No Forward Progress
Recently, I have been seeing several people posting on social media about behaviors and service dog tasks that they have been working on for a week or months and seeing very little progress. These owner-trainers are talking about just building the basic behavior, not generalizing, proofing or even fine tuning a behavior!
If you are having this same problem while using positive reinforcement, doing several short training sessions a day, and training in a low distraction environment with a suitable level of reinforcers, then something in your training process is not right.
Some Common Things to Look At:
- the dog's behavior history
Has the dog previously been punished for doing the behavior or a similar one? This will certainly slow the progress as the dog will be fearful or hesitant to do similar behaviors.
- the dog's developmental stage
Is the behavior you are working on affected by his physical or emotional development stage? If your puppy is teething, he may be hesitant to grab a hard object firmly because it hurts to do so.
- the dog's response to doing the behavior
Does the behavior involve something that is aversive to the dog? For example, is the dog very space conscious and you are asking for him to invade your space to do a behavior?
- the dog's understanding of how to build behaviors
Does the dog's previous learning give him enough understanding that supports the specific behavior you are working on? Making sure he has the pieces of the puzzle to figure out what you want builds his success.
The Big Question and the Solution
Are you breaking the behavior down into small enough pieces? If not, go back and teach him missed foundation skill of the behavior.
Long Term Behaviors
There are a few behaviors do take a long time to develop, such as loose leash walking (due to distractions inherent in the behavior), or settle (due to adding duration to the behavior), but your dog should be experiencing success at each step of the way and not getting stuck for long periods at a certain spot. If forward progress seems too slow, it is up to you to figure out what needs to be done to help your dog move forward in incremental steps.
One of the reasons I use positive reinforcement with my own and client dogs is because of the quick success all of us experience. Teaching (and the flip side, learning) is about experimenting. When your dog gets stuck, try changing some small things about the behavior or the physical environment. If that doesn't work, step back and look at the challenge and take a medium picture look.
If those changes don't work, then try taking a whole different approach. There are many ways to teach the same behavior! For example, in teaching a hand-delivered retrieve, there are at least 7 different positive ways to teach a dog to take something in his mouth and 7 other ways to teach him to hold an object. That's 14 things you can experiment with for two key steps of the retrieve! Each of those can be broken down into many smaller steps.
What You Can Do
A. If you are getting stuck, first make sure you understand the basic concepts of training. If you are missing something, then so will your dog. Many dogs are great about compensating for our lack of knowledge in many areas and make us look like great trainers, but there will be some things your dog just cannot figure out on his own.
B. Next, ask questions from others. They can help you brainstorm what the problem might be and solutions. Find a good Facebook group that you feel comfortable in and are confident that you will get some thoughtful answers. Ask your question being clear on: 1. what the behavior is, 2. what you think the problem is and 3. what you have tried so far. Sometimes the process of writing it down for others will give you a new perspective.
C. Find a reputable experienced local dog training professional who is great at breaking behaviors into their smallest parts.
D. Take a class online for your specific challenge.
Help is available! You and your dog don't need to feel like failures. For most behaviors, positive reinforcement should be all about quick success for you and your dog! If it's not, something needs to be changed. Check out my Foundation Skills classes and Service Dog Retrieve online class!
Most people reading this would think this is ridiculous! Hold off on your judgment until you have read the whole article!
Fact! Most program-trained service dogs have dogs trained and working in public by 18 months - 2 years of age.
Fact! The success rate of program-trained dogs is between 35 and 80%
Fact! The program dogs are tested and either declared ready for work or are removed from the program before or at that age.
Let's take a look at why there is a difference between program-trained service dogs and owner-trained service dogs.
Professional Programs have a Training Structure
First and foremost, all programs have a tried and true structured program they put the dogs through. It has been honed over the years to work with most of the dogs that go through the program. Interestingly, using positive reinforcement with correction actually ends up speeding the process and gradually higher percentages of dogs each year.
Professional Programs have Experienced Volunteers and Professional Trainers
Volunteer puppy raisers (many of who have already successfully raised several puppies for the program) do the hard foundation work of raising the pups to about 14-16 months of age and training the basic behaviors. These volunteers follow the training structure and go to classes provided by the program. The developing adolescent dogs are included in their active lifestyles as much as possible to expose the dog to everything they will later encounter as an adult.
Professional Trainer's Focus is on Training the Dog
Professional trainers work with each dog every day for several hours, teaching tasks, and refining the skills learned with volunteers and generalizing those skills to public places. The training is very intense for the dogs. Trainers live their own life after hours.
Professional Trainers Have a Support Team
Professional service dog program trainers have a support team of puppy raisers, assistants, other trainers, supervisors, etc that they can ask for ideas, help and support for daily training and problem- solving. These people can also serve as distractions for training and for training set ups before the dog is exposed to the public. And they are responsible for the dog during non-training time.
Professional Trainers Have Resources Provided by the Organization
Resources needed can take the form of payment for their time, purchase and storage of training materials, transportation to specific sites for training, resources collected over the years and access to public training spaces. Most programs have all the key physical structures and materials to practice on right on site: from a variety of surfaces to different doors with handles to disability-specific equipment.
People Training Their Own Service Dogs
Owner-Trainers Need to Find or Create a Structured Training Program
In comparison to programs, people who self-train their assistance dogs need to develop or find a training structure or program. Or cobble several together.
Owner-Trainers Need to Learn the Skills to Train Their Dog
A few years ago, most owner-trainers were professional dog trainers who already had many of the skills needed. Today, more and more people are owner-trainers who need to learn the training skills as they train. That slows both them and the dog down.
Owner-Trainers May Be Limited by Their Disability or Their Work Schedule
Owner-trainers typically have their own disability or are caregivers for a dependent with a disability. The disability may stall the training process for long periods (as in a health relapse) or may limit where they can go to train (as in anxiety or PTSD).
