body and sniffs the ground
which is another calming signal this particular dog seems to do a lot.

Mitsu (dog on left) keeps her body and head turned away.

In the pictures above, the two dogs are showing a lot of calming signals.  It is these signals which help maintain harmony and minimize altercations.  In the days since these photos were taken the two dogs have become more comfortable with each other and there is less supervision required on my part.  Fortunately, both dogs are surprisingly good at expressing calming signals and have made my job much easier.

Sometimes in class I see dogs doing body turns or head turns (usually accompanied by lip licks or yawns) away from their owners. Usually I will ask the owner to give the dog a break from training for a few minutes. The dog is not trying to ignore the owner or being obstinate, an example of when dog behavior is often misinterpreted, but rather the dog may be stressed or is uncomfortable with something that is happening around him. 

The interesting thing about calming signals is that humans can reflect a calming signal back at a dog.  For example, turning your own head or body from a dog that is exhibiting a calming signal (yawning, lip licking or head/body turns) can help put them at ease.


Sometimes dogs will yawn for reasons other than fatigue. This is another behavior that Turid Rugaas terms a "calming signal."  Yawning can occur when a dog is stressed or uncomfortable.  Try yawning back at your dog when you see this behavior and see if your dog relaxes.

Sometimes when I point the camera at my dog, Kiku,
she will yawn in response because she is not quite comfortable with the camera. If she gets too uncomfortable, she will walk away (a scenario that some people incorrectly attribute to "stubbornness").

Relaxed Face

The pictures below show dogs who are relaxed and comfortable with what is happening around them. The mouth is relaxed, not tensed and the eyes are soft.

Relaxed mouth, relaxed face, ears in normal position

Relaxed mouth, soft expression, ears in normal position

Tense Face

In contrast, dogs who are on guard, nervous or uncomfortable usually have a tight, closed mouth or tense face.  The look in the eyes may be hard or intense and the ears may point forward rather than be relaxed.

Closed, tight mouth, worried expression
Closed tight mouth, ears forward,
hard expression in the eyes


Mitsu guarding the avocado and giving a warning growl to another dog. 
Notice the forward posture, stiff body, forward ears and tense face.

Shaking off

Often you will see dogs shaking their bodies in much the same way they shake off water after a bath. When I see this with my dogs, they are usually reacting to something unexpected or trying to dissipate some nervous energy or tension.  The video below shows some examples of this behavior.

Play Bow

Most people recognize this move.  It is an invitation to play and most dogs react positively when they see this posture.

Come play with me!


Some dogs sneeze multiple times when they are excited or stressed.  My Shiba sneezes and prances excitedly when I come home and greet her. 

These are a few of the many facial expressions and forms of body language that are expressed by dogs. In this blog I am focusing on some of the calming signals and other less obvious behaviors that dogs will also exhibit to humans.  It is important to recognize these signs and identify what may be causing your dog discomfort or stress. Knowing these signals can also enhance your own interactions with your dog. To learn more about dog body language, the books below are a few good resources:


Friday, April 8, 2011

A Tale of Two Canines: Leash Aggression and the Power of Pavlov.

Last year I related the story of my young Akita, Kiku, who I was working on to curb her tendency to lunge and bark at other dogs while on a leash and discussed the source of leash aggression/reactivity. Often during our walks we see other people working on the same issue because it is such a common behavior among canines. While the behavior is relatively common, how people address this behavior can be quite different.

On our walks I often run into other owners who have leash aggressive dogs who opt to use more forceful techniques. There is one owner I used to run into fairly regularly who had a choke chain on her dog and she would yell and scream at the dog while yanking on the choke chain. It was a very uncomfortable experience running into these two because you could hear her screaming all the way down the block and the force she would exert on the choke chain would pull the dog of his front feet.  She would also violently yank on the choke chain even when her dog looked in the direction of my dog but did not lunge or bark. I see other owners doing this as well and have even witnessed people hitting their dogs. So, the end result of these aversive techniques is that the dog is effectively punished for just glancing at another dog. Whenever, I see this, I think to myself, what message is the owner sending the dog? See dog, jerk on collar, pain. The dog is associating the presence of other dogs with physical punishment.  This also illustrates the problem of physical punishment; incorrect application and timing.  In this case, the owner was punishing the dog when the dog is actually not doing anything wrong per se leaving the dog confused and walking on eggshells. 

