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 ( )