Some owner-trainers work part or full-time. The dog may not the main focus of their day-time hours.
Owner-Trainers Need to Create and Maintain a Support Team
Many owner-trainers are isolated and have to work hard to create a support team to help them train their service dog. They build it and often rebuild it in the process as support people move on. In addition, they have to train these people how to interact with the dog or how to help them in the training.
Owner-Trainers Must Make All Arrangements Themselves
Owner-trainers have to arrange for themselves transportation to and get specific permission to access to each of the resources and locations they need for training: everything from specific equipment, visiting to fire stations to practice riding transportation.
All of these things are done by the owner-trainer and takes focus, energy and time away from training the dog. These three things are usually in short supply.
A Word about Canine Maturity
Most dogs are not physically mature until 2 years of age. Bone plates have not completely closed and the dog has not yet filled out. On top of that, many breeds are not emotionally or socially mature until 3 years of age. Think of your friends and neighbors who complain that their similar breed dogs still acting like a teenager at 2.5 years or older! Are you willing to trust your life to a teenager?
Public Access Assessment Tests Hold You to a Higher Level
You may decide to complete an external assessment like British Columbia residents who owner-train may do. You will learn that most of the items on the test require the dog to have developed a very high level of self-control and an ability to focus on you for a long period. That self-control comes with time and practice. All service dogs with public access need to have this level of training and the test holds you to them. All program dogs have some sort of test they must pass before they are deemed a service dog who can work in public.
In 2016, the success rate of owner-trained service dog teams taking the BC Provincial Guide and Service Dog Assessment Test for the first time was 30%. A team can come back at a later date suggested by the assessor to retry. That time allows the dog to fine-tune the public skills, deal with any issues (commonly fear, aggression, over-exuberance or health) and develop the maturity needed to be able to focus in public despite distractions.
Why Take the Assessment Test If You Don't Have to?
In provinces like British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia, they have tests that non-program trained dogs can take to prove they can meet (or surpass) the required standard for public access. Taking the test proactively makes your life much easier. When asked by retailers etc, you can produce the certificate. If the police are called, they can back your access claim up. If you do not have the provincially issued card, the police will support the retailer and they can press charges against you for portraying your dog as a service dog when it is not. Then it is up to you to prove that your dog does meet the provincial standard. This whole process is very messy and stressful. Taking the test in the first place is the easiest way to avoid that whole emotional turmoil.
A Big Bonus of Training Your Own Dog
Fortunately, service dogs that are owner-trained can be kept in training as long as needed to further train the dog and give them time to mature into a full-fledged service dog. A dog in training can still be working at home, in pet-friendly places and in other places with written permission until he has developed the skills and maturity needed to be a working service dog.
That's why aiming for the age of 3 years is a more realistic goal for those who are training their own service dog before starting to use their dog as a full-fledged working service dog.
One of the most important things that crossover trainers (trainers who are changing from a correction-based approach to a positive one) learn is that training a dog is a fun process of helping their dogs enjoy learning. Breaking the training process into small enough steps for success allows the dog and trainer to enjoy the journey because they are both being challenged while still achieving high success.
Progress means moving towards a goal in small enough steps that that each particular dog needs. Often those steps are much smaller than the trainer expects. Asking for more than a dog can do sets the dog up to fail. Asking for less than he can do (or doing too many repetitions of the same thing) sets him up for boredom. Finding the 'sweet spot' where the dog is steadily making progress with the behavior and is having fun learning is the real training challenge.
Making the Process an Enjoyable One
A good rule of thumb is to set up the environment and choose a specific training session objective (criterion) so that your dog can achieve at least 50% success rate on what you are asking him to do. That means for every 10 repetitions, he gets at least 5 correct and is marked and rewarded for each. That level is the minimum level that most dogs need to continue trying and the behavior is a fun puzzle to figure out. Practice at that specific objective until your dog can get at least 80% (8 out of 10 repetitions) correct before changing the objective to make it just a little more challenging. Just like a good computer game, we need to increase the challenge to keep the dog's interest and joy in playing with us.
Observe and Note the Pattern of Success & Failure
The trick here is to observe the pattern of success. If your dog gets 4 or more in a row correct, he probably is starting to understand what you are asking and you can ask for something a little more challenging. If he gets three in a row correct then makes a mistake, then he needs more practice at that level. Alternatively, if he gets something wrong twice in a row in a training session, then it is up to you to make something easier so he can succeed the third time. That success will keep him motivated to keep trying despite the failure.
Changing the Objective on the Fly
If your dog did get two in a row wrong, you will need to immediately change something about what you are asking to make it easier. This "in the moment" evaluation is called "formative evaluation" in education circles. Applying formative evaluation during training sessions is a key skill that allows you to focus on the training process rather than the end product.
With an enjoyable (just the right challenge level) process, a good product is more likely. The desired final behavior can then be achieved.Ultimately we are looking for progress not perfection!
As trainers, we need to remember that while we can get behaviors to be reliable, they will never be "perfect" since dogs, like us, are variable in their behavior no matter how well trained they or we are. That is another reason we focus on progress, not perfection.
with Lisa G White of Positive Pet Advice FB Group.
- DH: Hi Everyone! Thanks for inviting me here again!
- LGW: It's a pleasure having you here with us again, Donna. Well let's get the ball rolling - how long have you been training Service Dogs? How long have you been training Service Dogs?
DH: I have been helping people train their own assistance dogs via Youtube, Skype and online classes since 2008. Hence my Youtube channel name of supernaturalbc2008. I started when I realized how easy it was to train tasks with clicker training. No physical strength is needed. Just break them down into small enough steps for the dog to succeed.
- LGW: Do you train dogs to hand over to someone or do you teach owners with their existing dogs?
DH: I help people choose and train their own dogs, do day training and help clients to top up training of dogs obtained from programs. Not all service dogs work in public. A service dog can work only at home for tasks that are done at home, such as waking a person from night terrors or when they go into a diabetic low or alerting them to a sound when they take their hearing aids out. Not everyone wants or needs a dog that can do public access.