I like to call Kiku "Ms. Control Freak." She likes to know what is going on around her and can be a little intense and vigilant. Trying to make her sit and ignore the dogs around her is just a little too much for her to bear and it makes her more anxious and feel out of control.  She has gone through all kinds of group classes from puppy kindergarten up through intermediate/advanced levels of obedience with few outbursts and enjoys being in class. But it is the non-class setting or unfamiliar areas where she is the most reactive. My favorite technique has been associating the presence of other dogs with a food reward. Like the bell in Pavlov’s dogs, when my dog looks at another dog she gets her favorite treat (boiled chicken or string cheese in her case). This technique of pairing something that the dog finds unpleasant with something that the dog likes (in this case a tasty treat) is called “counter-conditioning.” The goal of this technique is to change the emotional response of the dog towards the object that causes the fearful or aggressive behavior (in this case the dog but it could be the vacuum cleaner or any other object). I eventually turned this routine into a game where she gets a click and treat when she first looks at another dog and then looks back at me.1 So unlike the owner who punishes their dog for looking towards another dog (probably because the owner fears or anticipates an outburst), I actually encourage it. For my particular dog, being able to see the other dog rather than ignoring the dog is a more comfortable situation for her and I am pairing the presence of other dogs with something the dog likes. 

Kiku, ever vigilant, scanning the horizon.
I recently attended a webinar on leash aggression led by Kathy Sdao (Cujo Meets Pavlov) who is a great clicker trainer and behaviorist. She reminded everyone of a video made by Dr. Sophia Yin demonstrating the effectiveness of counterconditioning. In this video Dr. Yin is working with an aggressive Jack Russell Terrier and the results are very dramatic:
Training Aggression?: counterconditioning a dog to blowing in the face

You can see that the dog initially reacted to being blown in the face by biting and lunging but by the end of the training sessions, he no longer reacts aggressively even with being blown in the face quite forcefully. The same principal applies to leash aggression/reactivity. I would rather have my dog look forward to the appearance of a new dog rather than dread it.

Flash forward several months . . .

I occasionally see the woman with her dog and thankfully she is not yelling at him anymore. However, now she carries a little spray bottle attached to her belt loop. The dog is not lunging but his head is held a little low and he does not have the look of a confident dog. His body language also tells me that he is not relaxed. The behavior is being suppressed through punishment but I am not so sure that this dog enjoys seeing other dogs on walks.  As noted in one of my earlier blogs, using aversive or dominance-based methods to suppress aggression does not address the underlying causes of such behavior

My dog is not perfect but she does not have the loud, scary outbursts that she originally had as an adolescent. If we are at a corner and there are multiple dogs walking around, I may ask her to sit and click and treat watching other leashed dogs while she is sitting. Sometimes, she does not pay attention at all and we simply keep moving. But the main difference is that my dog is not walking on eggshells when she sees another dog. Her carriage is more relaxed and confident.  She does not associate other dogs with physical punishment, coercion or pain. When we pass by houses where she knows there is a barking dog, she will often excitedly sit in front of the fence facing me waiting for a click while ignoring the dog. There is one house we pass by quite often and the dog behind the fence will bark once and then lie down and watch our strange little routine every time we pass by. 

So while the end result is that both of these dogs may have outwardly curbed their tendencies to lunge and bark on the leash, the final product is, in my opinion, not equivalent.

The other day I ran into my neighbor from another block with her two goldens on their Gentle Leaders. This owner has worked hard on her dogs’ lunging and aggressive behavior on the leash. Because her dogs are now relatively calm, I have my dog sit at the curb and watch them walk by. As my neighbor sees me working with my dog she waves and pulls her clicker out of her pocket.

1    This technique is a version of one of the techniques addressed by Leslie McDevitt in Control Unleashed and Emma Parsons in Click to Calm.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Paws for Japan - Help Animals in Need

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, people barely had time to escape.  In those precious few seconds, many people had to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave their pets behind.  In other cases, pets may have been separated from their owners or their owners have died.

Below is a video that has been making its rounds around the internet showing two dogs who were left stranded by the tsunami.  One dog is injured and the other dog remains at his side.  Fortunately, both were rescued and are being treated.

Animal search and rescue requires a specialized set of skills and equipment.  Rescuers need to know how to safely handle and transport a frightened animal that has been through a horrendous experience.  In addition, animals may be injured and in need of veterinary care.

