Generally Speaking

How the canine brain generalizes learned knowledge and how to use that to not only help you understand your dog better but to train them.

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap]: At home my dog knows not to jump up on our living room couch, but when we go to visit my parents within minutes he’s up on their couch and looks at me like he doesn’t understand what I’m saying when I tell him to get down. I know he knows not to go up on couches because he’s so good at home, so what’s going on?

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]: While dogs and humans might be great friends and companions, it’s important to never lose sight of the fact we are very different from each other in many respects.  Keep in mind that we dogs think very differently about things – like pee and poop, for example.  We think chasing a squirrel is great fun – do you?  And remember that while we learn via the same four quadrants of Learning Theory that you do, how we generalize that learning is a bit different from humans.

One of the great things about the human mind is your ability to take a concrete action (let’s say sitting on a chair) and turn it into an abstract concept that you can then use to inform your decision making in other situations.  For example, once you guys have learned to sit in a chair at home you can – as if by magic – sit in a chair at a restaurant, in a chair at the movies, on a park bench, in a car and more.  This type of abstraction is so commonplace to your everyday lives that you lose sight of how amazing it is and it’s actually a very important cognitive talent that not every animal shares.

Unfortunately, that includes us canines to a large extent.

Decades of canine behavioral science have shown us that we just aren’t as good at generalizing as you humans are – we, of course, knew this already about ourselves…  We are capable of generalizing quickly in certain situations – for example, if something really scary has happened.  Our brains would need to remember that and generalize it to everywhere immediately for survival.  But just sitting in a strange places – for example – is not a survival skill (in our heads anyway).  But I digress – as I usually do…

To go back to your couch-loving pup, in his mind there is no abstract link between the couch in your living room and the couch at your parent’s and because of that he is not transferring his awareness of not being able to go up on your couch to your parent’s couch.  He is not doing it because he’s being disobedient; he’s doing it because he has learned not to go up on your couch at home – he has not learned to not go up on your parent’s couch.  He sees that as being two completely different actions.

We see variants of this behavior all the time in our dogs:  has your dog ever had a reliable loose-leash walking command at home and then suddenly lose it the minute you’re out and about, say in a distracting pet store?  In the dog’s mind, walking politely around your neighborhood is utterly different than walking through a crowded, exciting and distracting pet store and his mind is reacting accordingly.  I, for example, used to take treats just fine at home but it took almost a year for my human to get me to take treats when out and about.  I was just too distracted, overwhelmed and confused in those situations – but everyone knows I am a special case…

The trick to getting around a dog’s lack of generalization is to have a strong set of basic commands that are not bound to a specific location or set of circumstances.  This is achieved by practicing basic commands in a variety of places that are common and strange, mildly distracting and very distracting so that you give your dog the ability to understand that the command works everywhere – not just at home or not just in the training center.

For instance, one of the first commands my human teaches all of us is the “Off” command.  (This is different than the “Down” command, which literally means “lay on the floor.”)  Also top on her list for us to learn is the “Settle” command – which means lay-down and hang out in a relaxed position where I ask you to and wait for me to release you.  I know it sounds complicated, but in reality it is one of the easiest behaviors to teach and one of her most favorite.  It’s like an invisible crate, she always says.

So to go back to your example again:  you’re visiting your parents, your dog is up on their couch, and because you have practiced that “Off” command in a variety of places strange and common, with and without distractions – your dog hears the command and the conditioning overrides any location confusion and, voila, your dog gets off your parent’s couch when you say “Off.”   Then, like the good trainer I know you are, you ask your dog to settle on a pillow or blanket on the floor while you and your parents visit. Your dog happily complies because you have conditioned great enjoyment with that “Settle” command and you have practiced that “Settle” in various places strange and common with and without distractions as well.

By understanding how our canine brain functions and shaping your training around it you will be able to give your dog a set of tools you’ll be able to rely on wherever you are.  This makes you the “leader” without force, without fear, and without pain.  This will make your dog’s life less confusing and less scary and that makes you the best friend for your dog (and my hope is vice-versa).

Mad About Leashes, or How to Manage Leash Aggression

Helping a dog to overcome leash aggression can be difficult, but here’s a proven training plan that uses positive reinforcement techniques.

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Q:  I have a 4 year old miniature schnauzer named Ozzie who has lived with me since last June. He is a rescue dog and he’s practically PERFECT in every way. However…..he almost always freaks out (barking, pulling, snapping) when we see another dog on-leash. I can never tell which dogs Ozzie will react to, and it’s only when on-leash. It’s much worse in the apartment complex where we live but it happens elsewhere too. We went to a trainer and she gave suggestions but they don’t work. When Ozzie is that upset, he couldn’t care less about treats! Nothing will distract him. When I tried to get between Ozzie and the offending dog, he actually bit me once! I try to avoid other dogs as much as possible, but I ‘want’ to go on long walks with my dog! What can we do, Boo?????