- LGW: What qualities are key for a dog to become a Service Dog?
DH: Keeping it super simple: For public access, they need to be healthy, have a good temperament, food-motivated and be bombproof. There are many others of course. LOL! On my website, I have a free class that helps guide people on what qualities to look for in an adult dog and when looking for a breeder for a future service puppy. Here is a list of some of the key characteristics to look for in an adult dog.
- medically and structurally healthy dog from long-lived lines
- adaptable to different situations and expectations
- be food or toy motivated or both for training
- wants to interact and be with people but not overly friendly as you need the dog’s focus to be on the handler
- low to medium exercise needs (unless handler leads an active lifestyle)
- has body awareness so not knocking into things, people
- forgiving if you accidentally run over his feet with a wheel etc
- social with other dogs (polite but not overly interested in them)
- low to no prey drive (cats, rabbits etc)
- inhibited bite when in play - soft mouth is ideal
- tolerant to loud sounds like thunderstorms, gunshot, fireworks (must have been introduced when young)
Because there are so many characteristics that they need to have, service dog candidates can be difficult to find. I once heard an SD trainer say "You need a service dog candidate, not a rehabilitation project." I have come to agree with her! It's a long and hard enough process starting with a good dog! Some of the more successful programs breed their own lines of labs, goldens, standard poodles or mixes of these. Others use rescue dogs but must assess about 400 shelter dogs before they find one that is a suitable candidate. If a person lives in an area with few rescue dogs, it can be difficult for them to find a suitable dog to train. Reported success rates for program bred dogs (50-80%) are much higher than for both for shelter dogs (15-30%) and owner-trained dogs (unknown but low judging by the number of multiple dogs many have.) Owners have to be willing to either have multiple dogs, use the dog only at home or rehome a dog that doesn't meet the standards for public access. Aggression, fear, overly-social and health issues are the most common reasons dogs fail to become a service dog with public access.
5. LGW: How long is the process in training a dog to become a fully qualified Service Dog?
DH: For owner-trained dogs who have medical issues that slow the training process, or who are new to training, I tell them to expect to expect their dog to be at least 3 years old if they are training from a puppy. If they get an adult dog that is 18 months to 3 years, then at least a year from the time they get the dog, depending on how much previous training and public access experience the dog has done and their own skill and knowledge of training dogs. Programs can do it in shorter periods (18 months to 2 years) because they have professional trainers who are working with the dog 5 days a week, plus they have the physical resources such as training space, transportation, access to other dogs, people and props available when they need it. They also have developed a process that works. Most dogs are not emotionally mature enough to handle full public access until at least 2yrs anyway. If you get a dog 18 months or older, they have gone through fear periods and you have a pretty good idea what the working ability will be like.
6. LGW: What are some of the tasks that a Service Dog is trained for?
DH: Tasks are really the sexy stuff of service dogs. They are comparatively easy compared to public access training. Today, with a good understanding of the principles of clicker training, the only limit to tasks is the creativity of the trainer or handler, the ability to generalize the task anywhere and knowledge of the client's specific disabilities.
Common tasks are retrieving items for a mobility-impaired person, alerting a hard-of-hearing person to a car behind them or someone calling their name. Autism dogs can keep a child from running away or from hurting himself. Seizure response dogs stay with the person when they have a seizure and are there when they come out of a seizure.
More rare are seizure alert dogs who can predict an impending seizure so the handler can get to a safe place.
A dog trained as an Alzheimer's dog can go get the caregiver when the person gets out of their chair or lead the handler home on a walk.
Psychiatric assistance dogs are on the rise for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety etc.
For anxiety, dogs can interrupt self-harm behaviors, or lead a person to an exit when they are panicked or confused. The most recent application is to detect a rise in cortisol levels when the person is becoming stressed as an anxiety alert.
Here's one of my public videos that show how to train an anxiety alert:
7. LGW: How do you pair up the right dog to the right person?
DH: This is a very important question as it the foundation for success. When helping a person to chose their own dog we look at their lifestyle, where they live, their resources, their abilities and what they need the dog to do for them. Would starting with a puppy or an adult dog work best for them? Activity levels, grooming requirements of the dog and of course the tasks needed. Size and structure may be important for the tasks as well as food costs. The dog must be physically capable of doing tasks and be able to handle the physical and emotional stress of doing them every day for however long is needed.
I see many people who come to me who have chosen the wrong dog for the situation and job. Even with careful research, they are not familiar with what they actually need and a breeder or rescue organization may not be familiar with what the person's reality is. For example, a dog from working lines might sound like a good match for someone who needs motivation to get out for a walk, but in reality, is likely to be too demanding in mental and physical exercise needs for the person to live with.
With owner-trained service dogs, when mismatches occur, it is heartbreaking. Most people do not want to give up a dog they have bonded with and put many hours of training into. But the dog is not meeting their needs and is costing them the limited resources they have. I suggest that people find a trainer to help them at least rule out obviously inappropriate breeders or adult dogs. Sadly, there are far more dogs that won't be suitable as service dogs for them than ones that will.
8. LGW: What are the realities of living with a Service Dog?
DH: This is super question! One that most people overlook when thinking about training their own SD. But very important as I know people that have stopped training as they didn't like the attention they got and stress it caused having a dog with them.
It takes a team of people to raise and meet a dog's daily needs, and train it to public access standards. The handler needs to take care of the dog just like the dog takes care of the handler. Training the dog to be a service dog takes 100% focus on the dog during training. It takes planning, dedication and someone who can stay motivated. And that is above the basic daily needs of all dogs (food, water, pottying, cleaning up, play, exercise, rest, grooming, veterinarian care etc).