World Vets is a non-profit organization that is sending rescue teams to Japan to help the animals who have survived this disaster.  Consider donating to this worthwhile organization.  If you are a pet blogger, join the blog hop and spread the word!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Train Your Dog Month - Even Trainers Get Training!

This last weekend, I attended the Clicker Expo in Newport Beach. The meeting was inspiring, educational and a treasure trove of information. I feel that any dog trainer worth one’s salt should attend seminars and meetings to keep up with current trends and studies in dog behavior as well as brush up on their skills. Going to conferences like this reminds me of skills I need to refine, provides an opportunity for me to meet others in my field and I am always learning something new that will help me tweak and improve my classes. The speakers at this conference were also excellent and one cannot help but be in awe of their animal training skills and expertise.

What was also rewarding was seeing some of my former clients at the expo with their dogs. The Clicker Expo is unique in that it is open to professionals, people who compete in dog sports, hobbyists and dog owners. It is so nice to see dog owners motivated and excited by positive methods of training and using these methods with their dogs. Some of my clients attended the event to improve their dog training skills and others are engaged in competitive sports such as agility. It was really inspiring to see so many dedicated dog owners.

Since this is National Train Your Dog Month, I thought I would share some observations and pearls of wisdom gleaned from the presentations and workshops I attended that have relevance to the average pet dog owner:

1) Positive Dog Training and Punishment – one of the goals of Train Your Dog Month is to promote positive dog training methods. Positive dog training whether it be clicker training or some form of lure and reward training, involves reinforcing wanted or desired behaviors.

Punishment as the word is commonly used in by the average person (an aversive that is applied in response to an unwanted behavior that is aimed at decreasing that behavior from happening in the future) , is not the “go to” strategy in a positive trainer’s toolbox and if used at all is used in very limited and sharply defined circumstances. Resorting to punitive methods of dog training raises the risk of fallout from such efforts such as anxiety, distrust, increased aggression, fearful behavior that may not have previously existed or cause an animal to simply shut down. From a training point of view, punishment is not an efficient form of training as it is usually applied inconsistently and imprecisely by the average person and does not show the animal an appropriate alternative behavior. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published a very good statement on the risks of using punishment on animals:

During the meeting I saw several videos of how positive training methods were used to train large, wild animals. Many of the people who gave talks during this meeting use clicker training to work with large sea mammals.  There was an amazing video of a clicker-trained Rhinoceros who can sit and lie down on cue to make it easier for veterinarian to work on him. If you don’t need a choke chain, shock collar or prong collar to work with these huge beasts, why would you want to use one for domesticated canine that has coexisted with humans for thousands of years and is much more attuned to our body language and gestures than any other animal?

2) If you don’t like what your dog is doing, what would you like him/her to do instead? - an important element of positive dog training involves teaching the dog to perform an alternative or incompatible behavior to what he/she was doing previously. If we don’t want a dog to do something, it is only fair that we teach the dog an acceptable alternative. Positive dog training involves rewarding the dog when they perform this alternative behavior. Positive reinforcement with the use of rewards whether it be food, play, a walk or chasing a squirrel, increases the likelihood that the desired behavior will be repeated in the future. I dislike using the word “No” because it is often overused and is used in so many contexts that it seems like it is just the dog’s middle name. Often people are unable to say the word without becoming very emotional and agitated and in such cases, the word itself becomes an aversive. More importantly, the word “No” does not show the dog what he/she should do instead. For example, if you don’t want your dog to jump on you, what do you want instead? Is a sit acceptable? All 4 feet on the ground? Having reactive dogs, I know that teaching my dogs an alternative to barking and lunging is critical to reducing this behavior. In my case, I reward seemingly small but significant behaviors like a head turn or body turn away from the other dog. If my dog sniffs the ground in the presence of another dog, that is rewarded too! If the other dog is too close, I have a pre-rehearsed “get out of Dodge” cue so my dog learns that retreat is a viable option to standing her ground (which is not easy for an Akita to do).

3) Management is a part of dog training – what was a common thread in every lecture I attended was a discussion on the use of management. Some dog owners feel that training should be enough and that management is not part of the equation. However, effective management can prevent bad habits from forming in the first place and prevents the dog from rehearsing undesired behaviors while you are gone. For example, if your dog barks at people passing by, training alone will not help if you allow your dog access to a front window or gate to practice barking while you are away from home. Leashes, fences, pet gates and crates all function to keep your pet safe or if your dog is aggressive, keep others safe. Management should not be seen as a cop out, it is an integral part of responsible dog ownership.

