Things Your Dog Will Love: Tennis Tug

The Tennis Tug is a great dog toy that combines positive reinforcement with a strange magic that enthralls every dog I’ve ever given it.

Tennis-Tug-MainIf your house is anything like ours you’ve probably got dog toys everywhere on the floor in every room.

It’s a fact: dogs love toys. They love toys so much that they’ll make anything into a toy given enough time, boredom, and lack of supervision.

Toys are also one of the most powerful tools to have in our positive reinforcement bag of tricks and there’s always been one that I keep hidden away – only pulled out on super-special occasions – whose value at the moment I take it out is almost as good as a bag of hot dogs.

When I need to go nuclear with dogs to distract them, direct them, or just to reward them, I push the button with the Tennis Tug.

The Tennis Tug is deceptively simple in its design, which is essentially a three-foot length of braided fleece wound through a tennis ball at the end. Woven through the Tennis Tug, however, is a magic that I’ve never been able to put my finger on but which seems to flip a switch in the head of any dog who loves Tug.

I started using the Tennis Tug at ARF in Beacon with a dog who has some resource guarding issues.

I know it sounds crazy to play tug with a resource guarder, but we only play according to the rules and only began once he had a pretty good drop-it command.

The magic of this game was that he didn’t have to guard it:  he knew that he could drop-it when asked and he’d get it back again.  It has done a great job in helping me reinforce simple commands for him and a great job at teaching him that many things just don’t have to be guarded.  (Stay tuned for more on crazy Wesley in future posts.)

When puppy Pinball came to live with us, I was in the middle of writing A Dog Named Boo and had to devise a game that he could play while I typed.  Tucking the tennis tug securely under my foot or thigh – when sitting – I could work as he tugged away.

I can’t tell you why you would want a Tennis Tug, but I will tell you what I use it for:

  • With Wesley at ARF,  because he got the Tennis Tug for good behaviors I was able to begin whittling away at some pretty big issues in return.
  • If Pinball is in one of his “I’m young and have a lot of energy so why not eat the pillows?!” moods, I can redirect this level of energy to the Tennis Tug which wears him out and saves my pillows.
  • Finally, if the dogs have just been really, really good I’ll give them the Tennis Tug for a couple of minutes just for fun.

The Tennis Tug is a great dog toy that’s cheap, pretty durable for a tug toy, and I think your dog would get a blast out of it.  Mine certainly do.

Remember:  this is a supervised toy.  Do not leave it with them alone because they will eat it!

Always present it to them, play for a bit, ask for a drop-it, pay for that and put the toy away when finished.

Things Your Dog Will Love: Twist ‘n Treat

The Twist ‘n Treat is a great positive reinforcement tool to control speed eating in dogs as well as to keep them cognitively challenged.

We want to keep our furry friends cognitively exercised, and a variety of different puzzle toys will keep them on their toes.

The Twist ‘n Treat is very similar in concept to the Atomic Treat Ball. It is a puzzle toy filled with food and it’s up to the dog to figure out how to manipulate it to get the food out.

While the Atomic Treat Ball is our go-to puzzle toy to slow down speed eating (or to just keep one of our dogs busy), if it’s the only puzzle we give them it’s going to become less and less stimulating over time. In short, the name of the game is to not allow them to get bored.

It might seem as if both puzzles are exactly the same. However, the Twist ‘n Treat is much easier to learn and is usually the best first puzzle toy, especially for puppies.

The Atomic Treat Ball and the Twist ‘n Treat work differently enough that it keeps our dogs on their toes. We need to remember that canine cognition does not generalize well and that the two wildly different shapes of the toys essentially makes them two completely different skill sets for the dog.

Shaped like a flying saucer, the twist in Twist ‘n Treat refers to the rubber screw inside the toy that you twist to open in order to load the kibble or treats.

While the loading is more complicated than the Atomic Treat Ball, the fact that you can customize the size of the gap that dispenses the food means you have a lot more options in terms of what you can put in it and it makes for a great starter toy since you can make it easy at first then more difficult as your dog gets the hang of it.

While the Twist ‘n Treat is all upside for dogs, the thick rubber it’s made from tends to bounce pretty well and the shape causes it to roll – so don’t be surprised to find yourself hunting for it underneath furniture.

As with so many of the puzzle toys out there, the Twist ‘n Treat is not meant to be left alone with your dog – especially if they are a hard chewer.

Those minor quibbles aside, the Twist ‘n Treat is a really nice addition to your dog’s positive reinforcement cognitive toy box.  And for those of you whose dogs have not quite mastered other puzzle toys, this is a good learner-toy.

