Training Tip Tuesday: Rewards Based Training…Laying a Good Foundation

Mama Sally:

Rewards Based Training

Rugby will tell you that I prefer to train using rewards that I know a dog likes or wants.  I tend to call it “Rewards Based Training.”  Some of you might know it as “Positive Reinforcement Training.”

The term “Positive Reinforcement” is so overused and common, that I find most of my clients really don’t have a clue what it means!  If you miss the complete understanding of “Positive Reinforcement” you will miss the entire point of why this method of training is so good and so very effective!

I like to call my training style “Rewards Based Training” because I think that this term is actually more descriptive in defining what I do. Simply said, I train with a reward that I know a dog wants or likes!  Boom.  Easy peasy, right?

Your reward doesn’t have to be food! Some dogs that I train go crazy to play with a specific toy, so I use a toy to train with them! Choose the reward that YOUR dog likes and wants!

In theory, yes, it’s easy.  Dogs learn by simple means, and they learn fairly easily, so that’s one reason they have adapted to life with humans so well.  You may think that your dog is snoozing and not paying attention, but don’t kid yourself!  Your dog is a master of observation!  He’s watching the patterns of your life with him, and using his problem solving skills get what he wants and needs.  And he’s a master in getting those things in the easiest way possible.  That’s smart!

We can use all of those observation and problem solving skills to our advantage in training, because when we can create a way for our dogs to learn a specific pattern of behavior with consistency, our dogs will fall right into the behavior that we want from them! Consistency plays a huge part in successful rewards based training, because a dog has to understand and know that he’s going to get a predictable positive result that he likes and wants, when he produces consistent behavior.  This is really critical to success with rewards based training.

I often use a clicker when I train Rugby, but he also knows a verbal marker which has the same meaning for him.

Commands or Tricks are Simply Small Encapsulated Games

Think of commands or tricks as small, simple games that have specific rules for play.  “Sit”, for example has a rule that your dog must place his rump on the ground in order to get a treat.  Pretty simple, right?  In order for a dog to quickly and consistently produce that behavior, he has to first understand what the “Sit” game is.  He has to learn the word where he can focus on his handler, and receive a consistent reward long enough that the game makes sense to him, and then he will be able to quickly and easily produce the behavior of placing his rump on the floor when he hears a specific cue to “Sit”, and sees a corresponding hand signal as well.  No surprise there, right?  It makes sense to you so far, doesn’t it?

Teaching dogs to simply sit all by themselves (no command or hand signal) is often where I start my training with dogs. It helps them learn to earn something from me!

This next part is where I often see a disconnect in humans understanding how dogs learn.  Dogs simply can’t generalize their behavior quickly or easily, and that’s very difficult for humans to understand!  Owners often place unfair and unreasonable expectations on their dogs, feeling frustrated when their dog is “stubborn,” “willful” or “disobedient.” Most of the time, when I see the “stubborn” behavior in a lesson, I can easily see why there’s a disconnect between the dog and owner.  Often, it’s simply because the dog has not yet figured out exactly what the rules are for the specific game, or, sometimes, the owner has made things too hard, or too fast for their dog to figure out.

In order for a dog to really, fully understand the “Sit” game, his handler must carefully add distractions one by one until his dog can generalize his behavior in relation to that specific word cue.  This means that for success, the handler and dog must  practice the “Sit” game many times in various contexts.  For example, training needs to happen in various rooms of your house, when people are walking in and out of those rooms, outside in the back yard, on walks in the neighborhood, at the park, etc. When dogs have worked through the generalization process, and fully understand the desired behavior, then they can quickly and easily produce it. The generalization process just simply takes time, and humans aren’t terribly patient creatures.  We want what we want….the way that we want….and when we want it!  That can be very frustrating and unfair to our dogs!

Dogs Aren’t Robots!!  They Learn at the Rate That They Learn!

None of the dogs that I train are robots.  They can think, feel, experience and choose.  They aren’t something that we program and then they spit out consistent data in a weekend. Yes, we can “program” the behavior that we want to see, over time and with consistency.  But unlike a computer, dogs can think and choose what they want to do!  If we want positive results, we have to respect our dogs for who they are:  living, breathing, thinking, feeling, creatures!

