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My training methods

I have been training dogs for the past 40+ years and I started with correction based training because it was all that was available and did a decent job of using it to get the basic behaviors I needed my dogs to do.

In 1997, through what can best be described as fate, my first Cattle Dog “Buster” came into my life. He was 8 months old and an emotional and behavioral mess, but taught me more than any dog I have had or worked with since! There was no way I could use the training methods I knew well with Buster because even an annoyed glance would turn him into a cowering “puddle” on the floor.

Helping Buster

I started looking for ways to help this damaged dog cope with life and based on what I know now, I know he would have done much better on some anti-anxiety medication. But I didn’t know about that at the time. So I only had training to work with. In 1998 I attended a seminar being given in Chicago at the Shedd Aquarium about a “new” training method called clicker training. I also found out about Dog Scouts there.

I admit that I thought the clicker training sounded perfect for Buster, but I had NO clue where to start or how to apply what little I knew about it to real training, though I tried. However, I was VERY enamored with the Dog Scouts idea (a scouting organization in which the people and dogs work together to learn different things and earn badges). I was the very first person to get a troop started without having attended the camps first. 🙂

Hunter and a life transformation at camp

In 1999 I did go to Dog Scout camp, with my Rottweiler “Hunter”, and my life was forever changed.  Hunter knew how to do basic things like sit, down, heel, come, etc. but he did them with a lumbering slowness that didn’t reflect his lean, athletic body. He was my “cross over” dog, meaning the dog that I started with correction based training, and then switched to clicker training during and after camp. Generally, it can take awhile for the dog to “buy in” to the new methods as the handler is learning new skills, but Hunter had an amazing transformation during the week of training at camp. Amazing instructors and hands-on learning in an immersive, positive environment no doubt played a big part!

At the end of the week, my dog that previously stayed in heel position, but dragged his feet and needed occasional leash pops to keep him “motivated”, was now doing heads up, prancy, energetic heeling! His sits, downs and recalls were now rocket fast and enthusiastic. And I was TOTALLY hooked on both clicker training and Dog Scouts! I was able to see that his prior behavior wasn’t normal. And that it was totally possible for training to be loads of fun for both ends of the leash. It also creates behaviors that really stick with the dog because the dog is truly learning how to learn, rather than learning to be told what to do.

Painting- a lesson that really stuck with him!

This concept was brought home when Hunter learned to paint. Yes, wear a bootie dipped in paint and use it to swipe paint onto a canvas.


My Beagle painting a “campfire” (upside down!)

For 7 years, Hunter was not allowed to use his big heavy feet for anything except walking. He was a therapy dog and I didn’t need him bruising or scratching someone or knocking them down with a paw. But now I needed to teach him to USE his foot as part of the “shaping” class at camp. Shaping is a term used to describe training that takes a complex behavior (like painting) and breaks it down into tiny bits that the dog can learn and be successful with, gradually shaping those little, easy behaviors into the final complex product.

But Hunter would NOT lift his foot! He knew better than to do so and earn a correction as he had in the past. So I worked with one of the trainers to teach him to touch a target stick (piece of dowel rod) with his nose. When he chose to put his nose in contact with the stick, it made me click, which is the sound he had learned means a yummy treat is going to quickly appear for him to eat. He was very food motivated and caught onto this new way to make me click and feed him very quickly.   We gradually moved the target stick to the floor and he was happily and repeatedly nose poking it there.

Then we changed the criteria. We stopped clicking for nose contact. His nose pokes got more insistent, but they weren’t making me click anymore. Since the stick was on the ground, he tried scratching at it and THAT got a click and treat! After a few more nose pokes, he tried his foot again and voila, click-treat! Now he understood that it was his foot that caused me to click and was eagerly swiping his paw at it.

It’s a trap

But we needed his paw off the ground.  So the stick was raised AN INCH off the ground and his happy wiggly body went still, his nub stopped wagging, his ears went down. In his mind, it was like he realized all this fun was just a set up for a proofing test. He knew he wasn’t allowed to paw at it if it was off the ground. But we persisted and just waited and encouraged him. Very carefully and tentatively, he started to lift a paw and that got a click-treat letting him know he was on the right track. He tried it again and this time he made very gentle contact with the stick! This not only got a click, he got a cookie party and loads of praise!