Things Your Dog Will Love: Thundershirt

The Thundershirt isn’t a dog toy but it is something they’ll love you even more for if they suffer from anxiety or other phobic behaviors.

Thundershirt-MainThe Thundershirt isn’t a dog toy.

It’s not something that dispenses yummy treats.

It isn’t even something that you’d think that your dog would like, but if they experience anxiety from storms, company coming, or crazy human holidays your dog will absolutely love the Thundershirt.

What the Thundershirt is, essentially, is a body wrap that helps the dog become less reactive to anxiety-causing stimuli using deep touch pressure.

Research done in the latter half of the Twentieth Century by Dr. Temple Grandin, amongst others, demonstrated that deep touch pressure had significant positive benefits for individuals on the autism spectrum and those with ADHD. Dr. Grandin’s background with autism inspired her initial research with animals and it was discovered that they can receive the same positive results as seen in humans.

I initially began using the Thundershirt in my own home because Porthos, our black lab-mix, can display Happy-Hunterepisodes of high anxiety related to his OCD, blood sugar fluctuations related to his diabetes, and stress from his other diseases. I also witnessed how well it worked after I suggested that we begin using Thundershirts at ARF, an animal shelter were I consult  in Beacon, New York.  While we did see similarly positive results in the even more chaotic and reactive atmosphere of a shelter we also saw some Thundershirt eating (more on that below).

So, why would you want a Thundershirt for your own dog?

Well, you wouldn’t if you don’t live in a place that has thunderstorms, high winds, holidays with fireworks, holidays with kids in spooky costumes knocking on your door at night, hunters in the woods behind your house shooting guns, etc. I think you get my point.

The Thundershirt is a great tool to add to our positive reinforcement training bag of tricks and it fills all my personal criteria:

  1. It more often than not does what they say it can do – there’s a definite improvement in reactivity when dogs are wearing it. It is recommended that they first be acclimated to it by having them wear it when they are doing something they love – like taking treats, playing ball, or tug.  This allows positive associations along with the physical benefits of the snugness and will help prevent them eating the Thundershirt.
  2. It’s reasonably priced.
  3. I always prefer to exhaust the non-pharmaceutical options available to combat anxiety in dogs before referring owners to a specialist for medical intervention.

One suggestion we have come across – especially in the shelter setting – is to remember that even for kids on the spectrum this kind of pressure has a limited time of effectiveness. Therefore remember that your dog’s Thundershirt will probably only be effective for an hour or so at a time.  Simply remove it, give your dog something great to do, and a little while later it can be put back on them.

I find the Thundershirt to be a really good investment for anxious dogs and I think you will, too.

(Please note:  if your dog has high anxiety please see a behaviorist before trying things out on your own.)

French Police to give away free gas to good drivers? Qu’est-ce que c’est?

French police embrace positive reinforcement behavior modification to improve driving safety.

Apparently along the route to the south of France from Paris to Orleans to Limoges to Toulouse drivers during the four weeks of the national “vacances” will be rewarded for good driving with coupons for approximately sixty dollars’ worth of gas.

While the nay-sayers might call it bribery, the fact is that behavior modification is always more effective when a desired behavior is rewarded.  It doesn’t even matter if the subjects – drivers in this case – know their behavior is being modified.

Punishing bad driving over the years has not modified the general habits of drivers to make them drive more safely.  But it does act as a source of revenue for municipalities – so one wonders who is really getting the positive reinforcement for bad driving.  Yes, you guessed it – the city, state, or other local municipality is hoping you will speed through their sleepy little town so they can collect a fine.

They know from years of good, solid behavioral science that punishment will not correct your driving habits – it will just make the subject (again the driver in this case) try to avoid the punishment.  So, again from good solid behavioral science they know all they need to do is simply move the speed trap and the whole process starts all over again.  They want to keep punishing you not to make you a safer driver, but to make up for budget deficits.  They know you will not change your driving habits over the long term for a punishment ticket – and they are happy about that.

However, if you knew that by not tailgating, or not speeding, or by using your blinker, you could end up with sixty dollars’ worth of gas you would actually be happy to see the police and show them what a good job you were doing.  Over time you would want to drive safely in the hopes of getting the sixty bucks and this would become your conditioned new behavior.

Positive reinforcement in this case modifies your behavior to drive more safely.

Punishment in this case modifies your behavior to be a better look-out for the speed traps and keep driving outside the rules of the road.

Positive Reinforcement is not just for dog training and, once your mind is keyed to pick up on it, you’ll be amazed by how often it occurs in our own lives.  If Chief Inspector Dreyfus realized this when dealing with Clouseau all those years he wouldn’t have ended up in an asylum.


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.


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).