Even when handlers train their own service dogs, the process is still costly. Beyond the initial purchase price are several sets of in-person classes, consults with behavior experts, trips for socialization and public access training, equipment, regular veterinarian fees etc. Here is a link to a service dog cost estimate chart for the first two years. http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/train-your-own-sd/200-estimated-costs-of-owning-a-service-dog
Education and advocacy about service dogs is an important role that most people have no idea is part of being paired with a service dog. Interacting with members of the public who just see a cute dog they want to pet have and no idea they are not supposed to interrupt a service dog at work, educating retailers who ask the dog be removed despite the dog behaving and doing its job, advocating for their rights with accommodation providers who see the dog as a pet. Learning to handle people who pry into your medical condition because you have a dog is key. And these days, running into fake service dogs who are untrained, often aggressive and interfering with a working dog is more and more common. Some days it seems like too much work and can be overwhelming! Of course, there are good days too.
9. LGW: Are you satisfied with the results in using a clicker to train an SD? What are the pros and cons of using a clicker for this type of training?
DH: I have a blog post on the pros! It is often life-changing for the client once they embrace the principles.http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/blog/373-what-we-learn-by-clicker-training-our-dogs
10. LGW: Why is it important that people do NOT approach a Service Dog?
DH: Great question! A service dog who is working needs to be focussed on their handler. Even if the dog looks to be resting, they are still connected and ready to work. They are just on 'stand by'. If you are interacting with a service dog, the dog might miss giving an alert because he is distracted by you or he might miss a cue given by the handler to perform a task. In fact, in many jurisdictions, it is illegal to interfere with a service dog unless he is off duty and you are given permission to interact by the handler.
11. Member Question: How can people improve the success rate for training their own service dog to public access standards?
DH: There are 10 steps for that! LOL
Get professional advice before you start the process-before you get the dog.
Have a support team ready to go for both practical and emotional support.
Have a medical condition that doesn't significantly affect the dog or the training process.
Learn the service dog laws that apply to the state/province and country where you live.
Start with the best dog available.
Follow a structured program.
Be diligent about following it and recording success and failure.
Get professional help as soon as you need it.
Be realistic about how long it may take.
Be ready to use the dog only at home if s/he doesn't qualify for public access.
12. Member Question: What assessment tool do you use for puppies? and adult dogs?
DH: Good one! I have cobbled together one I use from several others. CARAT by Suzanne Clothier is the best overall. I understand it stands up to scientific research as far as predictability. But it can be hard to access as there are not many people who do it yet.
Member Question: Is everything covered in CARAT 01? Puppy Assessments? Or should I plan to attend 02 and beyond?
DH: Here's the link: http://suzanneclothier.com/content/carat
Member Comment: Thank you!
DH: Ideally, if you want to assess dogs for a living, the whole program would be something to consider. I haven't taken it myself and I don't know the details but if you are serious about learning this specific thing, it would be an ideal way to do it and learn from a great instructor.
13. Member Question: I am interested in learning how to become a Service Dog Trainer, what would you suggest for me and other trainers?
First, you have to love working with people when they are not at their best. Learn about the specific disabilities you want to train for. Learn how to apply the principles of learning, learn dog language, learn how to teach people, so many parts! The Human Half or Dog Training" by Rise Van Fleet is also helpful.
My online classes are a great way to start. Work with a dog to train the through the whole process to see if it's something you would like to do. Maintain high standards for the dogs you work with.
14. Member Question: Should all SD's be X-rayed for hip Dysplasia?
That really is up to the dog and vet you are working with. If the dog is from unknown background, then I would say Yes, ideally combined with other medical procedures like a spay or neuter to minimize time in the vet office, costs etc. There are so many factors in HD. Even the floor surface a pup is exposed to in the litter box, using stairs before 4 months etc. may affect how the hips develop so the more that is known helps.
15. LGW: Ok folks, time to wrap things up. Donna any final comments about the Service Dog Industry?
DH: Yes, if anyone is interested to see the test that dogs must pass in British Columbia before being certified for public access: Here is a link to the BC Assessment test. I like it better than the ADI public access test because it breaks the behaviors down further and so is easier to know if or not your dog is ready to pass it. It is also publically accessible which the ADI test is not any longer. http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/human-rights/guide-animals/bc-guide-dog-service-dog-assessment.pdf
If you want to learn more about SD, check out my website which has tons of free information as well as online classes and private consults by webcam.http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca
LGW: Thank you so very much Donna, on chatting with us about such an interesting topic, and thank you to our members for asking the questions.
DH: You are welcome! Thanks for having me back!
Thanks for coming everyone! Please feel free to refer anyone you know thinking of training their own SD or wanting to get into SD training to this post or to my website. http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca
Clicker Training Teaches us Many More Life Lessons!
Click here for Part 1
Improves our Eye/Hand Coordination: The mechanical skills used in clicker training can be learned. Our timing gets better with practice. So does our thought of where the reward is placed to set our dog up for success. We get better at using the equipment. We fine tune our motor and brain muscles for life's other activities.
Builds Creativity and Resourcefulness in Both Us and Our Dogs: We can teach our dog to be creative when it comes to learning new behaviors and interacting with us in different ways. We learn to be creative in applying the principles of clicker training to training our service dogs and to life. Many people with disabilities think resources are in short supply when in fact we aren't using our creativity to use what's around us to the fullest. Being resourceful is empowering!
More Than One Way to Get There From Here: There are many ways to teach behaviors and skills to service dogs and all of them can be positive! Dogs often don't do what we think they will but we can take what they offer and work from there. Our training plans may take a zag where we thought it would go straight or zig. When we learn to adapt our teaching, we find we can also apply this adaptability to our life! As we have found out, life doesn't always go as planned. In many cases, the zag can mean better things for us, if we go with it rather than stick to the original plan of getting there! Go with it! You can still get where you want to go, just find a different way!
