Dude learning to have a ball

Now that Doodlebug’s leash has been cut loose and he’s allowed to run and play, we just have to teach him. Apparently, playing doesn’t quite come naturally to him, but he’s starting to get the hang of it.

What he likes most is tennis balls (especially the Kong squeaky ones), so we started there. Whenever we sense that he’s feeling a little energetic (which is not too often), we go and grab the ball, get him excited about it, and toss it a short distance or just offer it to him. If he puts it in his mouth, we praise, praise, praise and pet him until he drops it. The second it falls out of his mouth, we stand up and walk away, taking the toy with us. A couple of minutes later, we do it again. If he takes the ball, he gets lots of praise and petting. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. It’s been slow going, but we are noticing some little changes — he will now hold the ball in his mouth for a full 30 seconds or so on occasion, and often brings it back over to us after retrieving it (instead of running off to his own corner to chew on it). Far from perfect, but he obviously is starting to understand the fun that a ball can be!

School Days: Recall, sit/stay, and hand targeting

Gosh, week three of the Dude’s quest to become basically obedient is done — we’re halfway there! We covered a lot of ground in weeks one and two, and week three was no exception.

The poor little Bug was feeling a bit under-the-weather because we (stupidly?) stopped at the vet’s office on the way to the training center, and Dude has his booster shots, which made him a little drowsy, achy, and grumpy. Getting his attention was easy as always, but getting him excited to play with a toy — one of the fundamental pieces to our facility’s method for teaching a recall — was pretty much impossible. What can we say: sometimes the boy just doesn’t wanna party.

Sometimes I just don't wanna.

Nevertheless, Doodlebug performed well in class. We opened the session with our usual tiedown approach exercise (reinforcing the concept of relaxing for attention), and some basic leash walking. Once the dogs were focused and in “work” mode,  we moved on a few new skills.

First up was the basics of a good recall. We had previously noted that toy play was a building block for some other important behaviors — the recall is one of the biggest. While many training classes teach a recall with food, our center choses to use toys instead. The thinking is that any dog –except maybe a Lab– has the potential to get much more worked up and excited about a favorite toy than about even the most delicious treat. If we can build a positive association between the word “Come!” or “Here!” and a super fun, big party with an interactive toy game, we can develop a good recall that will call a dog off even a stinky squirrel carcass or a fun game of chase (the kind of activities that make a cube of cheese seem boring by comparison). The two-person exercise involved one person getting the dog into a great game of tug, keep-away, squeak the squeaker, or whatever gets the dog’s butt wagging, and the other person then dragging the dog away by a long line. Once the second person had gotten an appropriate distance away, person 1 (with the toys) was to call the dog (“Doodlebug, come!!”) and start waving around the toy and praising the dog excitedly. Although getting the Dude excited to play when he was feeling icky was a challenge, he did manage to run to the right person each time. Way to go, Dude!

Next, we worked on a sit/stay. This involves counting out treats, asking the dog for a sit, then praising and offering a treat every few seconds while he holds the sit, continuing for a full minute. As it becomes easier for the dog to hold the sit between treats, the amount of time between treats is doubled (so the number of treats is halved). In between the “sit” minutes, the dogs were walked around for two minutes to give them a break. Dude did well with this, but because he’s not super foodie, our progression from treats every 5 seconds to treats only after a minute has been slow — we only made it to 20 seconds over the course of the week.

Finally, we worked on hand targeting — the skill where the dog bumps the back of the person’s hand with his nose, and receives a treat or piece of kibble in return. The hand target is useful for moving a dog around (for example, from one side to another during leash walking), or for teaching advanced behaviors like dancing, turning lights on/off, etc. It’s also helpful for nervous or reactive dogs, as a reminder to them to keep moving or turn their face away when they’re not sure what to do. The Dude was a total pro at this, since we had been practicing at home.

Homework was as follows:

1. Practice the recall using toys and a second handler, increasing distance as the current distance becomes easy. To be honest about our failure, we pretty much skipped this one. Because of the Duder’s heartworms and his general allergy-related lethargy (more on this another day), his play drive has not been in full-gear, so we thought we’d give him a pass until he’s on the up-and-up — hopefully soon!