Dogs learn at the rate that they learn.  So do you and I!  Some complex concepts are easier for me to grasp than others.  In that regard, it’s no different for Rugby James as well!  Some dogs can quickly problem solve and figure out a new behavior lickity split.  Others take more repetition.  Neither one is bad, wrong or stupid.  They just are what they are!

For good training success, think of being a partner or teammate with your dog, rather than looking at your dog as a “minion” or something that you can boss around.  Ain’t no dog got time for that!  You’ll feel far less frustrated with the process if your dog is your partner and you’re building a team with him.  Trust me on this one!!

I just love the look on Rugby’s face here. He is SO happy and focused on learning. This photo screams that we’re a team, and that’s what my training is all about!

Rugby James has plenty of opinions on this subject!  Let’s hear what he has to say!

Rugby James

I’m a lil dogger what has had lotsa different homes and mamas, so I know about these fings.  I has lived at the shelter before, on deaf row even, what means that I was gonna get putted to sleep when I was just a lil pupper and not even all growed up!!  I gotted fished out of the shelter by a rescue group, but then I hadda go to sum new foster homes before I gotted my forever home wif the Mama I gots now.

When you’re a lil dogger what has been in lotsa different homes, you understand fings in the Upright world purty good.  Uprights like you and then they doesn’t like you.  Sumtimes they does fings a certain way for a while, and then they changes fings and does it a completely different way….just when you’re trying to figure out what the first way is!!

Sumtimes, if there’s a bunch of Uprights what lives in the house, sum of them does fings a certain way, and then sum of the udders does it a different way too….only it’s really hard to know what way they all want you to do stuff.  It’s like a game you can’t win what gots lotsa different rules to it, and the rules changes every single time you play the game!

Doggers isn’t dumb critters.  Nopawdy wantsa play a game when they can’t win.  So sumtimes, doggers just stops playing the games, what can make Uprights mad.  It can get you dumped at a shelter or gived back or gived away! Uprights expect doggers to be mind readers and just “know” how you’re supposed to act.  I always tried so hard to figure it out, only when I maked mistakes, I gotted yelled at a big much, what hurted my feelings.  When my feelings gotted hurted, it was really hard for me to trust the Uprights again when they was nice to me after they was all done being mad.

The Mama always tells me what a smart lil pupper I am.  I fink I’m purty smart too!  I try really, really hard to get fings right, and to do the fings what I knows that the Mama likes and wants from me.  I know lotsa words and what specific fing I’m supposed to do when I hears those specific words.  And the Daddy uses the very same rules, so nuffing changes between them what makes it a lot easier for me to know what to do!

It taked me a long time to trust the Mama on account of the udder Mamas and Daddies teached me how flaky Uprights can be. When the rules always changes, and when a lil dogger doesn’t understand and can’t figure out what to do, the world can really be a scary place.

But, I want you to listen to the Mama in this lil movie where I was working a puzzle.  Isn’t she a good coach?  Doesn’t she encourage good?  I lubs the happy, escited sound she gots in her voice, and even when I mess up, she doesn’t fuss at me.  She just helps direct me to the right fing to do.

The best fing, is that when I work for the Uprights at my house, they gives me a good paycheck for that work.  I doesn’t get snacks for basic fings what I has learned really good, but the Mama is always teaching me new fings, so I always getsa chance to earn snacks wif new stuff I’m learning or for puzzle play.

Next time, we’ll tell you how we faded snacks sos you can learn to do it the right way!


Saturday Snicker: A Polka Dottie Piggie Goes for an Unexpected Swim!

As everyone knows, really funny dog events often just happen spontaneously!   Some of my favorite dog memories center around spontaneous silly events that I could never have planned.  These kinds of things just seem to “happen,” and this week, I was fortunate enough to have a front row seat to an epic event!

Earlier this week, while I was doing some laundry, Rugby had been herding me with one of his little polka dottie piggies!  Yes, I know that’s a surprise to you, but it’s true.  He was in rare form, and he was being persistent and insistent in trying to sucker me into play with him!  My laundry room is definitely not big enough for me, a bag of laundry, Rugby, and a grunting polka dottie piggie!