At that moment, 7 years of frustration at not being allowed to use his paw was transferred to smacking the stick with his paw. He could not have been any happier to whack it.  And the rest of the training steps went very quickly and in no time he was smearing the canvas with paint.  The only problem was that he never wanted to stop! It was the only way he was allowed to use his paws. So I usually put an end to the session once the entire canvas had paint on it 🙂

Digital StillCamera

One of Hunter’s paintings

By contrast, this is a painting that was done by my Cattle Dog. Coyote was a much more deliberate painter.


He remembers, after more than a year with no practice!

After camp, I went home and taught my other dogs to paint too 🙂 And we did some demos for various events and even had a local gallery sell some to benefit a local animal shelter. Normally I used my younger Cattle Dog “Coyote” for the demos, but he got hurt just before one of the sessions, so I decided to use Hunter instead.  He had not painted since the week of camp, more than a year previously, where he first learned the complex behavior. I knew I could quickly work through the steps with him again. But when I pulled out the bootie, paints and canvas/easel, he immediately started pawing at it!!

I was blown away.  This is a complex behavior that is abnormal for a dog to do (dog’s don’t normally paint on their own), he only spent a few hours learning the behavior and had not repeated the behavior for more than a year. Plus it was a completely new location (my basement). Yet he remembered! And didn’t need any reminder of what to do. When you have that much joy associated with the learning of a behavior and you let the dog figure out the training puzzle on his own, the lessons really stick!

Is this normal for clicker trained behaviors?  It depends. It depends on the dog, the emotional state during the original training, and how effective the original training was in getting the behavior at the dog’s pace with as little human intervention as possible. But it IS completely possible and even common to get some behaviors like that.

I am not alone

Since that amazing experience at camp in 1999, I have used every possible resource including books, videos, classes, seminars, camps and online training to learn as much as possible about how to use clicker training to get ANY behavior the dog is physically capable of doing as well as lots of problem solving for my own dogs and for others dogs.

Clicker training works to get some amazing and complex behaviors from wild zoo animals, marine animals, reptiles, farm animals (including chickens), cats, goldfish, and even butterflies!! So if it’s not working for your dog, it’s not the snap end of the leash that needs more training.

More and more Service Dog agencies, police K-9 departments and serious competitors are switching to clicker training because it’s working much better!  Guide Dogs for the Blind made the switch to clicker training and the pass rate of their dogs went up to 70%!  Previously, less than half the dogs that went through their program would complete the training and go on to work with a blind human partner.  These are dogs that literally have a person’s life at stake on the training they have.  It used to be thought that only punishments could produce a reliable dog, but based on the results they (and others) are getting, that is clearly false!  It used to be thought that bite sports couldn’t possibly be done without corrections or an e-collar, but Mario Verslype became the FMBB IPO Champion in 2013 with a Malinois that has never worn a shock collar and was trained with only clicker training. And more and more people are competing in bite sports without using the traditional training methods. There are several people who have gotten OTCH obedience titles without using the typical training methods. And even gun dog sports are being trained without shock collars or force fetch and with more and more reward-based training.

Where I am today

The more I learn about dogs, their origins, their behaviors and various training methods, the more I move toward “dog’s choice” methods.  This is training that gives the dog the ability to choose during training.  Several studies have proven that beings that have choices with regard to their environment and interactions are healthier, happier, more emotionally stable, live longer and have much less stress. Much of the positive training protocol empowers the dog to have such choices over his environment and interactions. And methods for teaching certain behaviors are transforming to give dogs more and more choice in the learning process.

This can be a radical concept for some trainers who still base their training on the theory that dogs will try to dominate humans if not kept in their place.

Dominance theory is messy

“Dominant” (assertive) behavior is real. But it is often subtle, fleeting, and used in complex social relationships and on-going social dynamics between known individuals.  The way it is used for dog training takes a VERY complex and subtle form of communication and tries to make it simple. In the process, some training now looks more like animal abuse and several countries are recognizing that and outlawing some of the more severe tools some people misuse for dog training.

David L. Mech was the person who watched a “pack” of wolves (adult wolves not known to each other who were put together for the study) and proposed the idea that wolves had a dominant based pack structure. BUT he went on to study wild wolf packs in their native habitat and found that a wolf pack is just a wolf family (parents and off-spring). They do NOT operate primarily in a dominance based structure, he admits the original theories were based on flawed science, producing false results and he wants the idea that people must use dominance in dog training to stop!