2. Sit/stay: Practice the sit/stay using the method described above, doubling the time between treats as it becomes easy. The goal is to get to a full minute sit between treats. We did well with this one, though we’re not at a full minute yet — we got to about 20 seconds without any trouble, and we’re continuing to work. Our trainer calls this the “lazy-man’s dog training,” so we’re naturals!

3. Practice hand-targeting, first throughout the house, then in increasingly challenging locations — in the back yard, the front yard, on walks, etc. We’ve been having fun with this one, and have been using it on walks when there are small distractions present, to draw Dude’s attention away. Far from perfect, but we’re doing pretty well!

4. Walking: loose leash walking continues to be a project. Early in the week, I realized that while Dude was able to stick by me for the most part, he wasn’t really *with* me — he was never checking in and quick to wander off in a different direction. Leash-walking would ideally be taught using only emotion and fun (and not food), but some dogs just need a little more. So I started bringing a treat pouch full of kibble for our practice sessions, and offering him a piece whenever he looked up at me. Magically, he started to check in more and more. Toward the end of the week, we felt like we were really getting somewhere. Distractions are still a problem, but we are confident that with time, Dude will be able to walk right past a person and dog without getting so very excited — or at least, we hope so!

Our homework kept us busy, busy, busy this week, which is a good thing– most evenings, we had a very snoozy little Dude!

Sometimes training makes me so tired I have to tuck myself in.


Chix-a-Lot Friday: Goodwill to good fun

That mama of mine, she sure is clever. Even though she’s always telling me and my Dude what clever boys we are, I have always suspected that she might be smarter than me. Or then again, maybe it’s just that she has supposable thumbs, which allow her to do things like drive a car and buy green blankets at a place called the Goodwills. And she always says that her Big Ideas are not really hers, but rather other people’s ideas that she is just Carrying Out. Like this one.

The other day, mama came home with a case of potato and duck food cans that she opens with some kind of magical contraption and then puts the potatoes and ducks inside hollow bones and makes us wait and wait and wait to eat them until they have been sitting in the cold place at the bottom of the fridge for a really long time. She also came home with a new red harness for the Dude, and this here big green fleece blanket from the Goodwills:

And here is my proof that mama is maybe a tiny little bit smarter than us: mama took that green blanket — which we thought was great just the way it was — and did something magical with it! She turned it into all these funs:

She got her sewing box and took out the scissors (Not recommended for dogs. Supposable thumbs necessary), then she went snip snip snip until half of the big green blanket was six long green strips! Then she got busy doing something crazy with the strips and her hands until — ta-da — it was two long, long rope toys. She even magicianed some tennis balls into either end of one of the long rope toys, because she knows how us boys love tennis balls. Pretty neat, huh?

Mama says it was important that she make the toys very long, because sometimes I’m not very good at sharing toys. She knows claims that my Biggest Goal in Life is just to collect all the toys in a big pile and then sit on them so nobody else can touch them — she says that wouldn’t be any fun at all, but I think it would be most definitely fun. Can you imagine me sitting on a giant toy mountain, giving the stink-eye to anybody who approaches? Fantastic!

Anyhow, she says that long, long rope toys are better at getting dogs to play together instead of me just trying to domino the Dude into giving me the toy so I can have it to myself. And you know what? So far so good! I did want that toy very much, but it actually was kind of fun playing together. And the Duder was so far away from me even though we were playing with the same toy that I didn’t need to be giving him the stink-eye the whole time, and when we got tired we could both lay down and nibble on our end without being in each other’s Personal Space.

She only let us play for a couple of minutes because the Dudester is still not done killing all his heartworms and we don’t want them to kill him, but the excitement of it was enough to make us want to take a big-ol’ nap. And we did!

House rules and time-outs

Last week on our Facebook page, we mentioned that we were about to start the time-outs regimen with Mr. Doodlebug for house rule infractions — in that specific instance, it was barking through the window at people walking by our house. We got a few cries of “tell us more!” and we promised . . . so now we deliver.

