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Category: Dog body language

Response Latency in Dog Training: What’s Your Dog Telling You?

Response Latency in Dog Training: What’s Your Dog Telling You?

A small black and tan dog is standing and looking up at the person. This is during a period between she heard a cue and responded to it. Her response latency was high.
This photo is from a period of high response latency

What happens when you ask your dog to do something they don’t care for? We are not all perfect trainers, plus sometimes we are forced to compromise. Let’s say you’ve worked on teaching your dog to get her nails trimmed and teeth brushed but suddenly she has an ear infection and needs ear drops. You haven’t gotten to ear handling yet.

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Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs & Other Animals

Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs & Other Animals

Let’s say you are standing at a party, or in your office, or on your front lawn. Someone you vaguely know walks up to you. He walks up very close, face-to-face like the Seinfeld close-talker. Close enough that you can see up his nose and smell his breath. He starts a conversation. What do you do?

You will probably have a strong urge to step back. You may or may not do it, depending on the social situation and a host of other factors. But when someone we don’t know well enters our personal space bubble, it can be very uncomfortable.

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3 Reasons a Little Dog Might Not Lie Down on Cue

3 Reasons a Little Dog Might Not Lie Down on Cue

small rat terrier won't lie down and her belly is off the floor
Cricket almost lying down. Note the space under her chest.

When I first started training dogs, things that didn’t work were a mystery to me. Why couldn’t I reward Summer with chasing squirrels like everybody said I could? Why couldn’t I find that slot in the layout of her teeth where the experienced trainers said she should hold the dumbbell? And why, oh why, could I not teach Cricket to lie down on cue? At first, I saw everything through the lens of disobedience: my dogs were wrong when things didn’t work out. As I learned more about training, I realized these things were on me. There was something I was doing wrong. But often, I still couldn’t figure out what it was.

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Shelter Pup “Smiles” From FEAR After She’s Adopted

Shelter Pup “Smiles” From FEAR After She’s Adopted

brown puppy shows a submissive grin

The viral video linked below shows a scared puppy.

  • The puppy huddles at the back of an enclosure.
  • At the beginning of the video, her front legs are braced, pushing her backward.
  • She blinks and squints repeatedly.
  • She looks away and turns her head away several times.
  • Her ears are pulled back.
  • She pulls her mouth back into a “grin” that is associated with appeasement.

All of these behaviors demonstrate stress.

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My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

I always flinch a little when people start to discuss dogs’ emotions. What’s coming? Relevant, evidence-based observations or woo? I’ve removed some words from my own vocabulary when talking about dogs because of this. Even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust” anymore.  It sounds so…I don’t know…West Coast. (I can say that because I’m from California.)

I believe that the people who are out there focusing on magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior science.  They drive observable behavior.

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Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Black dog with tail held high
Zani’s tail is up, and you’ll see in the video below that it is wagging. Does she look friendly and happy?

Why do dogs wag their tails? The prevailing view is that they do so when they feel happy and friendly. Many do, but dogs also wag their tails in other situations. So the answer to the title question is no. Dogs wagging their tails are not always expressing friendliness or joy. Not by a long shot.

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Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

Black dog with brown ears, shot from the back. Ears express alert dog body language

Here’s a little dog body language study.

My dear Zani shows a lot of emotion, which means she is a good dog to observe. She is pretty easy to read and can teach us a lot.

The short video below consists of two quick clips taken less than two minutes apart. In one clip, Zani is afraid, and in the other, she is having a good time.

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My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?

My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?

I wrote this article especially for people who are either new to using a clicker or have not dealt extensively with a fearful dog.

If your dog is scared by the noise of the clicker, slow down. Switch to a verbal marker for now. Don’t immediately focus on trying to achieve softer clicks. Here’s why.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”
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Finding the Joy in Agility

Finding the Joy in Agility

What do you see in this professional photo of Summer on an agility A-frame in a competition?

She’s so pretty in that photo, and running nicely, but you know what? She wasn’t happy.

Here are a couple more photos from that same trial.