Woof,
Marian and Ozzie

This is a very common issue for a lot of dogs. I personally get a little pushy when I meet a cute lady dog and they often snip at me for getting a little randy if you know what I mean, but I digress…

Boo Answers…
Leash aggression can have several components:
  1. Fear is probably the most common one and it usually builds over time. This can be a result of a lack of early socialization and/or have a personality component.  It can also have grown out of generalized fear after bad encounters with other dogs.
  2. Frustration is second in terms of creating ongoing arousal at the end of the leash.  This can actually come from a great desire to go see that other dog for fun and games or be a combination of fear and excitement.  Then, when the arousal is unfulfilled and hampered by a tight leash on a neck or head collar, it makes the frustration go from “I wanna, I wanna,” to “Aarrggg!” resulting in high levels of aroused behaviors.

The great news is that the fix is the same no matter what the underlying cause is so we don’t have to get Ozzie on a couch and ask him how he feels about his mother, etc.

What we do need to do however, is have a real good understanding of how desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) work.

But first, a word on equipment:  Dogs have what is called an oppositional reflex – so when you pull tightly on a neck collar they will actually crank up more.  This is used by K-9 officers to crank up their dogs before letting them go after a bad-guy and it’s also used in dog fighting to increase the “game-ness” and arousal of a dog – nasty business that dog fighting!  So, your job is to completely take that out of the mix so the humans are not adding anything to Ozzie’s excitement – only removing levels of arousal.

Front-clip harnesses are lovely for this:  The Easy Walk Harness, the Sensation, or The Freedom harness will all work well.  This takes the oppositional reflex out of the equation and if you absolutely have to move Ozzie by putting pressure on the leash it will be a more easy pressure on him via the harness.  Head-halters can add to a dog’s frustration and are not good for physically moving a dog out of Dodge if we get stuck, so we prefer the harness.  I wear a front-clip harness whenever I’m out walking ‘cause it’s just easier on me overall – and I do tend to get stuck on smells – again I digress…

Desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) in short (and I do mean very short – this is the life’s work of many behaviorists and others and I am condensing their hard labors into a couple paragraphs):  we need to change how Ozzie feels about the approach of another dog and change the default (conditioned) behavior he has adopted when they approach.  This means that we take a primary reinforcer (treats) and we pair them up with the appearance of the other dog – in the world of neurology the phrase is “neurons that fire together wire together.”  It has to be a primary reinforcer of Super High Value (SHV) because when we are trying to organize neurons to fire together for one thing – i.e. the behavior we want – the thing that is greater in value (either for good or evil) will win the firing supremacy.  In other words the primary reinforcer needs to more valuable than the trigger is scary.

For example:  if you have a dog who is afraid of cars and you just keep putting them into the car thinking they will just get over it, they may if they are going somewhere that is bigger in the positive sense than their fear of the car is in the negative sense.  However, if the place they are going or the treat they get for the ride is not bigger than their fear of the car the dog will simply learn to hide from you when they know you are going to put them into the car because you have not changed how they feel about the car for the better but you have increased their fear to include you picking them up to put them into the car.

Here’s what may have been missed in previous attempts.
Desensitize/counter-condition for every dog

DS/CC needs to be done for each and every dog you guys see because we don’t know which one will set him off and if we aren’t proactively working our DS/CC program on each and every dog Ozzie could have an outburst which would be self-reinforcing and the reactivity would continue.  Another reason this needs to be done for each and every dog is because although Ozzie may not be having an outburst he may still be cranking himself up inside.  This is not unlike my human when she drives over a bridge:  she doesn’t scream anymore, but her knuckles are white on the steering wheel so I know she’s not in a good state of mind and over-threshold.

Stay sub-threshold

Another thing that may have gone wrong with the other DS/CC attempts is that your timing has to catch him where he is what we call sub-threshold.  This means that he is not over-the-top reacting and can actually focus on the treats and a simple command to do nothing when approached by other dogs.  My human uses either “look at that,” “who’s that” or “oh boy,” for her simple “do nothing” command since these are non-offensive to anyone passing by and are pretty easy things for most humans to say in a bit of a panic.  Remember:  all Ozzie has to do here is NOTHING and eat his treat in the presence of his trigger. So how do you stay sub-threshold?

Distance is critical

You may not think Ozzie has spotted the other dog because he is not over-the-top, but canine senses are so acute that if you see the dog you can be certain that Ozzie knows full well there is another dog nearby. So always work at a greater distance where Ozzie is sub-threshold then slowly close up the distance over time.