Although we use positive reinforcement for most of our training, we also think there’s a place for negative consequence for bad behavior. Not old-school punishment or intimidation (yelling, jerking, squirting with water, hitting), but just consequence — removal of the positive. Time-outs for house rules do just that. We learned about this from our trainer Lee Mannix years ago, and have been reminded of it lately by his successor — and my boss — Shari at the Canine Center in Austin.

In our home, the dog rules that have needed teaching — Chick a few years ago and Dude now — are (1) no jumping on the furniture without permission (Chick and Dude); (2) no jumping up on company when they come over (Chick); (3) no barking out the windows at everyday things (Dude); and (4) no stealing human food off tables or counters (Chick and Dude).

Here’s how we do it. We clip a long, thin line (this can be nylon cord or rope or a very thin leash — NOT the regular walking leash) on to the Dude’s collar, and let him drag it around the house whenever we’re home. When he breaks a rule, we grab the tail end of the cord and start walking toward a designated “time out” spot — in our case, the bathroom. As soon as there is tension on the line, we say our “time-out” words in a cheerful voice — never angry. This can be whatever word you choose to designate to mean “you just broke a rule, too bad for you.” We walk the dog in to time out (never talking to the dog or touching him, just walking him in), shut the door, and leave him in there for 20 minutes (though if a dog barks or whines — neither of ours does this — the 20 min starts from when silence begins). At the end of 20 min, the dog is released and ignored for a few minutes, then normal life resumes. If he goes right back to the naughty activity, another time out.

The Dude and his time-out line

We’ve heard and read that dogs learn in repetitions of 4 or 6, and we’ve found this to be true. If we are consistent and catch a dog in the act 4-6 times in a row, he will stop breaking that rule. However, dogs don’t generalize well, so you may teach your dog not to bark out the living room window, but then he thinks it’s still ok to bark out the kitchen window or the screen door. A lot of dogs need the full 4-6 reps at each spot before they understand the rule applies to that specific circumstance too.

For this to work, the house rules have to be clear and agreed-upon by all members of the household, and everybody must participate. You also have to be able to interrupt the behavior every time it happens — so if you want to teach your dog not to bark at the window, you have to keep your dog away from the window when you’re not in the house to supervise. A crate, a bedroom in the back of the house, or even some physical barriers (sticky paper or window shades) can help. Same with counter-surfing — if you want to teach your dog not to steal things off the counter, don’t leave things on the counter when you’re not there to catch her in the act. Sending an inconsistent message –sometimes stealing will land you in jail, and sometimes nothing will happen and you’ll get to eat a box of donuts — will only confuse your dog and teach her to be quicker and stealthier in her pursuits.

Naturally, this method isn’t a substitute for good old-fashioned obedience training and relationship-building, which should be the foundation of any dog’s good behavior program. If you have a dog who’s just unruly and wild, doesn’t know any rules and doesn’t seem to listen — or a dog who doesn’t much care whether he’s where you are or not, it’s best to do some good training before or during this process. If you’ve tried obedience training — and done all your homework — and you haven’t made the progress you’d like, it may be time to find a different trainer or training center.

Timeout can be anywhere that the fun is not.

And finally — this is really important — time-outs should be used only for bad habits, and NOT for behavioral issues related to fear or anxiety. Fear and anxiety are deep-rooted issues that should be resolved slowly and delicately with an experienced trainer’s help. Putting a dog in time-out for panic-induced chewing or fear-induced growling can only exacerbate the problem by teaching the dog that there really IS a good reason to be scared or anxious.

We first learned about the use of time-outs when we were training Chick years ago at the training center where I now am an intern/apprentice. They worked like a charm. Within a few days, he was a changed dog, and to this day he remembers the meaning of our time-out word. We haven’t used them for most of our fosters, but now that we have a window-and-doorbell-barker, we’re back at it again. Has anybody implemented a time-out system for house rules? How has it worked for you?