I knew I was going to have to come up with something to get him off of my leg and out of his herding mentality, so I grabbed his piggie and tossed it back over my shoulder.  I didn’t know where it went, and frankly didn’t care.  I just knew that it was going to land in the kitchen, and that was good enough.  It was out of the room, and far away from my legs!

I heard Rugby bark his signature “help me” bark, which is always two sharp little barks.  “Bark Bark!”  He will pause, and wait to see if anyone will come to his aid.  After maybe fifteen seconds, he will repeat his little “Bark Bark!” And he waits.  He’s so patient, and so persistent in reminding me that he needs an extra paw!  And unless I hop to it and help him, he’s not going to walk away from whatever he wants or needs!!  And maybe more notable is that fact that he’s also not going to stop his little “Bark Bark” which can grate on my nerves after a few minutes!

So of course when I heard Rugby’s little “Bark Bark,” I had to go and rescue my little dog!  When I reached the kitchen, and I saw what he was barking at, I laughed so hard at what I saw!!  When I had tossed his little piggie over my shoulder, I had somehow managed to toss it right into his nearly full water bowl!  He was visibly  a bit anxious and unsure about how to rescue his little piggie from the water, and equally upset that there was a polka dottie piggie swimming in his water bowl preventing him from getting a drink!  I managed to make a cute video of the moment, and that’s our Saturday Snicker for you today!

Have a good giggle courtesy of Rugby James!


Saturday Snicker: Another Daddy Nappy Noodle

Rugby is the original snuggle pup.  He absolutely is!  For years, all of my previous dogs have been dogs who enjoyed being affectionate with me, but Rugby takes it to a whole new level!  He’s a Velcro dog, and he just can’t get close enough when he wants a snuggle or a nap….or more often than not…..a “snuggle nap.”  He’s great at multi-tasking naps with snuggles, and those are his very favorite types of naps!  He enjoys a good pretzel nap if a snuggle nap is not readily available, but if he can find a snuggle buddy, he’s all in!

Over the recent holiday, Michael was home for the afternoon, and he loves sneaking in an afternoon nap when he can.  He’s always enjoyed naps on the floor, where the surface is hard, and his back can get a good flat surface.

You can just imagine the delight that Rugby feels when he sees his Daddy settle on the floor for a nice afternoon nap! He comes running….all four paws excitedly headed toward the object of his good fortune.

I was able to capture this recent nappy noodle in its various stages, and so I present that photo montage to you….for your giggling pleasure on an otherwise boring Saturday!!  Enjoy a Saturday snicker from Rugby James!

This was the moment that Michael had laid down and Rugby climbed into his favorite spot!!


He was looking a bit pensive, because he knew that I was lurking with my camera phone!


He tolerated the first close up photo….


But quickly let me know how he really felt about this photo shoot! Rugby often pouts when he realizes that I’m taking photos, and those ears tell me how he really feels about it!


As he settled into his nap, he got into one of his favorite napping positions, a tight curl with his snoot poked down into his fluffy tail.  He always enjoys using his Daddy’s legs or bum as his pillow for propping up his head!


Before long, he morphed into a sprawled nap, working into his “sunny side up” position!


When Rugby gets into a deeper sleep, he often opens his mouth, and since he’s lacking most of his front teeth, I’m always treated to a little bit of a tongue out photo, which I absolutely love!!

These are the sweet moments that I always cherish so much with Rugby.  He’s really such a dear little dog, and it’s such a blessing to me to share this side of him with the world!


Aggression….the Unwelcome House Guest

Special Note:  This post contains some mild graphic photos and descriptions of a recent dog bite that I received.

I work with all kinds of dogs….various breeds, ages, temperaments, backgrounds, etc.  Some dogs are friendly and happy to see me, and others….not so much!  I’ve been training dogs since 1983, and working with aggressive dogs since 2008.  In all that time, I’ve only been bitten twice.  I use very safe measures when working with edgy, or aggressive dogs.  But this past week, I encountered a really dangerous dog, and that’s the subject of this post….to educate my readers about what made this situation more serious than other aggressive dogs I see.

Earlier in the week, I had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of a 70 pound dog’s teeth being sunk into my leg.  Zero fun.  Naturally, since it’s June,  and since the dog had no prior bite history, I was wearing shorts, so I had no protection at all between skin and teeth.

This was at the hospital, right after they had cleaned up the bite.