4) Behavior Chains – dogs are very good at making connections and can readily lump together two or more separate behaviors into a single chain or sequence. Sometimes this is intentional on our parts such as teaching a dog to tackle obstacles on an agility course or teaching a dog to retrieve and drop an object. But, sometimes we unintentionally reinforce a sequence of behaviors that we do not want the dog to repeat. For example, when a dog jumps on the couch, we often tell the dog to jump off the couch and then reward the dog for jumping off. Then the dog repeats the behavior and we reward the dog again for jumping off. Pretty soon for some dogs the behavior becomes the following sequence of events, jump on the couch, owner says “off,” dog jumps off the couch, dog gets a treat, dog jumps on the couch again to eventually get a treat. So, before we reward a dog we have to analyze whether we are reinforcing a desired behavior or are we actually reinforcing a sequence of behaviors one or more of which are unwanted? In the couch example, it would be helpful to be proactive and teach the dog an alternate behavior such as lying down in front of the couch on a doggie bed as a separate and distinct piece when the dog is calm and not in couch-jumping mode and reinforcing those times when the dog goes to the doggie bed on his own. Having a break in time between the unwanted behavior and the behavior you are trying to reinforce can also help prevent an unwanted sequence of events from being reinforced.

5) Pay attention to what behavior(s) you are reinforcing – in one of the workshops I attended, I observed people clicking and treating for certain behaviors that were being offered by the dog (the technique is called shaping). On occasion, a dog would offer several behaviors simultaneously and an unrelated behavior was inadvertently reinforced. In one case, a dog was rewarded for putting his head down but he also happened to be scooting his butt when the trainer clicked and rewarded him. While the target behavior was pointing the head down, he repeated the behavior of scooting his butt because he thought that he was also being reinforced for that behavior. Sometimes in my classes when we teach a dog to target or touch the hand, dogs that have been taught to shake may also raise their paw as they touch the open palm with their nose. My dog will sometimes do this and I have to be very careful to ignore the instances where my dog simultaneously raises her paw and touches my hand and only reward the instances where she only targets my hand with her nose so that the raised paw does not become part of the targeting behavior. So, it is important to look everything the dog is offering at that moment to make sure we are not also rewarding an awkward or unwanted “tag-along” behavior. Timing is also something to keep in mind when marking the desired behavior with a click to make sure other behaviors do not sneak in.

These are but a few of the many common themes and observations from the conference. Right now my brain is overloaded with all the information I took in. I am sure that in the coming months, other tidbits will come to mind which will inspire future blogs.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Train Your Dog Month - Group Classes versus Private Training

One of the most frequent questions I get from potential clients is whether group training or private training is better for their new dog.  Here are some of the factors that can help determine whether private or group training is the best option for you:

1)  Puppies - if your vet has not cleared your puppy for puppy classes, it can be helpful for an initial, in-home private session to help you and your puppy learn some basic skills and start off on the right foot.  Private lessons can also address issues that specifically relate to behavior in the home such as housetraining, play biting and chewing.  If you are a first-time puppy owner, an in-home meeting with a trainer before your puppy comes home can help get your home set up for the arrival of the puppy.  However, by far, one of the most important things you can do is enroll your puppy in a puppy class to help your puppy socialize with new people and other dogs in a setting other than your home.

2)  Rescues - if you just adopted an adult dog, and your dog just needs basic training, group classes are probably the most economical means of training your dog. With rescues, you may want to wait a week or two before attending a group class so your dog has a chance to settle into his/her new home.  If your dog is confident and settles in quickly, then a group class can help you get your new dog off to a good start. If, after this time, your dog is still very fearful, you may have to delay the start of group class and opt for private training to help build your dog's confidence.  If you find that your dog is having specific behavioral problems, then private lessons are often advisable (see below).

3)  Behavioral issues - some behavioral problems are better addressed in private sessions.  For example, some behaviors, such as separation anxiety, urine marking or housetraining are specific to the home environment and are best dealt with in a private training session.  Other behaviors such as aggression towards humans or other animals are also better addressed in private training.  Many people believe that your basic group class will help leash aggression/reactivity but this is not necessarily the case.  Addressing reactive behavior often involves a different set of exercises and skills that are not covered in a basic obedience class (see my blog about reactive dogs). If you have a reactive dog, your best options are private lessons or enrolling your dog in a class that specifically addresses this type of behavior (often referred to as growly dog classes, reactive dog classes or feisty fido classes).