Timing is crucial

With a good enough distance for Ozzie to be able to focus on the treats you would say “who’s that” or “look at that” and IMMEDIATELY give Ozzie that piece of cheese or hot dog. (Oh yeah that’s the other thing – explore the world of SHVT [super high value treats] to see what will make Ozzie vibrate with joy and begin with that. Later you can work your way down to something less HV as he gets better and better around other dogs.  Remember as the trigger gets less scary you can either close the distance or lower the value of the reinforcer.

Repetition

This is what breaks most humans down. Remember, we dogs don’t generalize the same way humans do.  And although we are working on a neurological level when we are changing the way Ozzie’s neurons fire together, i.e. meaning that SHVT = Dog, it does take a while for new pathways to be really well-formed in the brain.  Also, please remember that we are also asking him to learn a new behavior in the face of his old trigger – the other dog – so this can take a lot of repetitions.

Avoidance

As you are practicing your timing you will need to walk Ozzie in areas where you know you can control all potential doggie encounters so you can keep him sub-threshold.  My human often tells people to plop their dog in the car (if they like cars) then drive to an empty parking lot or a strip mall where they know there won’t be too many other dogs and practice there. Then, when you are feeling good about your timing and awareness, you would start to shadow other dogs in a controlled environment.  This is usually across the street from a vet’s office, or a down time at the local dog park where dogs will be going in and out, also pet stores can be a good location for this – so long as there are not too many other dogs and there is enough distance for Ozzie to be sub-threshold.

Set your dog up to succeed

Once you and Ozzie have a good working understanding of your new command – your “look at that” or the “who’s that” command –  and he is responding to you reliably on whichever of these you use when you see other dogs and you have decreased the distance on the shadowing adventures to equal the same distance you would encounter in your apartment complex then you are finally ready to “try this at home.”  Remember to bring those SHVT out again in a heartbeat and be ready to retreat (get out of Dodge) if it goes badly and return to shadowing at a distance until he is ready to try again.

Have an escape plan

This means that if Ozzie is reacting you would move him a bit away from the other dog using some tension on the leash, then take a handful of those SHVT, rest them for a moment right on his nose so he can smell them, and then gently toss the snacks from his nose into the opposite direction of the trigger dog.  He will follow the snacks if he is not too far over threshold and you can then relax tension on the leash and follow Ozzie in that direction and, if need be, keep the go-sniff treat-tossing up as you “Hansel and Gretel” him out of Dodge.  (We place the snacks right on his nose provided he wouldn’t redirect onto you – which it sounds like he might given that he once redirected to bite you. In which case you would move him farther away just using the leash before attempting the “go-sniff.” Once he gets better at all of it – you will be able to just “go-sniff” him away when disaster strikes. Remember, you will have to practice the “go-sniff” when there are no distractions – so he knows it when you ask him for it in times of trouble.)  Keep in mind that it is not ideal to muscle a dog around using the leash, but it things go badly – you got to get out.

As you can see, there are way more components here than just having treats in the presence of another dog.  There is still way more than I was able to put into this response before my poor paws got tired from the typing.  Just try typing by paw-pecking.

There are a number of books out there that may help and you can find the best ones my human has found in the Boo-tique:

Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell, PhD and Bringing Shadow to Light, How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong by Pam Dennison, CBDC will offer you guys some great training tips.

Calming Signals, on Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas will offer you a primer on canine body language.

For the Love of a Dog: Understanding the Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D will offer your human insight into the dog’s emotional world.

Hope this helps Ozzie and you, too!

Summer Encounters with Skunks, or Love Stinks

Don’t spend another dime on store-bought skunk washes for your dogs. Here’s a homemade recipe we’ve been using for years.

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap]: Professor Boo, being small and black with a white stripe do you find yourself having to deal with unwanted attention from female skunks?

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]: Being the intellectual, female skunks are generally more attracted to my wit and outgoing personality than they are to the in-your-face physicality of my brother, Dante. While I’ll regale them with stories about studying in Paris, Dante will sprint toward them to say “Hi!” and more often than not ends up with a mouth full of skunk spray.

When that happens, we happen to have a homemade Skunk Wash formula that works just as well as any store-bought solution and is made out of ingredients nearly everyone has in their pantry:

Skunk Wash Formula

1 quart of 3% Hydrogen Peroxide

1/2 cup of Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate)

1 teaspoon of liquid soap

Mix together to make a shampoo for your furry pal.

Rinse well to remove the shampoo from the fur after vigorously shampooing.

You may need to double or triple this recipe depending on the weight of your dog.

Because I enjoyed answering this question, just for fun I’ll pass along a Professor Boo Fun Fact: In French, the word for shampoo is “shampooing” and is pronounced sham-PWAN.

Go Speed Eater, Go!

The dangers of speed eating in dogs and the best ways to get them to slow down their eating using positive reinforcement training methods.