How the Brain Works: In order to help our dog to learn to assist us in the world, we learn what happens when fear is triggered and how it inhibits learning. We learn what is needed to create environments that are suitable for our dog to learn quickly and easily so he can help us. If we suffer from anxiety, emotional disorders or high stress, we learn from our dogs what we can do about it to help us better function in the world.
The World Isn't Just About Us: When we really learn to apply the principles of clicker training, we learn that our dog has needs and wants just as we do. Our dog also sees things differently than we do. From there, we start considering other's perspectives. We don't have to agree or disagree, we just acknowledge that their view may differ from ours. That's okay! Their history and experience are different from ours. That gives them a different view, be they canine or human.
Process is More Important Than The Product!: Whether we are training our dog basic life skills, public access or specific service dog tasks, nothing is more important than the process. We spend about 99% of our time working towards goals. If we only enjoy the actual goal achievement, then we are missing out on the largest part of the goal: the process. To keep our dog and us moving forward, the process needs to be fun and enjoyable. If it's not, we stop doing it. The process is how we build relationships and strengthen trust.
What lessons have you learned from taking up clicker training? Share on my Facebook Page!
Clicker training is an approach to training your dog but it's also a life-improving philosophy! A person with any disability would do well to learn how to apply clicker training effectively. (By the way, you don't have to use a clicker to clicker train! You can use a word "Yup!" or sound like a whistle.)
There are many benefits to learning how to clicker train your service dog:
Generalizing: Once we start training our dogs to perform different behaviors in different locations, we find that they are often confused in the new location, not being stubborn. We discover that our dogs don't "know" a behavior or task until they have had a chance to relearn and practice it in many different locations. This is because they tend to look for small clues to tell them what we want. In each new location, they have to relearn the behavior from the start. We are very similar to our dogs. Most people think they are quite good at applying skills learned in one environment and used in another. I am sad to tell you, most are not. Think of when you have taken a class and then tried to use the information and skills in another class. I bet you made mistakes the first few times and had to relearn the skill? Perhaps even go back and read the information? Learning the principles of clicker training and applying them to many different behaviors, tasks and in different situations, we can learn how to generalize all of our knowledge and skills better. Once we become very skilled at generalizing, we can apply it anywhere correctly. That opens up a whole new world of what behaviors and tasks we can train our service dog to do for us. It also improves how we function in the world! Isn't that the whole point of having a service dog?
Read Dog Language: In order to use the clicker or marker well, we need to learn to read dog communication. Communication between dog and handler goes two ways. The dog must read us and we must read the dog. The dog's communication tells us if he is understanding what we want or how he is feeling about what he is doing. This information is useful when we are training. It lets us know that we need to modify our approach so our dog better understands what we are asking. This in turn, gets us thinking from another being's perspective. Why might the dog be doing what he is doing? There are reasons behind the behavior beyond being stubborn or stupid. This builds empathy in us. Empathy is a key ingredient in building and maintaining strong relationships with our dogs and with other people.
Shaping improves Observation Skills: One of the best parts of clicker training is shaping. Shaping involves starting with a tiny piece of the final behavior and then waiting for the dog to offer more of the behavior to get closer to the final behavior you want. Think of it like a series of snapshots in time that makes up a whole behavior. To use a phone, you must pick up the phone, turn it on, dial the numbers, press the connect button, then put the phone to your ear and wait for the ringing sound to stop. When we shape, each one of these behaviors can be marked and rewarded before putting them together as a whole behavior. Even smaller steps like bringing the phone from your chest up to your ear can be broken into smaller pieces. Learning to watch for these tiny behaviors improves our skills of observing.
We Use Our Minds and the Environment to Teach: When clicker training is used, we use our minds and the environmental set up to teach the dog what we want. We don't need to physically interact with a dog to teach him and he can even be at a distance from us. The dog's job is to figure out what will make us click and reward him. It is our job to figure out how to set up the situation so our dog will succeed. This allows more people with physical disabilities to train their own service dog. We learn that in life, the physical and emotional environment plays a huge role in the degree to which we are successful in what we do and for other people as well.
Put More Energy Into Rewarding Behaviors We Want: Society teaches us to focus on the incorrect responses and correct or punish those. Instead, with clicker training, we learn to focus on and reward the behaviors we want from our dog. The more often those behaviors are rewarded at the right time, the more often they will occur and the stronger they become. How often are we rewarded many times in a day? Wouldn't if feel better if we were rewarded more? We can start the change with our dog and it will build to positively affecting the people around you! Family, health-care workers, retail staff and others will feel the change and respond to it.
Break Behaviors and Tasks into Smaller Pieces: Every problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. There is a saying: "Yard by yard, Life is Hard. Inch by Inch, It's a Cinch!" (Unknown) Every behavior, task, challenge or problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. We just have to take the time to break them down and then do them. This process speeds learning and reduces the roadblocks to learning new things and refining known skills. And yes, applies to your life as a whole!
Learn What True Partnership Is: True partnership is taking turns following the lead of another that we trust. By using the principle of clicker training to create a partnership of trust, we can become more of a whole together than if we are separate. Dogs have a different skill set than we do. Those dog skills complement our human skills. We need to trust our dog to lead when he has the expertise. Other people have different skill sets. We need to learn to build partnerships with them too.
Shifts Our Whole Approach to Life Towards the Positive. Clicker training helps us understand our dogs and ourselves better. Anyone who embraces the philosophy has a shift towards being more positive in life. It starts by being more positive to our dogs and expands to being more positive towards other people in our life. The negatives still happen, but focussing more on the positives reduces the chronic stress that is detrimental to our physical and emotional health.
Learning is Lifelong: This is probably the most important lesson! We are never there yet. There is always one more task to teach our service dog or one more thing for us to learn. That seeking of knowledge and skills is what keeps us moving forward. Learning is fun!
I invite you to learn these lessons. Give clicker training a try!
Want to get Inspired?
Books to Read
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor -Karen shares her personal experiences with clicker training to show what is possible with clicker training. It is inspiring, easy to read, enjoyable and each chapter has video links of examples!