Besides, wolves are as close to dogs as humans are to chimps (genetically) and there are vast behavioral differences between them. Dogs are NOT wolves and they don’t behave like wolves. And when you understand normal wolf behavior, you can be very thankful that our dogs don’t behave like wolves! More on that here: How dogs were domesticated

In the right hands, correction based training produces results and that are very rewarding for the trainer. I’m not trying to say it doesn’t work. I’m saying I have found a better way for ME. I’m happy to help others who want to learn more about positive training, but will do my best to respect your training method choices (something that is still a work in progress when my methods are challenged by people who are doing so just for the conflict and not to learn).

Leading without bullying

The idea that positive training lets the dog do whatever he wants and creates out of control dogs is false. When done correctly, it promotes SELF-CONTROL in the dog, and a dog that chooses to be well mannered. The trainer controls the environment to set the dog up to succeed so that correct choices can be rewarded, rather than setting up the dog to fail so that a correction can be delivered. Rules and boundaries are set by the trainer and can be just as rigid and strictly enforced as correction based trainers. But the way in which the rules are trained and enforced is very different.

The trainer is looking for all the good and desirable things the puppy is doing and rewarding those. And if the puppy makes an undesirable choice, they are interrupted and redirected to a more appropriate behavior. The environment is set up to help the puppy learn with minimal mistakes. Stuff you don’t want chewed or used as a toy gets picked up, puppy is kept on a tether or crated when it can’t be directly supervised. And the normal canine behaviors that come naturally to a puppy gradually get transformed into behaviors we can live with and love. And the puppy learns what behaviors pay off with pleasurable consequences. Most people can learn to be successful with these methods with a bit of change in your way of thinking.

Document:  Everyday EASY Training to Avoid Problem Behaviors

Advanced dog’s choice

In a dog or puppy that will be used in a sport or in a type of service to humans (service dog, police dog, Search and Rescue, etc.) it is helpful to move beyond the basics and implement a program that gets 100% buy-in from the dog. A dog that can’t WAIT to work with you to the exclusion of all the various distractions that are encountered in life and in the sport or activity of your choice. This is not something that happens overnight or without training. It can work with an adult dog, but works best when started with a puppy, raised with a dog’s choice lifestyle.

As with most other training, it starts with attention from the puppy to the human. But unlike other methods, we don’t coerce or prompt the attention.  Throughout the day, every day, each time the puppy looks at the human, it gets clicked and rewarded with a piece of the puppy’s next meal. You have to feed the puppy every day, why not put that food to work for you?  Then the trainer and pup go to a new place and the trainer stands still, allowing pup to explore the extent of leash length until he gets bored and offers attention to the handler (engagement). At first, there may be no engagement in new places, and it might take a few trips there for the pup to lose interest in all that is going on around him. But because of the foundation work done at home, looking at the human when in a new place is not a foreign concept for the puppy.

At first the engagement is likely to be just a moment of eye contact and the puppy coming to you to get his food.  But that develops fairly quickly into a puppy that stares at you and is hard to disengage. You can increase the duration of the engagement by waiting longer and longer to click and feed. And gradually the level of distractions going on around the puppy increase and you get longer and longer engagement even in highly distracting environments.  When you have a few seconds of engagement, you start asking for simple behaviors you have been working on like sits and downs and short recalls and now it’s those behaviors that get you to click and feed (the attention becomes part of the behavior).

No conflicts

This prevents the battles for the dog’s attention that many trainers encounter when the environment gets distracting. The dog chooses to engage/play/train with the handler who is fun and rewarding rather than “surf” the environment which is fun to watch, but not as fun as playing with the human. Much of the disconnect that occurs between dogs and their humans is stress and conflict related. The dog knows it should pay attention to the human and respond to commands, but there are smells and people and other dogs and … so there is internal conflict within the dog over what he should do vs. what he wants to do. A dog that HAS to ignore distractions has a harder time than one that has learned the habit of choosing to ignore them.