School Days: Leash walking and toy play

Last week we reported on the Dude’s first night of a six-week class which will (hopefully) teach him to be basically obedient. We’re now finishing up week two, and headed to the third class tonight!

Dude’s second session focused on proper leash walking, as well as the importance of toy play. Duderino was already good and exhausted relaxed from having spent all day at the training center with mama, who was working all afternoon. So he was nice and calm by the time class started in the evening.

We started the session with some tiedown approaches (where we clip his leash in to a carabiner and walk away, waiting for him to sit and relax before coming back to pet on him and praise him). Only a few of the dogs in class struggled with this exercise, but the Dude really blew the others all away — in fact, he was laying down in frogdog pose within seconds of being clipped in! We often start class with this exercise because it’s so helpful in focusing and chilling out the dogs.

Next, we were introduced to loose leash walking, with a strong focus on using the handler’s voice and emotion to help the dog remain engaged. When a dog feels the leash pressure on his neck, it’s easy for him to just walk on without worrying about whether we’re coming or not– he knows we are there. But if he is taught to walk on a loose leash, he has to be focused on where his walking companion is! A loose leash walk is much more work for the dog — mentally — than a pully one, and this is one of the goals of walking — an exhausted dog.

We also got to play with different walking equipment, to see what worked best for our dogs. The Dude is not a reactive dog, so a simple martingdale (no-slip) collar works just fine for him. But we also tried a step-in harness, which is attached via two points of contact and a double-ended leash (one clip to the dog’s back and one to the dog’s chest). The Dude seemed to respond well to this one too, and we’re adding it to our collection to use in more challenging walking situations. We refrained from trying any head-collars, which work nicely for more reactive dogs, especially when paired with a harness or martingdale and — again — a double-ended leash. More on these various equipment another time!

Finally, we worked on toy play. I know what you’re thinking — what does playing with toys have to do with basic obedience? Turns out it has a lot to do with it! Teaching a dog to love toys not only makes for a far more reliable recall than food does, but also builds a stronger relationship between the dog and the person — and if your dog thinks you’re fun, then your dog is going to be much more likely to do what you ask.


(1) practice loose leash walking in the back yard, setting up some cone-substitutes to do figure eights and weaves, turning frequently if the dog is tempted to pull. Once this is easy, start walking in front of the house — first just 40 feet, out and back. Once this is easy, double the distance. Once that’s easy, double again.

(2) Practice toy holding and play, by only petting the dog when he’s holding a toy in his mouth — all week! Put all the toys away, and only produce one when you decide it’s playtime. When the game is over — again — you decide — the toy goes away again. For the toy holding practice, if Dude approaches seeking attention, offer a toy. If he takes it, pet, praise, hug, whatever. The second he drops it, turn off all attention. This is a hard one, but a building block for future activities!

(3) Continue sit/release exercise, tiedown approaches, and sitting for food bowl from week 1.

So how’d we do? The leash walking was slow going, but we made some progress. By the fourth day, we were able to get down the front walk, down the driveway, and two houses away from ours on a loose leash. Then on Monday we tried out a new harness, and were able to make a lot more progress. We’re now juggling back and forth between the two, and hope to become proficient in each. The toy holding went well — when we remembered to do it. We often found ourselves petting or scratching the Doodlebug with no toys in sight, just out of habit — oops! But when we did offer a toy, he got better and better throughout the week at holding it while receiving his massage. This is a big deal for the Dude, who was most decidedly NOT a toy fanatic a couple of weeks ago. Score!

An update on Week 3 to come next week!

School Days: Doodlebug’s quest to be basically obedient

Last Tuesday, the Dude began his quest to become basically obedient — that is, he had the first session of his six-week basic obedience class.

Although I might have been able to teach the Dude most of the skills covered in a formal class, I knew it would be good for him to learn in a more formal environment and practice being calm around other dogs — a bit of a challenge for the Dude, who gets excited at the sight of another four-legger. Plus, taking two dogs through the basic obedience class is part of my trainer’s training requirement, so the Dude’s participation is a natural fit.