Summer was not miserable. She was responsive and doing what I was asking her to do. (What a good girl!) But she was stressed. And she was not joyful. I can tell it from her face, which was drawn, even a bit grim. For some dogs, that particular look might just be focus. But for her, it shows unpleasant stress. Can you tell?

How Was She Trained?

Summer’s agility behaviors were trained with positive reinforcement. She was never forced onto the equipment, but was taught gradually and gently. She wasn’t scared of it. She was physically confident and generally enjoyed the activity. So why did she look grim in these trial photos? I can identify three reasons.

  • She was undertrained. She just didn’t have that much experience yet and wasn’t solid. The behaviors weren’t “can do it in her sleep” fluent.
  • She was stressed in the trial environment. It was outdoors, there were lots of dogs, it was muddy and rainy, and she didn’t have enough experience in challenging public situations.
  • This is actually the big one. I had trained her with positive reinforcement, but I had not sought out and used reinforcers that she was wildly crazy about.

Fixing the last one sent us well on our way to fixing all three.

Finding the Joy in Agility

At the time these photos were taken in 2008, I had recently found a new teacher. She helped me realize that even though Summer could perform most of the behaviors, and had even had some qualifying runs, I was trialing her too early.

So, we worked on Summer’s and my agility behaviors. We worked on her distractibility, especially her penchant for hunting turtles. We worked on my handling, so I could be consistent and clear. She showed me that almost anything Summer did (except to run after a turtle) was because I had cued it with my body. We cut down and practically eliminated the times when Summer might just run off after a bad cue of mine, both because my cues got better, and because Summer found it worthwhile to stick around even when I messed up.

At my teacher’s encouragement, I found very high-value treats that turned Summer’s attention on high. And we used a novel reinforcer—playing in the spray of a garden hose—as a reinforcer for a whole sequence.* The water play not only upped her excitement about agility in general, it was also great for proofing her performance. She learned that if she ran straight to the hose rather than following my signals, no water came out. But finish the sequence correctly, and there was a party with the hose. She loved it!

Transfer of Value

In my last blog post I described how I became a conditioned reinforcer to my dogs over the years through regular association with food and fun. The same thing happened with agility.  All those good feelings associated with the high-value goodies, the fun, and the hose bled right over into agility behaviors.

Three years later, we competed again. We had practiced going to new environments. The fun of agility was so strong, and our behaviors were that much more fluent, that this is how she now looked in competition.

sable dog jumping an agility jump with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

sable dog exiting an agility chute with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

Summer came to love agility. She sprang from the start line when released. She ran fast and happy. She was an unlikely agility dog with her penchant for turtles and other prey. But she not only got good at it, she loved it. And I loved doing it with her. Even after I got Zani, who was young, physically apt and very responsive—running with Summer was always like coming home.

I thought about calling this post “Going Beyond Positive Reinforcement,” but I decided that was inaccurate. I didn’t need to go beyond it. The difference was just better positive reinforcement training.  More thorough, more general, more thoughtful. And the result was joy.

If you want to see just how joyful, watch the following video. The first clip is from 2012, at a trial. Even though it was late in the day and I made some clumsy errors, she ran happy! The comparison in her demeanor from the previous competition is striking. It is followed by the best example of her speed I have on film: a run we did in 2014 at an agility field (with distractions). Finally, I show some messing around we did at home in 2016, just to share how delighted we were to be playing with one another. She was 10 years old then, and that winter was the last time shared the joy of agility together. (She passed away in August, 2017.)

Link to the agility joy video for email subscribers.

My teacher, and other great trainers who have influenced me, have taught me to set the bar (ha-ha) high. It’s not enough that a dog can do the behaviors. It’s not enough that they can qualify. It’s not enough that they can get ribbons. It’s not enough that they are happy to get their treat at the end of the run or get to go explore the barn area at the fairgrounds.

What’s enough is getting the joy.

*If you allow your dog to play in water, especially with a hose, make sure she doesn’t ingest too much. Drinking too much water can be deadly.

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