Prior to training any dog, I do an evaluation.  I’m asking behavioral questions and observing the dog in his home where he’s comfortable and relaxed.  This also helps me watch the interactions between dog and owner, and I can learn a lot through simple observation.

When I evaluate dogs who are aggressive  with humans, I insist that they be leashed so that I can safely move and not be attacked.  Typically, I want the dog back from the door and at a safe distance from me so that I can I observe the dog’s behavior and arousal levels from a safe distance as I come in and conduct the evaluation.

Note the stiff body language, forward ears, fixated stare…..all aggressive body language!

Some dog owners are very understanding and have no issue doing that.  Others make it clearly known that they think I’m being overly concerned, especially when their dog has no bite history.  Some dogs do well being leashed, and others not so much.  The owners of the “not so much” dogs generally aren’t very happy leashing their dogs because they know that their dogs are likely to produce even worse behavior, which I completely understand!  However, that leash and a careful owner are the only things keeping me safe, and whether or not an owner likes my methods, they do have a responsibility to keep me safe as a guest in their home.

The dog who bit me this week had no bite history.  He was a physically healthy two year old dog in very good condition.   He had been to his vet the previous week for a complete physical including a blood work up to determine if there was any medical reason for his behavior.  He was given a clean bill of health, meaning that the vet could determine no medical reason for the dog to be behaving in an aggressive manner.  That’s a great place to start with any type of aggression….a medical work up!

This dog is likely close to the size of the dog who bit me. Look at the size of that open mouth! Large dogs pack a BIG punch when they bite!  The surface area of my bite is roughly 3″ x 4″….a very large area of my outer calf!

Two weeks earlier, he had nipped the pants legs of two males who came into the home, but responded well to them through the duration of their visit in the home.  He had never shown aversive behavior toward women, so his owner felt very confident that he would be completely fine with me.  He had no problem leashing his dog and was very compliant about keeping me safe during the evaluation.

As I came into the house, I heard minimal barking, and observed a small mount of piloerection (fur standing up on his shoulders and or back and rump) from the dog. He did pull hard to sniff me, but didn’t lunge or growl in any way. Comparing him to other dogs that I’ve evaluated who are aggressive to strangers in the home, I felt as if he was very calm at the door to be perfectly honest.

His owner let him come over to sniff, which didn’t make me very comfortable, but the dog wasn’t sending any super strong danger signals, and because he had no bite history and was early in his aggressive behavior, I felt as if he would likely be fine.  However, I should not have allowed the dog to get near me, because the piloerection was only at the shoulders and the base of his tail, which can be an indicator of a dog who is unpredictable and aggressive, which this dog later proved to be!

He sniffed me over as all dogs do.  He was polite, no muzzle punches or hard pokes.  Very typical, gentle sniffing.  He even licked my legs and hand very sweetly.  He did some minor gentle biting on my fingers as many dogs will do, but again, it was really pretty polite given the dog.  Looking back, the hand nibbles may have been the dog sending me a signal that he was thinking about a bite, and he was trying to intimidate…or testing the waters but deciding to wait for a more opportune moment.

As we walked through the house, we left the foyer and proceeded through the living room and into the kitchen, the dog was ahead of me.  I always send the dog ahead, so that I know where he is.  To stay safe with aggressive dogs, I try to always know where the dog is at all times.  He stopped at one point and looked back at me with a hard stare as if to challenge my walking into his space. I stopped and froze, waiting for his owner to call his dog to come along, and waiting to see the dog’s response to that nudge on the leash.  He quickly and easily complied with his owner’s direction, which is very good.  Many dogs do not want to break a fixated stare, and the hard eye will continue.  The dog was very compliant, and his body language was calm and relaxed as he went into the kitchen.

Great example of a hard eye and fixated stare. When dogs do this, it’s almost as if they are looking right through you.

As I came into the kitchen, I set my briefcase on a chair in their breakfast nook and got out my evaluation binder and pencil.  The dog was calm and relaxed, watching me without a hard stare or any negative body language.  His owner was talking to him, and offered some quick pets and ear rubs to reassure his dog.  I focused on writing some quick notes about the dog’s behavior at the front door.