On My Mind by Karen Pryor- This is a thoroughly readable series of essays about her personal views on clicker training.
Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor-This small books helps you to understand the learning theory. She uses great people and animal examples. Again, it is written for the layperson to understand.
To get started all you really need is a marker sound and a handful of small soft treats. Check out this video to see what other simple things you can use:
Jump right in with teaching simple behaviors your dog already does.
This video introduces the proper technique of clicker training. The specific example of eye contact, but you can use "Wait", nose target.
Your first session
Here is an example of learning to read dog language during training:
Jessie shows signs of stress
If you are on Facebook, join the Observation Skills for Dog Training group
A good next step is to take a Foundations Skills Class in Clicker Training! Have fun!
Owner training allows handlers to choose some non-traditional breeds or higher energy individual dogs that match their active lifestyle. Some people end up with dogs that have more energy than they bargained for or they inadvertently ramp the dogs up by how they interact with the dog (what they reinforce without knowing it) like jumping up on their arrival or excited behavior in general). While it is important that these dogs get enough appropriate mental and physical exercise (avoid mindless ball chasing as it drives up adrenaline), it is also important that these dogs be taught how to relax. The relaxation protocol created by Dr. Karen Overall is one tool that they can use to help teach a dog to calm themselves.
The relaxation protocol is an incremental way to teach a dog to calm himself in the face of distractions. It lays out a training process so the handler can add distractions in small enough bits that the dog can succeed. There are many layers to this protocol and they are laid out in detail for handlers to follow. A bit of creativity will be needed to adapt some of the distractions for people with balance or mobility challenges. A side effect of the protocol is building a reliable stay behavior which is ideal for service dogs. You can combine the protocol with a mat to more easily generalize it to different locations.
Here is a link to the text-based protocol.
Here is a link to audio clips that you can listen to while training.
If your service dog in training has a short attention span is antsy or has trouble focusing, it is worth trying the protocol. It is a great foundation to start training relaxing with a puppy too!
There are many ways to train a dog to be a service dog or just a well-adjusted canine family member. In order to know what the options are, we have to do some research on what has been done in the past, what we are currently doing and what the future might hold. In light that we are starting the New Year, I thought I'd do a quick review of dog training past, present and future.
These groupings are broad generalizations and are only intended to give you a starting point for research of training your own dog. The popularity and methodology of each overlaps and some trainers continue to use historical methods today.
While concept of formal dog training started around 1914 in Germany by Konrad Most, and was among the first to train assistance dogs for the blind at the German Dog Farm, dog training as a profession really started to be a "thing" to do before the Second World War when the American Kennel Club started their obedience trials. After the Second World War, a number of soldiers returned home from the war with dog training skills. Training was based on techniques that fit well with the military. It was a hierarchical approach where the dog must do what they were told and punishment was applied if the dog did not comply. Some of the techniques were very harsh and they were recommended to only be used with dogs older than 6 months so the dog's spirit would not be broken. The earliest service dog organizations used this approach. The general population was introduced to dog training as a hobby on a broader scale in training classes starting in the late 1930's or so.
Some names associated with this type of training were William Koehler, Monks of New Skete, Barbara Woodhouse. Recently, Cesar Millan became popular for reviving it's widespread use.
Positive reinforcement approaches began in the 1930's with BF Skinner's theory of Behaviorism. Marian Breyland Bailey produced reliable data that animals could be trained using positive approaches and with her husband Keller Breyland (both students of Skinner) started a company Animal Behavior Enterprises that trained many species of animals for television (1955). The approach did not become widespread in use until Karen Pryor popularized Clicker Training in the early 1990's. The Lure Reward method was made popular by Ian Dunbar who started the first puppy classes in the 1980's to start training before 6 months of age. Positive reinforcement minimized the use of punishment and taught dogs to think about how their behavior affected the environment. It was also called "Operant Conditioning" Or "Respondent Learning" for this reason.
More and more service dog training organizations are using positive reinforcement to train dogs with a higher success rate than they had with the hierarchical approach. Michele Pouliot of Guide Dogs for the Blind is one example. The use of marker-based training (using a clicker, word Yes! or tongue cluck) make it possible for people with poor strength and coordination to train their own service dogs (owner-trained service dogs), even complex tasks. Capturing and Shaping behavior in small increments was an effective part of this approach. Jean Donaldson author of Culture Clash and Paul Owens author of The Dog Whisperer are other names to note.
Currently, much research is being done on how dogs learn than in any other time in history. Exciting new approaches are being investigated as science uncovers just how intelligent dogs are, in what ways and what is the most effective way to train them (in general and for service dog work). Dogs watch our eyes, follow a finger point, learn with social mimicry, have theory of mind, problem solve and so much more! Claudia Fugazza has refined a process to teach dogs how to maximize mimicry for learning new behaviors called Do as I Do. The dog watches their trainer do a behavior and copies it. Jennifer Arnold has been applying some of the learning to the training of service dogs at Canine Assistants.
One thing we are also learning is that a puppy's early experiences both with the litter and after 8 weeks in their new homes sets an important foundation for the ability to handle stressors, socialization and learning so it pays to find a good breeder. Jane Killian's Puppy Culture breeder list is a great place to start. We also need to spend time enriching our puppy's environment and socializing him before 12 weeks of life.
A dog named Rico and another named Chaser have taught us that dogs can learn the proper names of as many as 1000 objects, learn by inference, do several behaviors with multiple objects, learn categories, and much more! John Pilley wrote the book Chaser to share his findings. An early researcher in this area, Irene Pepperberg, opened the doorway with her parrot Alex using the model-rival method.
Other key names of canine researchers are Brian Hare of Dognition and Adam Miklosi of Family Dog Project.
