Thursday, June 28, 2012

Happy training for happy tails: "Don't Shoot the Dog" discusses the merits of positive reinforcement and clicker-training

If you’re a person who is interested in training, whether it be training your dog or training in general, I recently finished a book that I recommend you read.

It’s called Don’t Shoot the Dog and is written by former dolphin trainer and clicker-training enthusiast Karen Pryor. You might have heard of the book—it’s been out since 1984 with a revised edition in 1999. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth checking out.

What’s the book about?
Don’t Shoot the Dog discuses training methods in general, but emphasizes on and argues for positive reinforcement as a more successful training method in most situations. The book also discusses what’s been come to be known as “clicker training” and the methodology behind it.

This book is fun as well as informative due to the many interesting examples described. Did you know that you can train just about any animal using positive reinforcement? Dogs, fish, chickens, horses, cats, and even we, ourselves, respond well to this method.

Some other interesting things I learned from Don’t Shoot the Dog are that people have been known to improve their own squash game just by positively reinforcing themselves whenever they made a good play, and brushing off instances when they made bad plays.  I also learned that you can teach creativity to animals. Positive reinforcement tends to encourage animals to figure out what we want of them, which gets them to think and try new things.

I love the idea of fast and effective training methods, but what really got me excited was when I read that animals trained using positive reinforcement tend to be happier. The author gives an example of a police dog that was clicker-trained and now wags his tail the whole time it’s on patrol and out catching “bad guys”.
When Leopold was in puppy school his teacher talked of clicker training.  Up until I read this book, I dismissed the use of a clicker because I didn’t like the idea of having to always carry around a clicker—it just wouldn’t be possible! This book cleared up that qualm, though, stating that the clicker is only important during the initial training of a behavior. The clicker is basically a tool to help communicate with a dog (or other animal). After the clicker has been “loaded” (you have first teach the dog that the “click” sound means they did something good), it is a very fast and precise way to reinforce your dog’s behavior. And since timing is important to the success of positive reinforcement, the clicker is an ingenious way to maximize both you and your dog’s effort.

What exactly is a clicker?
It’s a small plastic box w/ a piece of metal inside that makes a loud “click” when you push it. It’s a very simple device and you can pick one up at most pet stores for cheap.  You can see one in the photo at the top of this post.

Want to know more?  
Grab a copy of Don’t Shoot the Dog if you want to know more on the ins and outs of how positive reinforcement and clicker training works, or if you just want to read something interesting. Check out your local library to see if they have a copy, or you can always buy your own copy on here: Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training.  Or if you live near me, you can just borrow mine ;-)
You can also check out Karen Pryor’s website at

And if you want to give clicker training a try, you can pick up a clicker at most pet stores, or you can just get one from Petco Dog Training Clicker.  (At the time I made my links, the Petco brand was the cheapest option, but prices seem to fluctuate over time, so look over your options!)

Convenient Product Links:


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Communicating with dogs: making “sense” of things.

Humans tend to largely use sounds when it comes to communicating with each other. One person talks, another listens (ideally, anyway). So it’s no wonder that we often try to verbally communicate with our dogs as well. “No!” “Sit” “Come here” “Don’t eat that!” and so on. And while dogs are smart enough to eventually pick up on some of the sounds we humans make at them, a dog’s primary means of communication is not based in sound. Yes, dogs do bark, but they tend to get their information from other dogs (and their world) by smelling first, seeing second, and hearing third.

It makes sense to me to try to communicate with a dog in a way that they’re most apt to understand. Unfortunately I, just like all humans, have a relatively awful sense of smell and therefore I have absolutely no idea how to communicate with my dog that way.  I’m left with visual and audio means of communication. Dogs, relying more on sight than sound to communicate, actually tend to understand visual commands better than verbal commands.  To help your dog learn a command even better and faster, double up a verbal command with a visual command.

Some common hand signals in the dog world are:

SIT—hand flat, palm upSTAY—hand out, palm to dogDOWN—point down to floor
WAIT—form a sort of “C” with hand and move it from left to right

Of course, you can always make up your own hand signals. I taught Leopold to bark on command using a hand signal—making my hand into a “mouth” and snapping it shut.
I also use a sweeping motion towards me to mean "come", and I hold my hand, palm up, down and out when I want my dog(s) to give me a paw.

You can see me use some of these signals in this video:

Knowing this, adopting deaf dogs isn’t such a daunting task. Because dogs understand hand signals so well, communicating is easy. When I worked at the SPCA back in the fall, we had a deaf dog. Whenever I introduced the dog to interested, potential adopters, I would demonstrate that the dog knew how to sit using the hand-signal; some people thought I was doing magic! But it wasn’t magic at all—just sign language.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Paper towel rolls: a cheap and fun activity you can give your dog!

*** Caution: this is NOT for dogs who tend to eat and swallow things that they shouldn't!! ***

Leopold loves to shred things. When he was little, he would sometimes try to shred things that he shouldn’t, like my file folders and their contents. Yikes! As a way to stop him from shredding my stuff, I tried to keep my shreddable stuff out of reach (a dog can’t get into trouble if there’s not an opportunity to!). When I did catch him shredding something that he shouldn’t, I told him no and then redirected his shredding behavior onto something that was appropriate. I would give him paper towel rolls instead! By redirecting his behavior onto something he was allowed to shred, I kept him from going off to look for other things to do (ie, finding something else of mine he shouldn’t be chewing on) while also encouraging him to be active and have fun! Another perk is that paper towel rolls are one of the cheapest toys I’ve every come across.Paper towel rolls are now one of Leopold’s favorite toys. When I hand him a fresh paper towel roll, he takes the roll from my hand with an excited gleam in his eye and then prances off to his room, tail wagging the whole time. (Sometime Leo accidentally hits the door frame with the tube as he passes by and the sound makes me laugh every time!).

This activity does make a bit of a mess, but I think the pieces aren’t too much of a pain to clean up—I even still recycle the cardboard as I normally would! For me, taking two minutes to clean up a small mess is worth it for Leopold to have a little bit of fun.

This activity is not for every dog. Leopold is very good about spitting out every little piece that he tears off the paper towel roll, so this activity is safe for him. I wouldn’t recommend giving your dog paper towel rolls if they have a tendency to eat things they shouldn’t. I never give Halo paper towel rolls to chew on because she likes consume anything and everything—she’s like a little vacuum sucking up every little piece of paper and plastic on the floor. You know your dog(s) best, so help them play safe! And if you’re unsure of your dog’s eating behaviors, supervise them very closely during activities such as shredding paper towel rolls until you do know. Although, as always, it’s a good idea to supervise your dog regardless.

Happy shredding!