This method allows the handler to see when the dog is stress free and ready to work and the dog is able to communicate this clearly to the handler. The more stable the dog and the less stressful the training is and the better the handler is at correctly reading the dog’s body language, the faster this process happens. But even a nervy dog with a novice handler can learn to offer engagement as long as the training is fun and not causing stress.

The dog’s engagement is ended by the handler using a “go be a dog” type cue that lets the dog know that full attention on the handler is not needed right now. It can also be broken off by the dog. I know, perish the thought of the dog “blowing off the handler!” But this really works!  If the dog breaks off engagement with you, it is a signal that either he is not motivated by what you are doing with him (and you need to change something such as the rate of reinforcement or the difficulty of the behavior you are asking for in that environment at that moment), or something more motivating (or maybe a bit scary) has caught his attention. Asking a dog to work in an environment in which he doesn’t feel safe is very stressful to the dog. It would be like asking a child to do homework in the presence of something he fears will hurt him. Self preservation dictates that his full focus is not on the work and the same thing happens with dogs (even if WE know the thing is not dangerous, all that matters is that the DOG thinks it is). While the dog may be looking at you, his brain may be on whatever is stressing him and he can miss hearing or seeing your cues/commands and then he gets a correction for not doing what “he knows”. Yes, he was looking at you, but how often are you looking at something while your brain is elsewhere and you aren’t seeing or hearing what is in front of you?

I can’t get this dog to be distracted!

What they learn, is that (because of the leash or fences or other management of the environment) sometimes they don’t get to engage with the other things that catch their attention during training sessions, making you the more interesting and fun option. But sometimes, they can use engagement to get you to release them to check it out or do what they want!  This is using the Premack principle to your advantage. Once the dog chooses to re-engage and give you engagement in the presence of something he really wants, you reward that choice by then giving him his “go be a dog” cue and let him check it out!   Over time, those things he’s not able to interact with become less novel and less interesting (or less intimidating) and the puppy is able to ignore them.  And the stuff that you will never be more exciting than will drive the dog to offer more intense focus on you in the hopes that it will get you to release them to interact!  And you can use that to create intensity in behaviors that require self-control. An excellent and very short story online illustrates this concept perfectly here: Song and the sheep (if the link doesn’t work, just do an internet search for “song and the sheep”).

Stimulus control and self-control

Once the puppy/dog understands this concept and how to get the fun stuff to happen, it gets really hard to get him to disengage and just “go be a dog”.  This is where stimulus control and self-control come into play.

Stimulus control simply means that the dog responds to a cue quickly and correctly, but also that the dog doesn’t offer behaviors without the cue. So it’s a bit of a balancing act during training and this is where the real skill comes in. Knowing when to reward behavior that you haven’t asked for but that you want vs. withholding the reward because you haven’t asked for the behavior. This changes depending on what you’re working on and what is happening around the dog. But being able to correctly implement stimulus control prevents the dog from getting pushy about “I want to train now, right now!” or that throws a bunch of behaviors at you in hopes that something will pay. So it is a very important component of the training to master.

Impulse control/self-control is the key to the dog training world. Many behaviors require the dog to maintain impulse control such as any behavior performed around a distraction the dog really wants, keeping the leash loose when out for a walk, not bolting out doorways, stay, heel, position changes, directed jumping, Leave-it, retrieves, and so much more.

Don’t fight with the dog’s brain

However, correction based training doesn’t focus on developing the Reticular Activation System within the dog’s brain. There is an actual “switch” in the brain called the Reticular Activating System that, in very basic terms, allows the dog to switch from the primitive, reacting part of their brain (“lizard brain”) to the thinking, processing frontal lobe. In other words, there is a non-thinking part that controls non-thinking reactions and behaviors (like a scent hound following a scent trail, a herding dog seeing fast movement, a Malinois seeing any movement in the body of a suited decoy, or a frightened dog reacting to something scary) and a thinking part, the frontal lobe where thinking, processing of our cues, and self-control take place.

lizard brain thinking brain

The more often the dog practices switching back and forth, the faster and more efficiently the dog can do it. This is of great benefit for exciting sports like Agility, Dock Diving, Lure Coursing, Field Work, Bite Sports, Herding, etc. where the dog can easily get over stimulated to the point that it CAN’T think or process our cues (gets stuck in “lizard” brain).

