Friday, March 16, 2012

Teaching a Dog to Ring a Bell to go outside

Today I was being interviewed at a local radio station about dog training. A caller off the air asked me about teaching a dog to let you know that they need to go outside. One way you can do this is to teach the dog to ring a bell. A few years ago, I taught my Akita puppy to ring the bell when she wants to go outside. The way I did it was to first teach my dog to “target” objects. That is, to teach her to touch objects with her nose. I started off with teaching her to simply touch my open hand and rewarding her with a treat when I felt her cold nose on my palm. Once she got the hang of touching my palm, I added a verbal cue such as “touch.” Once your dog learns to “touch” an easy object like your hand for instance, you can move on to teaching her to “touch” objects like a bell hanging on a door. Then, it is a matter of her making the association that every time she touches the bell and the bell actually rings, the door magically opens and she can go outside to play or go to the bathroom. It may take several sessions for the dog to make the connection that touching the bell means that you will open the door. I have woken up in the middle of the night to the ringing of the bell because one of my dogs had to make an “emergency” potty break. The funny thing is that my older dog who was never taught this behavior has picked up on it without any formal training and he also rings the bell when he needs to go outside. The following video demonstrates how to teach a dog to target an object and it also shows one of my dogs ringing a bell to go outside: How to teach a dog to target

Caveat:  Some smart dogs will start ringing the bell just to go outside and chase the squirrel or play.  In these cases you must pay close attention to the behavior of the dog and her potty schedule.  If I think that she really needs to go I open the door and escort her outside.  If no potty happens, she comes right back inside.   By careful observation, you can tell the difference by the urgency of the behavior.  My dog started doing this and when I put her back inside, if she tried to ring again soon after (and I was pretty sure there she did not need to go to the bathroom, I ignored the ringing).  Eventually the dog will learn that she gets to go outside for potty breaks but will be brought back in or ignored if the ringing is not related to going to the bathroom or if it is repeated or excessive. It requires pretty good observational skills and knowing your dog's typical "I need to pee behavior." So, you can see that there is a downside to this method and you will have to be careful about how you manage this behavior.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Stop and Smell the Hydrants

There are many notions in the dog training world that are out-dated, based on outmoded dog training philosophies or are simply not based on what we currently know and understand about domestic canine behavior.  This month I want to explore some of the "rules" that involve taking your dog for a walk: 

1) Myth - If your dog exits the doorway ahead of you, he/she is being dominant.

The Reality - This idea started with the notion that the alpha wolves led the pack and if you wanted to be a "pack leader" you need to walk ahead of your dog. The alpha dog concept has been questioned in recent years as scholars have argued that the old studies on captive wolves do not reflect what goes on in wild populations.  Moreover, dog social structures seem to be more fluid and less hierarchical than wolf populations. For a more detailed explanation and list scientific sources, read my article on the alpha dog theory.  The simple explanation for dogs wanting to run out the door is that what is outside is much more interesting than what they see inside the house day after day.  Walks are really rewarding for dogs, mentally and physcially, so it is no surprise that they want to run out the door. 

The main reason to train a dog to wait behind a door before you release them for the walk is for safety not to show your "dominance" over the dog. You don't want a dog make a habit of charging out of a door, especially if the leash has not been securely fastened. 

Because going for a walk is what I call a "life reward,"  I use this fact to my advantage and ask the dog to perform a behavior such as a "sit" or "wait" before I open the door and let them outside.  By doing this,  I reinforce their training (sit and wait) and the great thing is that the reward is not food, but the walk itself. 

2) Myth - A dog that walks ahead of you on a walk is being dominant.

The Reality - again, this notion has its roots in dominance or alpha dog theories and like the doorway myth, the studies do not support this idea.  I think the simplest explanation as to why dogs like to forge ahead on walks is because they usually can walk faster than us and what is in front of us is much more interesting.  It is not so much about controlling you as it is excitement and trying to burn off some mental and physical energy.  Walks are very exciting for dogs and are often the highlight of a dog's day.  I advocate the notion of walking with a loose leash which is comfortable for both the dog and owner.  A dog that is pulling you with a taut leash or a dog that zig zags is simply an untrained dog.

If you have a leash aggressive dog, however, you may want to train your dog to walk closer to you because giving an aggressive dog too much space ahead of you makes it harder for you to control and work with your dog if he/she becomes reactive when he/she sees another dog or person.  Again, keeping a dog closer to you in this scenario is more for safety and training purposes rather than rooted in notions of your dog trying to dominate you. 

3)  Myth - Your dog should not  be allowed sniff the ground on walks.

The Reality - this one makes me sad and I am not sure how this idea got started. It causes owners (and the dog) a lot of undue stress  and owners often end up jerking the dog around in frustration. The highlight of a dog's day is to be able to smell the "calling card" left by other dogs and leave one himself/herself.  A dog's sense of smell is so sharp compared to ours that there is a lot of information picked up by smelling the ground.  It is also good mental stimulation as your dog is processing information about the neighborhood.  When dogs are young puppies, I feel that smelling the world is vitally important for their development and learning not to fear the world outside the home.  Jerking on a puppy's collar every time he/she tried to investigate the world is very stressful and makes a walk unpleasant for the dog. 

In a casual walk, I allow my dogs to smells things and they manage to keep walking with me in a straight line and on a loose lead. Akitas and shibas were bred for hunting and I am not going to deny them the pleasure of smelling things. Moreover, my dogs do not need to look up at me adoringly for our entire 45 minute walk.  I am not training them for competitive obedience and neither are 99% of average dog owners.  If my dog lingers too long at a spot or if we need to keep moving, I have a verbal cue "let's go" and she knows that we need to move on.  If I need to her to go to a heel position and focus on staying close to me I have a verbal cue "heel." But, the bulk of my walks are leisurely, loose leash walks and keeping a strict heel for the entire walk is not necessary.  My view is that when I attach a leash to my dog, the walk around the neighborhood is for her pleasure just as much as mine.  Would you go on a hike without admiring the scenery?  Well, going on a walk without being able to smell things would be the equivalent deprivation for a dog. 

Now if your dog is zig zagging back and forth or pulling you around to smell something, that is an issue of training your dog to walk in a straight line without pulling.  This is a separate issue from letting your dog smell things once in awhile on a walk. 

So, next time you go for a walk, enjoy the sights and sounds.  Stop and smell the roses (or in the case of your dog, the hydrant).

Los Angeles Dog Trainer