Summertime just bursts with things to do and it seems we never have enough time to do it all. My dogs and I are big fans of training of course, so we like to work on things like
Thunderstorms and fireworks are stressful on many dogs- up to 50% of dogs! They have both already begun but there are bound to be more. Desensitizing our dogs to them is an ongoing practice. Even if you haven't seen stress from your dog related to these things, I guarantee you they will appreciate what's involved with the desensitization process so go ahead and work on it as a preventative measure. You never know when fears might crop up. Far better to be proactive.
Ahead of time- don't wait for a storm or your neighbor's random fireworks display. You can find recordings of fireworks on the internet. Get yourself some great treats and turn the volume way down low before beginning to play it. As it plays, just quietly feed your dog treats. When the treats run out, turn it off and that's session one complete! If your dog doesn't seem to notice the sound, that's ok! Don't turn it up. Good desensitization work happens when the dog is below threshold. If you turn it up until he is reacting, you've already pushed them over threshold. The next session you can turn the volume up just one notch and repeat feeding treats while it plays. Each time you will progress a little further up the volume scale. Each time your dog will learn that the sound of thunder (or fireworks, or whatever sounds you are working with) predicts treats and along with that comes happy emotions instead of scared emotions.
There was an interesting article recently about how effective this is when taking the physics of sound into account. If you would like to learn more about this, you can read the article in the Whole Dog Journal.
Putting one of these on before you begin your desensitization sessions is a great way to help your dog predict that a nice snuggle with you while eating snacks is about to begin. This is another reason not to push them over threshold! You don't want them to predict that putting something on means something scary is about to happen. Instead, it should predict a relaxing and enjoyable time with his person (and there's that funny but quiet sound in the background but no worries).
If you or your dog aren't the snuggle on the couch type, playing a fun game can be another activity to take your dog's mind off the noises.
Finally, if none of these are sufficient, please speak to your dog's veterinarian about the possibility of calming medication to have on hand.
Send me an email if you want to schedule a session for more detailed help. Or go ahead and schedule it. My website now allows you to sign up, pay, and schedule.
And don't forget to add bones to your grocery list!
In talking with clients this week, I am hearing about stress from many directions. There is no shortage of that going around, along with Covid19. I often talk about using enrichment with animals, and on my social media (links below) I post photos of various ways I present my horses and dogs with things to do which enrich their lives and reduce stress. But what about us? It's important to remember to do this for ourselves as well. And many of the things I like to do to relieve stress also benefits the dogs.
For me, going outside is a big stress reliever. My first choice is walking: with dogs and/or horses. Regardless of where you live, I think all cities, states and countries allow some outside time for dog walking. I'm also outside numerous times every day doing barn chores. In warmer months, the terriers like to hunt around while I work in the garden. On the rare occasion which I am away from home, I miss those regular outside breaks tremendously. When I start to feel antsy, or my head is full of too much worry, fresh air is the first cure I turn to.
Today I thought that perhaps I should bake specifically for the dogs for two reasons. One: a month in to this stressful situation, I need to make a conscious effort to cut back on the amount of sugar-laden things I am baking, (and my sourdough needs to be fed tonight to be ready for bread tomorrow). Two, I knew I had a box of King Arthur dog biscuit mix in my pantry (available from King Arthur or Amazon) that had been in there too long. I climbed on a chair and pulled it out from the back of the top shelf to read that yes, it had expired in 2017. I'm not one to be too concerned about expiration dates of well packaged goods so that wasn't going to stop me.
I was surprised to find it was actually a yeasted mix but luckily the yeast was packaged separately from everything else so I put it in the recommended amount of water to test it.
Lo and behold, in a few minutes it was bubbling up so I went ahead and mixed up the dough. It had a wonderfully garlicky smell to it. The dough had to rest for an hour before being rolled out, cut, and baked so it wasn't a quick and easy mix. They have a recipe on their website which you can make biscuits from scratch in an hour, no mix needed. That recipe can be made by just dropping dough in a ball or rolling and cutting them. I'm not a fan of mixes and this discovery did nothing to improve my opinion. The dogs and I went for a walk during the downtime.