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

[dropcap]Q[/dropcap]:  Professor Boo, our puppy’s been with us for two weeks now and the speed at which she eats is starting to get out of control.  She’s a breed that’s prone to bloat so we purchased a stand for her bowl, but is there any way we can slow her eating?  We tried putting half of her food in her bowl at first and then the second half later but she just wolfs it down just as fast no matter how much we give her.  Help!

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]:  For as much as the super-speed eating your puppy is doing seems like a problem, it’s actually something of a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it is a problem because swallowed air can lead to bloat and gastric torsion which can be huge medical emergencies.  On the other hand, though, your puppy is telling us that she’s extremely food-motivated – which will make training her as she grows up just that much easier.

There’s a two-word answer to this problem:  Puzzle Toys.

By putting some or all of your puppy’s kibble into the puzzle toy and giving it to her you’ll not only slow down her rate of eating but you’ll also be providing her significant amounts of cognitive stimulation as she’ll have to figure out (and work at) getting her food out of the toy.

We’ve been using the Twist ‘n Treat, Atomic Treat Ball, and Tricky Treat Ball at home for our goofy black Lab, Porthos, since just about since we brought him home as a pup.  Along with being diabetic he’s also a compulsive speed eater and the Atomic Treat Ball and Tricky Treat Ball have worked like charms to keep him busy for long enough to allow his brothers to finish eating so he doesn’t try to surf their bowls as well.

In addition to puzzle toys, a good way to slow down the speed of your puppy’s eating is to set aside a portion of her kibble and use it as training treats.  She’ll not only eat as slowly as you’d like by your setting the pace of the training session, but you’ll also get a head start on using solid positive reinforcement training techniques to help her become a great dog.

Boo appetit!

 

Managing Dog Aggression Toward Babies

The first rule to keeping your child safe from your dog is keeping your dog safe from your child – LJ Edwards, “Please Don’t Bite the Baby…”

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Question:

Professor Boo, I have an 11 year old female German Shepherd and a 10 month old baby at home. My dog has always been friendly towards my baby girl and usually kisses her and licks her a lot. My baby is always after the dog, using her as a “ladder” to stand up, grabs her tail and face and usually my dog just walks away but today was the first time she growled at her and showed her teeth when my daughter tried to grab her (my daughter was in my dog’s sleeping area.) Does that mean she might bite her? I love my dog dearly but my baby comes first. What do I do?

Pinball gets to see that great rewards come when he ignores the silly toddler.
Answer:

This is fairly common when little ones begin to toddle around and use the dog as a walking “helper” as it were.

Please remember all dogs can bite anyone if they feel they have no other way to stop something that either scares them or hurts them. Cute as it may be to see baby loving the dog, most dogs are not really comfortable with this kind of grabbing as most little ones don’t have really good grip control and can hurt when they pull and tug on an dog especially an older dog.

It should not have to come down to a choice for you between the dog you love and the child you love.

It really just has to come down to always remembering that baby doesn’t know she may be hurting the dog and your dog is telling baby with a growl “please stop.” Your job is to stop baby before doggie gets to the point where she feels the need to “correct” the baby. There are some simple rules that will help.

Please start out by thinking of your dog like an open pool in your back yard. You would never turn your back on your baby around an open pool. You would never let her dangle her feet in the pool without you right there, next to her. You would always be right there to catch her if she fell, etc…

Please follow these rules:

Dog and baby are never alone together.

You are always right between them for now.

  • Baby can only touch dog when you are right there, guiding baby as to how to gently touch dog.
  • Baby never wakes the dog, pokes the dog or lands on the dog when dog is sleeping.
  • Dog is never chased by baby – not with walker, not with toys and not on her own.
  • Dog is never used as a walking helper for baby.
The first rule to keeping your child safe from your dog is keeping your dog safe from your child.

In addition to all of these I would suggest some review of basic skills that allow parents to get their dog out of a potentially dangerous situation quickly. Very often parents find it easier to call the dog away from baby than to ask baby to stop advancing on a resting dog. This may mean some new or review training either individually or in a classroom. In my book “Please Don’t Bite the Baby, and Please Don’t Chase the Dogs,” I cover a number of quick techniques to get your dog out of a situation before trouble occurs.

Too many dogs are euthanized each year because they are viewed as aggressive to their toddler. Much of this can be avoided if we try to understand that for most dogs, toddlers can be scary. Most dogs try to warn the toddler away and too many parents punish the dog for the growl. This leads to a dog who feels like they have no alternative but to bite.

Always remember

When your dog growls, she has given you a great gift – she has told you she is uncomfortable with some things baby is doing. Take that gift and return the favor to your dog by following the rules above and teaching or reviewing some really basic skills to keep everyone safe.

For more on how keep baby and dog safe and happy together, click here

For more on Please Don’t Bite the Baby, and Please Don’t Chase the Dogs, click here