So we headed over to the Center with low expectations — the Doctor’s orders are for the Dude to refrain from participating in any exciting activities for another three weeks due to his heartworm treatment. So we were fully expecting to be parked far from the other seven dogs, in a quiet corner of the field where he would be far from all the excitement. Per our head trainer’s suggestion, we prepared him a kong stuffed with kibble, peanut butter, and cheese to keep him busy and calm during the first half of class, which would be mostly conversation and little activity.

But we shouldn’t have worried. The Dude did a little bit of quiet whimpering as we approached the broad agility field where class would be held, but quickly plopped himself down in the mulch to relax and observe the goings-on, as though he were just lounging on the bed at home. He was a perfect gentleman the rest of the evening, and we were his proud, beaming parents.

The first lesson covered some fundamentals that the Dude was better than the other dogs at had already been practicing at home, like sitting for food and sitting & relaxing for attention. The latter is especially critical, and we feel so lucky that we made it second-nature years ago with Chick — it seems to not come easily to so many families with dogs. The basic principle is this: we should be giving our dogs attention for displaying behaviors we like (sitting quietly and calmly, for example), and ignoring the behaviors we don’t like (jumping and barking, for example). It’s easy to be tempted to push a dog away when he jumps, or say “Doodlebug, NO!” or “quiet!” when he barks for attention. But in doing this, we’re actually giving the dog exactly what he wants. To a dog — especially a pushy one — attention means being looked at, talked to, or touched — doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative in our eyes. If we are consistent, a dog can quickly learn that barking will not earn him that treat, and jumping will not get the visitor to look at him. The behavior will eventually extinguish. For dogs whose unsavory habits are long-ingrained, it can take some time. For dogs who are just learning the rules from scratch, change happens pretty quickly.

The Dude was lucky to learn this from scratch in our home. It’s our hypothesis that he had never been trained at all before living with us, so in his mind, there were no rules. Lucky us: within three days of coming into our home, Dude was consistently planting his butt firmly on the ground and looking at us with those giant doe eyes of his when he wanted a pet or a scratch, not punching us with his paws or face or barking obnoxiously.

The first week’s homework? Practicing sits and releases in progressively more challenging locations in / around the house, sitting for the food bowl, and tiedown approaches. The Dude aced ’em all.

Stay tuned next week for an update on tonight’s session two!

Leash walking: Lollie Wonderdog’s story

Yesterday we posted a lengthy account from our first foster’s forever-mama about Lily’s tough transition from our foster home to their forever-home. Our hope was that Jen’s very honest story would help others feel less alone — that transitions can be rocky and outcomes can still be good in the end. Some patience, love, and work with a dog who doesn’t understand what is expected can come a long way.

Below is the second half of Jen’s story, about teaching Lily how to relax around other dogs when out and about. Many dog people struggle with this issue — where their dog is too nervous or too excited to act cool when other dogs are around. Jen used a creative strategy to countercondition Lily to other dogs’ existence — she brilliantly took advantage of a dog park fence line to provide a steady supply of unfamiliar dogs at a controlled distance, so that she could work with Lily and not worry about the other animals at all. Read on for more:

To work on her excitement about dogs outside the house, I took her to the dog park. But no, not in the way that you’re thinking!

First we sat in the car a distance from the dog park. When we saw a dog — JACKPOT! Begin the string cheese stuffing in the slobbery dog’s mouth! We’d spend about 30 minutes each visit, eventually getting closer and closer to the actual park, WHILE SITTING IN THE CAR!! This was fantastic fun on beautiful spring days, jackpotting all the way.  Soon we were ready to get OUT of the car…. (I was no longer the weird girl stalking dogs at the park…) We would sit about 30 feet away from the fence and I would give her a bunch of treats for LOOKING at the dogs and not barking….after she calmed a bit we would practice some basic obedience commands that she could do easily.  Again, we would get closer and closer to the fence, jackpotting for looking at the dogs and remaining calm…after a few visits, we WALKED UP TO THE FENCE!!! I’m not going to lie, I was stressed, and of course a feisty little chihuaha came right up, barked at us and set us back a bit . . . but eventually Lily got to where she could sniff through the fence at the dogs IN the park.  I was kind of feeling like the local predator at the playground, lurking and peering in at the dog park dogs, since we never went into the dog park, but it was a great place to practice her tolerance around other dogs.