There are times when just sitting on the couch snuggled with dogs is what I need (see photo at top of page!). They squirm a little at first, nosing under my hand for massages. As long as I'm truly relaxing and not playing with my phone, this massaging helps me as well. A study conducted last year at Washington State University documented a drop in salivary cortisol levels of students who were allowed to interact with dog and cats. So it's not just your imagination. Eventually my dogs drift off to sleep while I sit and enjoy the sound of them breathing and the contact with them.
So please, take this trainer's advice and don't let anything about your dog add to the stress of this time. I'm a huge proponent of training as enrichment, but if it feels like too much right now, just enjoy their company. Maybe do a training session where you only work on well known behaviors they love to do. Or maybe you skip training and focus on playing, observing, and snuggling. Let their companionship work its magic. I recommend making a plan for when you will get back to training, since you don't want to stop training altogether. Schedule your break like a vacation, and on the day you choose, your dog will be thrilled for the opportunity to learn.
I have recently realized that my understanding of training rules has done a 180 degree turn over the years. I realized this because I am still using the same phrases, and people I teach are interpreting them the way I used to, rather than what I mean now. Confusing.
We frequently use the word "allow" to describe rules, as in "my dog is not allowed on the furniture". Or I might say to a client, "you must no longer allow him to ignore your recalls".
This is why my dogs are not allowed to jump on the furniture or into the car unless they are invited!
When I looked up the definition of "allow", I read:
If I'm withholding permission, that means I need to have trained him to stay on the floor until I give that permission. That doesn't happen by yelling at him after he's already gotten up there. It happens via the second part of the definition.
If I'm not giving him time or opportunity, that means I need to have set up the environment in a way to prevent him from having access to the couch. I use an ex pen...around the couch! Growing up (for a puppy) or settling in to a new home (for a rescue) with habits of sleeping on comfortable dog beds on the floor (in a sun spot or shady spot depending on the temperature) makes it much easier to prevent that couch jumping habit later. During that time you can also teach a calm and reinforcing "off" cue in case the mistake is made (you can see more detail on this in my previous post).
When Wilder first moved in with us, he was not "allowed" to chase sheep
As to that rule for my clients about not allowing their dogs to ignore recalls, I provide all new clients with a long rope and encourage them to use the same rule I use with new dogs in our family. Note, the rule is FOR ME. That rule is that the puppy or dog is always on a rope when outside until two requirements are met, those being that the puppy turns one year old and has a rock solid recall. In this way, I do not allow the dog to run away. If she is attached to me via a rope, then she is prevented from making that mistake. I keep the rope short enough at first that it's easy to do lots of little recalls with great treats. When the puppy/dog is responding quickly, I can let the rope out a little at a time over many days, weeks and months until that recall is rock solid at great distances and even under great distractions. In this way, I have not allowed the dog to ignore me.
Unfortunately, too often what happens is that in fact the people allow the dog to make a mistake and then punish when it does. That is just unfair.
Let's look at one of the definitions of "rule":
Saying "no" with positive reinforcement sounds like an oxymoron. I find there are two main instances when people reach for that "no!". One situation is when they want to respond if an animal does something "wrong". The other situation (I find is even more of an issue with horse people), is how to convey that the animal must never do a particular behavior.
"what do I do when my dog steals food off the counter?"
"I need to teach my horse never to go over the top of me"
In this post, I will address the the first situation, in which people think they can't let the animal get away with something. They are often upset or angry at what has happened- something has been chewed up or eaten or peed on. They want to DO something in response. In a post on my Bookends Farm blog, I address the second situation.
The first thing to examine is that "no" is not an action. It doesn't give any information. If, as you were reading this, I walked up to you and said "no!"...what would your reaction be? Take a minute to think about this.
think, think, think. OK, got your response?