At the moment of the bite, I was standing at the table in their breakfast nook, writing notes, not moving, not talking, looking right at the table and quietly writing.  I may have slightly shifted my weight from one foot to the next in the direction of the dog and his owner.  That’s it.  If I moved at all, it was very subtle, and nothing that would have been threatening or have startled the dog in any way.  The bite came within thirty seconds after his owner had sat down and petted him.

I thought the owner had his dog right at his side and I was positioned far enough away that the dog couldn’t get to me.  As a result, I was focused on my writing and I was not looking at the dog or even in his general direction.  I had some sense of where he was from my peripheral vision, but I thought I was safer than I actually was.  Hard lesson learned in a painful way.

Next thing I knew, I felt a quick little lick, a fairly gentle muzzle bump against my left leg and then boom! He gave me a quick, hard, and very sneaky bite and released his grip. One or two seconds from start to finish.  There was no time to back away and prevent the bite, as it came immediately after the lick and nudge.  After the bite, as I quickly jumped back, I instinctively grabbed my briefcase to create a protective barrier between myself and the dog in case he came back for more.

I can’t tell you what the dog was doing right after the bite.  I didn’t see him to know what his body language or facial expressions were like! His owner didn’t even realize that he had bitten me!  When I jumped and said, “Woah!!  Darn!!”  The dog’s owner asked if he had nipped at me!  He was as surprised as I was when I said, “No, your dog just bit me, and I’m bleeding all over your floor!!  Instead of looking at the dog, I was honestly focused on the streams of blood running down my leg and starting to pool on the floor at my foot, and trying to figure out what supplies I would need to get that stopped!

There were rivers of blood running down my leg creating a pool of blood at my foot about 10″ in diameter. I went to the hospital wearing a garbage bag so that I didn’t bleed all over the owner’s car!
After the nursing staff had cleaned me up. That sock was white when I put it on earlier in the day. It was about 85% bloodsoaked and I squished when I walked!

This is a very important post for me to write, because this dog was absolutely a seriously dangerous dog and his owner never knew it!  Clearly, the owner had noticed a negative shift in his dog’s behavior and that’s why I was there to evaluate him, but this situation was honestly far more dangerous than many aggressive dogs that I evaluate.  Here’s why:

  • This dog bit while completely unprovoked.  I did nothing at all to create a venue that would have made the dog startle and react, or feel threatened in any way.
  • There was absolutely no warning at all, aside from a small nose bump.  He didn’t growl, posture, snarl, or give me any obvious indication that he was going to bite me.  He was Ninja-like….and sneaky!
  • He had already received me into his home, although it’s definitely debatable about how comfortable he was having me there.  With stranger aggression, most aggressive dogs will bite right at the door.  This dog greeted me fairly well at the door, but seemed to wait for a chance to offer a hard bite when he felt that it would be more opportune.
  • Dogs who are stealthy and sneaky pose a much higher bite risk because they are unpredictable.  When there are unknown triggers, it’s impossible to moderate the dog’s behavior, and an owner is left with a very dangerous dog who is honestly more liability than asset.

At at a recent vet visit with Rugby, one of the vet techs who often helps treat Rugby said something I really liked!  She said, “Rugby is an honest dog.  You always know where you stand with him, and he always tells you if you’re crossing a line with him.  He gives you time to back off.”  That really made me smile, because I completely agree!

Rugby is an edgy dog to be sure.  He absolutely is.  But he has pretty clear triggers, and for the most part, he will give a clear warning that he’s uncomfortable.  That’s an honest dog.  He clearly doesn’t want to bite, and he’s willing to wait to see if the humans understand his position and respond accordingly.  That’s fair.

Rugby will often “Resource guard.” Note the paw over his treasure, his lowered head and strong eye. If anyone continues to approach, the head will get lower, his eye harder, and he will growl an ugly growl. Never approach a dog who is guarding a treasure of any kind!!

The dog who bit me was sneaky.  Unpredictable.  He did a bait and switch with me, letting me think he was okay with me, when instead, he was simply waiting for a more opportune moment to strike.  Those are the dogs that I honestly don’t feel safe training at all, bite history or not.  I never feel safe with them.  And honestly, those are dogs that are not likely to work through their aggressive behavior to ever be trusted.  Ever.

So how are dangerous dogs like this created?  That’s always challenging to know.  It’s generally a lot of things all coming together like a perfect storm!