4)  Lifestyle - some people's lifestyles cannot easily accomodate group classes.  If you have a variable or busy schedule, private training may be a better way go but realize that you will still need to set aside time between sessions to train your dog and you will need to spend the time to train your dog in settings outside your home that are more distracting.  Some people also have physical limitations that make attending a group class more difficult and in such cases private lessons may be a better option.

5)  Your dog just needs the basics - if your dog does not have any behavioral issues and you just want to teach your dog to come when called, walking nicely on a leash and other basic skills, group classes are the most economical way to go.  If you prefer smaller classes with fewer people, make sure you ask how big the classes can get.  If you like more individualized attention or feel you could use more coaching on your own dog handling skills, then private lessons may be preferable for you.

Finally, the trainer you interview will be able to advise you as to what is the best option for you based on your particular goals, your dog and the issues you would like to address.

So, if you are ready to start training and bond with your dog, here are a few good places to start searching for a qualified trainer in your area:

Los Angeles Dog Training :

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Choosing a Dog Trainer

Finding a dog trainer can be a daunting task.  These days there are so many dog trainers (especially in large metropolitan areas) and there are several different training styles or philosophies.  To help promote Train Your Dog Month, here are some tips and questions to ask:

1) What is the trainer’s training philosophy? Are the methods based on positive reinforcement (e.g. lure-reward training or clicker training) or are they more compulsion-based (using collar corrections or other physical prompts)? Most modern dog trainers use methods primarily based on positive reinforcement and it is the method that the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior advocate as a first-line approach. Avoid trainers who use harsh physical corrections such as leash popping/jerking, pinning the dogs to the ground or hanging the dog by the leash. With young puppies you especially want to make sure that the methods used are gentle and non-coercive because this is a formative period for a puppy.  If the person you are interviewing is evasive or overly vague about the techniques they use, move on.

2)  What Kind of Equipment Does the Trainer Use? Most positive reinforcement based trainers use plain buckle/clasp collars, harnesses like the Easy Walk™ or Freedom Harness™ or in some cases head harnesses like the Gentle Leader™ or Halti™.  They do not use slip chains (choke collars), prong collars or shock collars.  For a review of harnesses and collars see my blog at:

3) Is the trainer certified? There are a few certification organizations out there that try to standardize the level of education and experience a trainer should have. One such organization is the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers ( The CCPDT, for example, requires that the applicant have completed a certain number of hours as a head dog trainer and successfully pass an exam that tests the trainer's knowledge of learning theory, animal husbandry, ethology, the use of equipment and instruction skills.    Many of these organizations also require continuing education to ensure that its members keep up with current trends and developments in dog behavior and training. 

4) Experience and Continuing Education - You also want to find out how they received their education and training. Did they apprentice with a dog trainer? How many years have they been training dogs? Does the trainer belong to a professional organization that requires continuing education? A few examples of such organizations are: APDT, IAABC, NADOI and the CCPDT. While it may be impressive that a person has had 30+ years of experience, dog training has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years and if that person does not do continuing education to keep up with the changes, that experience may be limited and antiquated compared to someone who has been in the business for 10 years but has also been keeping up with the science and changes in the field.  Attending seminars and conferences are examples of how many dog trainers keep current.

5) What services do they offer?  Does the trainer offer group training and/or private training?  If you have a young puppy for example, you may want to work with a trainer that does both private training and group socialization and training classes so there is a sense of continuity in the training and your puppy can take advantage of socialization under safe, supervised conditions. If the trainer holds group classes and you are unsure of his/her training methodology, ask if you can observe a class. If the techniques are positive-based and most of the dogs seem happy and are enjoying themselves, then that is a good sign. 

6) Use your gut. If the trainer makes you feel uncomfortable, uses scare tactics to convince you to sign up, if you find the methods overly harsh or if your dog is showing unusual fear or anxiety in response to the trainer’s methods then take your dog out of the situation.   A trainer should not scare you into signing up for his/her services. 

Here are a few good places to start searching for a qualified trainer in your area:

The Association for Pet Dog Trainers ( )

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (

Truly Dog Friendly Trainers ( )