The impulse control games help the dog build up the ability to handle greater and greater excitement while being able to remain in or instantly switch back into thinking brain. The better the dog gets at this, the less frantic he is and the more calm and controlled he gets in the face of super stimulation and the better (& faster) he performs without wasted energy.

The way to get impulse control without needing corrections is to start with baby steps and build up the duration, distance and distractions (which can get really enticing for the dog) very systematically. This allows the dog to develop the RAS switch in their brain and the ABILITY to maintain their self-control. Even when a decoy in a bite suit is running away and the dog knows he is about to be sent for a bite, when on the start line of an exciting agility course, when waiting for the cue to go get a bird that just dropped, and to do a recall even if they are chasing a squirrel!

It is where many trainers feel they have to use corrections. And corrections DO suppress impulse and impose control, except when you can’t use them. Such as during competition. And dogs quickly learn when you can and can’t punish. And often punishment is delivered AFTER a dog has already done what they want to do. If they want to do something, that behavior is a reward in itself and the punishment can’t “remove” the reward they already got.  Behavior that is rewarded WILL be repeated, that is one of the basic laws of learning. So punishing after a reward only adds conflict.  Punishment can also suppress other behaviors that you DO want and can have other “fall out” that you have to be very skilled to avoid producing. Unfortunately, most trainers are not that skilled.

On the other hand, you can’t use treats in most competition rings either. But you CAN use friendly contact, encouraging words and/or components of the competition that the dog really enjoys as rewards during or between exercises in most competition rings. It’s also possible to teach the dog the concept of a delayed reward.

Delayed reward

Some people try to teach this in a way that teaches the dog “do this chain of behaviors and I’ll pay you at the end”. The behaviors that happen before the reward are required in order to get the reward. The dog has to do them to get the reward. This can work with some dogs, but others don’t see enough value in the end reward to justify several minutes of performance without a reward. And some people really struggle to get the dog to work when he knows the handler doesn’t have any rewards on their body.

A fairly new concept that I learned from Julie Daniels is what she calls the “Cookie Jar”.  It is very similar to the above concept with one critical but minor shift in perspective: The dog CHOOSES to do the behaviors to get you to open the cookie jar. The dog can choose to “mug the jar” to try to get the treats or toys inside (that he really, really wants but can’t get by himself), or  choose to do a behavior you want- which makes you open the jar for the dog. The dog learns that the jar has awesome stuff inside, and he teaches himself that he has the ability to make you open it (much the way dogs learn their behavior can make you click the clicker). The behaviors you want are the dog’s key to the jar. He learns to do them with enjoyment and enthusiasm because they are what make you pay him with the super stuff from the jar. Rather than being a “you have to work to get paid” mentality, you simply wait for the dog to offer engagement and the behavior you are working on that session.  After the dog learns the concept with simple and easy behaviors, you can eventually add cues for a series of behaviors you want, but the subtle shift in the beginning stages of teaching the concept are the keys to it’s success.  The behaviors open the jar, rather than being something the dog HAS to do to get paid.

The dog always has the option to go to the cookie jar and try to open it, but that doesn’t get them the cookies (or toy) they want in the “jar” (any container the dog can’t open can be used). They learn that focusing on the reward container is pointless and working with you is how they get it to open. They always have the choice. How the training sessions are set up and progress makes the likelihood of them choosing you much higher than them choosing to work at the container.

This has many benefits, including not needing to have treats on you, teaching the dog to work for delayed gratification, multiple behaviors for one trip to the cookie jar, self-control, and working with the human is fun and rewarding. There are MANY ways the cookie jar can be used once it is learned. Check out the training checklists page for details on how to train it.

Is it worth it?

When training is cooperative and based on two-way communication between species, the learner (dog) is more relaxed and better behaved. The behaviors are HIS idea and he WANTS to do them! But knowing how to use dog’s choice training is a skill and skills take lots of practice to master. The student can only be as good as his teacher (unless he takes it upon himself to find new teachers or new ways to learn). Learning new skills is hard. I know, I’ve been there, done that and continue to learn new skills. No one is skilled at clicker/marker training or dog’s choice training overnight. Learning how to use it for solving problem behaviors effectively and getting complex and/or difficult behaviors takes years to master. But I know it’s worth the time and effort I put into increasing my own skills which I am constantly working on improving and expanding.

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