I invite you to research these names to find out more about how much dogs (in general) are capable of. Of course, like humans, dogs vary in their genetics and past experiences so what each dog is capable of varies. That is why it is so important to select the right dog as your potential service dog.
Resource Guarding Appears "Out of the Blue"
Even among carefully selected and raised service dogs, resource guarding may appear in a dog that has never previously demonstrated it.
If the resource guarding behavior is 'appearing out of the blue' at around 6 mos to 16 mos, you may be dealing with a fear period or adolescent hormones. The larger the breed, the later adolescence sets in and the longer it lasts.
Resource Guarding is most commonly species specific. This means that he will typically only guard against other dogs, not humans or vice versa. Just because your dog resource guards again other dogs doesn't not mean he will do it against people Just because he resource guards against people, does not mean he will do it against other dogs. The most important thing is that he is safe in public. If he is not, remove him from public access training or work immediately.If your dog resource guards in both situations, it may be an indicator of his underlying temperament. Look at other aspects of his life. Does he show fear or mistrust in other ways? Where does he lack confidence? Is he a bully? Dogs that are bullies are typically fearful dogs that were not properly socialized. They may have had a buddy who was too over the top for them and they adapted by becoming pushy themselves. Just like in humans, bullying is an indicator of lack of control and fear.
Resource guarding could also be a result his training history. Even if you think you are not using confrontation-based training methods, your dog may see it differently.
Each dog has his own tolerance level for force and emotional pressure and each copes with it differently. This is a common reason I see for the mistrust seen in resource guarding. In past situations, you may have inadvertently used emotional or physical force and your dog has legitimate reason not to trust you. Confrontational methods may lead to resource guarding as the dog learns he cannot trust you with things that are important to him. Unfortunately using violence in training, often gets violence in return.
An altercation with another dog over his toys or food may affect future interactions with that specific dog or be generalized to react when the next strange dog that approaches when he has a toy. Generalizing to other dogs is more common in dogs that have had limited or poor dog to dog socialization during the critical socialization period when he was 5 to 12 weeks old. This is because they have very few positive interactions to draw from to overcome one negative interaction. Science tells us that negative experiences have much more influence than positive experiences as a survival mechanism.
Consult a positive dog training professional or veterinary behaviorist for their help and assessment. Look long and hard at his over all behaviors. Is he fearful? How is he responding to training? You do not want your service dog to be a liability to you in public. If he has underlying fears or mistrust, he may not be a good service dog candidate and may need to be removed from training as a service dog. What you want to do is avoid a confrontation with your dog at all costs. Putting in that situation allows him to practice the unwanted behavior. Practice makes perfect. If you back away when he does react, he is reinforced for growling (or worse). If you force him to give up his item, he learns he can't trust you and it further undermines his trust in you.
1. Observe Your Dog
Watch for situations that trigger the resource guarding behaviors.
What exactly are the things the dog guards?
Against who does he guard them?
What specific behaviors do you see and when do they occur?
Early warnings are the dog asking for distance. He might look away, turn his eyes away (called whale eye) or turn his head away as you approach. He might do a big yawn. He might lick nose tip. This one most people miss as it happens so quickly. He may paw the object or move closer to it. Watch your dog when he is with his food dish or higher value toys.
The end stage behaviors are the dog freezing (get still) and his eyes get 'hard" and glaring. If the dog is doing this, the dog has escalated his behavior from the early signs and you may hear growls. This is the dog telling you (or the other dog) that he is willing to escalate his behavior further to air snapping or biting to protect the resource. If the dog has been punished for growling previously, he may just freeze and then bite. Punishment to a dog might just be you verbally chastising him "Don't you do that." in a lowered tone.
What age was the dog when you first noticed it?
2. Once you have determined the things your dog resource guards against and what he doesn't, start with things that are lower value than those. In a situation such as on his dog bed where he has resource guarded in the past, give your dog a lower value toy or treat than he has ever shown RG for. If needed, start with an object that the dog has not interacted with before like a piece of wooden dowel or a plastic tube. Starting this process with a lower value item teaches the dog how to play the game and what he can expect later.
If there are children or mentally incapacitated adults involved, make sure they are not involved in the process and removed form the room while you train. This helps to give the dog one less thing to worry about and keeps them safe until it is time to bring them into the process. Prepare your treats: choose medium value treats (commercial treats are fine like Rollover or Zukes) and make sure that the treats are hidden in a pocket or treat pouch out of sight before you bring them out.
Start by giving to dog the item, then back outside the dog's personal space for a few seconds. Now take a small step into your dog's space and toss a treat right near his mouth and take a step back. Repeat for several sets of 10 repetitions until your dog is looking eagerly up at you anticipating that your moving towards him (while he has the item) means more treats are coming. When that happens, you can decrease your distance from your dog by stepping a little closer in, toss the treat and pick up the toy, the drop it again. Step away. Once you can get closer you can lean in, drop the treat and lean out. Repeat several times until again the dog is looking forward to your approach and you taking the time away.
Next step is to step in, toss a treat, and while he is eating take the toy away, toss another treat and step away. This step teaches the dog that even when the toy is removed, something good will come in its place.
3. Next, increase in the value of the item, and repeat the process but use high value food treats (any kind of REAL meat, not commercially made treats-cooked beef, pork, chicken, lamb, turkey-I use heart, tongue or roast) instead. Make sure that the treats are hidden out of sight in a pocket or treat pouch before they appear.
Since you know the dog resource guards this object, you will need to add more distance away from the dog to start and progress forward much more slowly. Wait for body language that tells you he is looking forward to you moving towards him with the treat. It may take several sessions to be able to progress to where you can get close enough to touch the item. Taking it away may be many more. If it seems to e taking too long, or your dog's behavior is getting worse, not better, then consult a qualified positive trainer or veterinarian behaviorist for help. Take each step slowly and do many repetitions. Repeat the 3 step process process with many different high value items.