If it happened to me, I would think, "no what?" Am I doing something wrong? If "no!" has been previously paired with punishment, I would also be fearful. I would certainly stop reading on the computer, if just to look at the naysayer. Depending on past punishment, I might back away or even run away. That might or might not stop what you didn't like, but it wouldn't help me understand what it was that you were saying "no" to. Was it the reading? Was it specifically what I was reading? Was it touching the computer (are my hands dirty)? Was it sitting? Was it sitting in a particular chair? Was it the room I was in? Was it something else I was doing (biting my nails, chewing my lip, wiggling a foot, crossing my legs, the glass I had put water in?)?
So you've just said "no", and there is a good possibility that I've stopped doing what you didn't like because I froze when you said it...but I have learned nothing. There is also a good possibility that I've become more fearful of you, your presence, or your proximity and will stay further away from YOU in the near future (after all, everything was fine until you walked in the room). Remember, punishment has unintended consequences. You may think that because you stopped me, I won't do it again, but since I have no idea what your concern was, I may or may not do it again. If this seems farfetched, try this scenario: a dog is half asleep and chewing an itch when a person walks in and says "no!". What is the person saying "no" to?
Is it sleeping? Chewing? Where the dog is (on the couch, on the owner's favorite sweater, in a specific room), the timing? (dog just came in and is wet or muddy)...etc!
Instead of saying "no", I give my animals something To Do instead. I give them a solution to my problem (remember, it's not a problem for them or they wouldn't be doing it). To use the couch example, my dogs are not allowed on couches unless they are invited onto the couch with someone. I chose this parameter because it means I can assess when and in what conditions they are allowed on the couch. If they are muddy, I don't invite them on! If they are a bit damp, I can cover the couch first. In this very short clip, we have all been out in a misty rain so that my pants are as damp as the dogs. I spread an afghan out on the couch before I sit down, and then pat my legs twice which is the invitation to have the dogs jump up and join me.
I have a clear method for encouraging dogs to stay on the floor, which I won't go into here, but then the question is, what do I do if they get on the couch without me? After all, if they spend time on the couch with me, they will discover it's a lovely place to nap and will understandably want to do it at other times.
I have to decide what it is that I want them TO DO when I find them on the couch. Well, I want them to get off the couch. So I need to train that. Before I need it. So the dogs clearly understand what I mean. I train "off" to mean, "jump down off whatever you are on". Often I train this in the barn, using a hay bale. If you don't ever want your dog on the couch, you don't want to use the couch as a training tool because you'll be encouraging them up there where you don't ever want to see them. Even if I allow them up sometimes, I prefer to train the "off" elsewhere. In this video, Eloise demonstrates that she clearly understands the "off" behavior.
You can train this with a hand target or with just tossing treats. In this final video, Wilder is learning to jump off the Klimb platform which he has been heavily reinforced for being on recently. I give the cue and immediately toss a treat. Before turning the camera on, the first couple times he actually ignored the tossed treat. I encouraged him off so he could get it and then was happy to jump off the next time. By preceding the toss with the cue "off", he will start to figure out that when I say "off!", a treat will be tossed. In the last couple reps you can see him start to look for the toss when I say "off!" even before I move. That's the first step.
If you have experience with chained behaviors, you may be asking why my dogs don't jump onto the couch just to be told "off!" and get a treat. The answer is that once I have a solid "off" behavior trained elsewhere (my dogs always respond immediately to the cue), then they don't get a treat for jumping off the couch. We practice on hay bales and the Klimb platform and stone walls and tree stumps. They get treats for jumping off them so that the response is immediately and automatic. When they hear it from the couch, they respond the same way. But they don't get a treat. If I put it into words, their thinking could be:
every time I get on the couch, she tells me to get off before I can even get comfortable and I don't get anything for it. I might as well just stay on the floor.
Remember, training is a process. I would not give the dog access to the couch (using ex-pens, baby gates, crates or other management tools) until I have a clear set of behaviors to deal with it. They need to get heavy reinforcement for staying on the floor and know the "off" cue for any time they make a mistake.
To get back to "no", I don't use the word. Instead, I am proactive about training skills that will get me out of problem situations and I train those with positive reinforcement.