  • The first consideration is the genetic makeup of the dog.  Nurture will never trump  nature, and if there’s a history of  aggressive behavior in parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. there’s a good likelihood that there’s a wacky aggressive gene in the DNA.  That’s something that simply can’t be fixed, and unfortunately, with rescue dogs who are mixed breeds, an owner is taking a chance with any rescue where backgrounds and breeding is unknown.  This should really, really be a very critical decision when someone is choosing a dominant, aggressive breed who is large and has the potential to really do some damage with his bite.
  • Right along with the genetic makeup of the dog is the early development of the puppy.  Diet is critical to healthy brain development, which will also include the dog’s ability to reason and think well.  Puppies who are abandoned, or who have gone without food for an extended time, have a poor diet, etc., are at a higher risk for incorrect brain development, and that can have far reaching effects years after the puppy grows up.
  • The next consideration is the physical health of the dog.  Dogs who don’t feel well are likely to be aggressive.  Ear infections, sore teeth, injuries, etc., can cause a dog to become very  dangerous in their responses to humans because they are simply trying to protect themselves and their space.  Their aggression can be unpredictable if owners don’t know that they aren’t feeling well.  Generally once the medical reason is cleared up, these dogs can be retrained to respond in a kind way.  The exception could be for dogs who are chronically ill, especially as young puppies, where their opinions about life are formed.   Some dogs are more able to process and forgive and trust again, while others simply can’t make that leap.
  • Lack of socializing dogs is huge!  HUGE!!  Did I mention that socialization is huge?  Think people, places, and things, when you are socializing your dog.  You want your dog to see all kinds of people, dogs, places and things, both animate and inanimate.  Ideally this starts as soon as you bring a new puppy or dog home, and continues well into adulthood.  Socializing your puppy teaches him how the world works, and exposes him to potentially scary things so that he learns not to be afraid of them.
  • Lack of training is also HUGE!!  Big.  Enormous!!  I wish all dogs could receive basic training, but large dogs, especially dominant aggressive breeds should be professionally trained at least to an intermediate level.  Puppies are so enthusiastic about training, and generally compliant, happy students.  In adolescence, dogs often start to throw their weight around as they begin to wear their big dog pants!  That’s most often when I see aggressive behavior rear its ugly head. When those dogs have had strong prior training, adolescence is a speed bump or small hurdle to get over.  We train right through it, most generally, and in a very short time, that dog is right back on track.  When aggressive adolescent dogs have never had any prior, professional training, it’s much more difficult to train through the aggression, and the odds go way down in terms of a dog successfully working through the aggressive behavior. (This is based upon my own experience in working with dogs)
This dog is guarding a bone. Note the “C” shape to his snarl. He has a hard eye, and is making a big display with his teeth to tell an approaching human or animal to back off!!

Sadly, for the dog that bit me, his life ended that afternoon.  His owner agreed that his dog was simply too dangerous to the public, and shortly after the bite, he was euthanized by his vet.

While my heart just broke for the family, I applaud the owner for making the choice that he did.  His dog was indeed a very  dangerous dog, and I honestly do not believe that training would have modified his behavior to the point where he would ever have been safe to the public.  It took courage to make the decision that the owner did, and as the recipient  of his solo bite, I can tell you that I felt a huge sense of relief knowing that this dog would not be biting anyone else….especially a child!

Don’t let this happen to your own dog!  Many, many times, aggression can be prevented.  Don’t wait!!  If your dog is exhibiting any questionable behavior, please consult a professional positive reinforcement dog trainer or behaviorist to get help immediately. Please remember that this dog went from nipping to a full bite in only two weeks time, so waiting may end up causing injury to a friend, family member, child, or another dog!  Once a dog is biting, there are very few options available, and bites often end up costing a dog his life!  Aggression does not go away by itself, so waiting will never make things better.  And just in case you aren’t quite sure….here’s another photo to remind you that aggression is not anything at all to play around with.  I’ve missed about a full week of work nursing this injury.  My physical injuries are healing up nicely, but my heart will never forget that this bite cost a dog his life.  I’ll have more than one kind of scar to carry through life as a result of this bite, and that’s not anything I wish for anyone else!

Two days after the original bite.