4. Now repeat the process right step 1 to 3 in many different locations. You want to make sure the dog has generalized the behavior (can do it) in many different locations and situations. Always err on the side of caution. Protect children and the public when possible. Remember that you are ultimately liable for the behavior of your dog.
Periodically in your training review the process to make sure the behavior stays fresh in your dogs mind. This step is called maintenance so your dog can remember how to do it even years after he learned it. This will help to keep you and the public safe.
The first time your service dog growls at you when you try to take something away from him, you feel shocked and affronted. Your first impulse may be to strike out.
"But this is my SERVICE DOG! He should be able to trusted in any situation."
Well, dogs are dogs, just like people are people. If someone tries to take something away from you that you feel is yours and is valuable to you, then you will defend your right to keep it. At the very least, you would verbally warn them that what they are doing may lead to confrontation. If someone walked up, even a family member, and just grabbed your cell phone from your hands, you would be upset, wouldn't you? You'd certainly voice your complaint. That is what your dog is doing. He is saying "This is mine, I value it highly and I don't trust you to not take it away from me." The only thing wrong with this behavior in dogs is how humans interpret the situation.
Resource Guarding is a Normal Behavior for Dogs
Resource Guarding is a normal behavior for dogs, though not a desirable in a service dog since in public, despite laws that protect your dog from being interfered with while working, the reality is that people don't think before interacting with service dogs and they don't read patches on vests etc. People of all ages may try to take things way and they may let their dogs approach your dog when he is working.
Possession is 9/10 of the Law
Among dogs, possession is nine tenths of the law. What this means is that if a high value object (food or toy) is in the personal space of a dog, (whether or not the object is in his mouth) that object is considered his. It would be rude if another dog or person came over and removed it without invitation or permission. In many cases a fight would start.
While some dogs will allow another dog to take it, it is because they know the other dog wants the object more than they do and to keep the peace, they will not fight for it. These are usually highly socialized dogs who spend time with other functionally socialized dogs.
Dogs, unless not properly socialized or they have been traumatized by another dog or their handlers, in general, are willing to do what it takes to keep the peace between themselves and other beings that have been socialized with. Fighting is risky and they may end up injured or dead, so that is why dogs have developed a complex communication system to avoid conflict. Each dog has different things that are important to him (might be food, toy or even their person) and depending on the value, he may be willing to give it up to keep the peace. But every dog has his limit. If that object happens to be the human equivalent of cell phone or iPad, then he might not want to give it up as easily and may let the other dog (or person) know by growling.
Unfortunately, not all humans have learned to speak dog as a second language and may feel it is their right to take anything away from a dog, even if it is not their dog. And even if the dog has warned them not to. Kids may run up and take an object away, or stick their hands between your service dog and a treat you are feeding him. Humans exhibit all sorts of odd behaviors in the presence of dogs. So, since you are taking your dog into public places as a service dog, you need to teach him that strangers may take valuable things away from him, and that is fine for them to do that!
Preventing Resource Guarding
As soon as your pup comes home from the breeder at 8-9 weeks, give him a few days to settle in, then start trading items with him. To take a valued toy, move in slowly but be relaxed, gently ask for the toy, take it away and at the same time present an equivalent value toy or treat in return. Praise!When the pup is reliably trading, you can ask for the toy, then delay presenting the other toy until after he has given you the one he has. That way, the second toy is a reward for giving up the first one, rather than a bribe. Mark (or click) the instant the chooses to give it up, praise and give him the other toy.
Repeat the process with higher value things like bones. Using two equal value items helps at first. On the last trade of the training session, give the pup something higher value like a treat that he can consume and you keep the toy.
If he won't give up the toy willingly, the toy, switch your approach. Let him play with the toy he has and ignore him until he has dropped the toy and walked away from it. Pick up the high value toy. Next, use a lower value toy, get some high value treats and present the toy to him. Click a soft clicker and present a food or equivalent toy reward to him as soon as he drops the toy. Repeat until he's reliably dropping the toy when he hears the clicker. Now start adding your 'drop it' cue just before you click. After several sessions of this, try just saying the drop it cue, wait for the drop it, the click and reward. Now he's started to understand the cue means to drop it.
This also starts the process of the pup learning to give an object for a retrieve (so you get two benefits for one behavior).Increase the value of the toy or bones etc. until you are able to cue drop it and your dog willingly drops it. For most dogs raw bones or a plate of human food are the highest value to them.
If your pup has come home from the breeder doing resource guarding, you need to dig into the recent history. Do the parents do this (an indication of genetics)? What type of handling did the breeder use that may have fostered this lack of trust in the pups? Were the pups handled enough in an appropriate manner? Did their kids tease the pups with food or toys? Learning he history will help you figure out the right way of approaching it and how long it might take to overcome, especially if it is an established habitat at that tender age.
Living with Other Dogs
If your dog lives with another dog, ensure that behavior around feeding times is calm. Start by feeding one in a crate or behind a baby gate, before feeding them at opposite ends of the room before moving them incrementally closer together. Both dogs need to learn the presence of another dog near his food or toys is a good thing. Treats appear when the other dog is near. When the other dog moves away, the treats stop coming.
Teaching your dogs to take turns with other dogs for doing behaviors and getting rewarded for doing so is a great way to approach it. Make sure to generalize it to many other dogs, known and unknown to your dog.
Avoid feeding your dog in public. If you are away from home, take your dog to a private location to feed him. Put him in your car, a crate or behind a locked door. This will help to keep his stress level low and prevent strange dogs and people from approaching while he eats. Teach your dog to take turns while training with other dogs. That way, when food is used for training, he will know that his turn is coming and he will be able to earn his the food ad will not get anxious about it.Choose the value of toys used in public carefully. Avoid using bones, pigs ears, stuffed Kongs etc that other dogs may find valuable unless your dog is in a location with no other dogs. If you are trying to increase duration of your dog settling in public, use hand-delivered treats instead so you can control when, how and to whom they are delivered.