During this period, I would use the “turn around” technique while walking her. If we saw another dog, we’d just turn around to avoid any overexcitement. As we got closer to the fence at the dog park, we progressed on her walks. When other dogs came our way, I would have Lily sit and just feed her a constant stream of treats, while the dog went by. It forced her to focus on me, and she got something good for sitting and ignoring them.

Like many dogs, Lily didn’t great well nose-to-nose on leash, and I had no idea at the time how stressful this could be for dogs. I did a little research, and learned that some dogs just can’t sit while other dogs are going by, because sitting still is too stressful in social situations. Luckily Lily is food motivated enough that all her concentration was on the string cheese. It was at this point we suspected a bit of lactose intolerance on her part — No wonder Chick remembers her as “farty pants!”

When she seemed to be doing better we went on a parallel walk with our little friend Kipper. Kipper is a super feisty, high energy, Jack Russell/weiner dog mix. It went well! Lily no longer viewed Kipper as a snack. They began to play, and then slowly Lily started welcoming other dogs.

Back in December, we took Lily for her “Santa” picture, an annual fundraiser for the Montgomery County Humane Society. Lily slobbered like a maniac all over her old friend from the shelter, Santa Dave, and we were lucky enough to meet Juliana, foster mom to another MCHS dog, Baxter. We arranged a walking “date” to work on both dog’s issues and from there our dog hiking club, “Pittie Trails,” was born! 

photo courtesy Peace, Love, & Fostering

To help some of her still existent pulling-on-the-leash issues, we attended a drop in “leash manners” session recently. We spent some intensive time with a most wonderful trainer who gave some more great tips for walking — the ever frustrating but effective “stop and go no further when pulling,” and then the call her attention and go in a different direction when she is pulling. I learned to treat her for good walking and to reward her by letting her sniff things she wanted to “fire hydrants, random dog poo etc”….But best of all, Francine (of Francine’s Fun Walks,) emphasized that there are “training walks” and there are “exercise walks.” Essentially, it’s okay to put the gentle leader (the horrible looking head collar that she walks WONDERFULLY ON — thanks for the tip, Running with Squirrels) and take some time off of leash training and just walk! We’ve made a lot of progress by finally buckling down and doing the “no further progress” walks and I’m back to reeking of hot dogs, but we’re doing well!

I’m not by any means, saying any of this was easy.  Lily is a 60 pound hunk of muscular love. While we were working on the dog reactivity issues, we (sigh) haven’t worked on her people greeting manners.  She thinks that all people on the planet exist only to give her love and snuggles, and that every person wants her to jump up on them. I’m still a little embarrassed to have people come in the house still because she’s SO exuberant. I try to point out to people that isn’t it amazing that a dog that was tossed in a dumpster still LOVES people, but most people don’t see that, they simply see a spotted beast flying at them!

Through this work, I think we have curbed her desire to jump over our BRAND NEW 7 foot fence, which is a good thing, as I was going to have to bring some barbed wire home from work and coat the top of our fences . . . JUST KIDDING!!

Lily is a big huge, licking, stinking butt, monster commitment, but we adore her. And she has come a long way: Just last week she was attacked by a miniature schnauzer — yes, a 20 pound schnauzer attacked Lily on a run. The dog was off leash and came charging at us. I stopped running and panicked! Lily immediately sat down. The dog was baring her teeth, growling and then jumped on Lily. As this happened, I immediately saw headlines written all over this, if Lily reacted in any way to this off leash dog . . . The dog jumped all over Lily and she just sat there looking at me like an angel. After what seemed like forever, but was probably just a minute or two, the owner came flying out her door, yelling “OH MY GOSH! IS THAT A PIT BULL?!?!”  She came up to pull her schnauzer back, and as she did, the dog nipped her hand.  I suppressed a smile and said “yes, she is,” and led my well-behaved dog away.

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