Boundary Training with Positive Reinforcement: Stay Out vs. Don’t Come In!

Semantics: what is the difference between training a dog to stay out, vs training a dog not to go in somewhere? It’s the difference between training a dog what To Do vs training a dog what Not To Do. With positive reinforcement we focus on What We Want. We can reinforce a dog for staying somewhere.  We can be clear about where it is ok for him to be. That is easier for him to understand than Don’t Do “x”.  The usual approach for expressing “don’t” is punishment, keeping in mind that the behavioral definition for punishment is something which makes it less likely the animal will repeat the behavior in the future.  With “don’t”, that’s the goal: don’t do that again.  So whether we chase, scold, yell or use any other method to try to stop the dog from repeating it, then by definition, we are using punishment. For those of us who prefer to come up with ways to use reinforcement whenever possible, we need to change the way we think and train.

When the service dog was visiting us, I had two opportunities to teach him to stay out of certain areas.  The first area was the kitchen.  He’s a Big Dog.  I like my dogs to stay out of the kitchen so I don’t trip over them while I’m cooking.  Big Black Dog was simply too big for me to even walk around between my island and counters! Plus, he could rest his head on the table, and with the slightest tilt of his head could rest his chin on the counters to, oh say, sniff what was up there.  He was very good about not IMG_4928taking anything, but I still thought it would be a good idea for him to learn to stay out of the kitchen.

So, where did I want him instead? I got out a mat and set it on the floor on the opposite side of the island.  It was well out of the way of foot traffic for cooking, cleaning up and serving.  I could foresee no reason he would not be comfortable and safe there at all mealtime prep and cleanup (while we were actually eating, he lay next to me and/or under the table so as to work on those skills). I used a hand target to position him onto the mat, and then asked him to lie down there, which, being a Very Good Big Black Dog, he did.  I clicked and reinforced.  I cued him to “stay” (which he already knew) and walked back to the kitchen.  There were sufficient distractions, not the least of which was a Little White Dog, who upon seeing a mat hit the floor was on it.  She knows all about the reinforcement for mat work.  Fortunately there was room for both of them and he’s a generous sort who didn’t object to her company.  Other distractions were the smells of cooking, the crinkle of food wrappers, and the movement of people. So initially I reinforced often.  As soon as I walked to the kitchen, I clicked and returned to treat (both of them).  I returned to the kitchen area again and did a few seconds of food prep, clicked and returned to them for another treat.  It was obvious pretty soon that he was fine with this arrangement.  Again, he’s had amazing foundations.  I was able to stretch the time to clicking after several minutes and each night could stretch the time further.  I did occasionally keep the duration short to keep the behavior strong, but by the end of our week together, he was ready to lie down on the mat as soon as I got it out, and stayed there reliably, along with his sidekick.

The other opportunity for teaching him to “stay out” was more complex.  One of my most important tasks for the week was to acclimate him to life around horses and this meant learning about life in the barn. I do have a dog kennel in my horse barn and when horses are about, my dogs go into the kennel to keep everyone safe.  But when horses are turned out and I am doing chores, I am fine with the dogs being loose. However, to keep lines from blurring, I decided that Big Black Dog should learn from the start to stay out of stalls. This was a serious safety issue for dogs, horses and people. I did not want to tell him he had to stay somewhere specific as he had in the kitchen example.  I wanted him to be free to explore the aisle, find a sunny spot to lie in or the best place to catch a summer breeze (come time for summer breezes). I just wanted him to stay out of the stalls.

The distractions were enormous. He thought horse manure was the best thing ever and he couldn’t quite believe it was free for the taking everywhere he looked…in the stalls. Step number one in setting him up for success was to close the stall doors unless I was ready to actively train. That prevented him from making any mistakes. This was management and I could have locked myself in each stall as I cleaned it to just use a management solution. But that wasn’t training. I wanted him to learn that even when stall doors were open, he needed to stay out of them. Therefore, I had to make the aisle an appealing place to be.

I did that with treats. Not only did he get to eat them, but he got to chase them down and sniff them out. He gets all his food as reinforcers. I had an entire cup of kibble in my treat pouch for morning chores and I used it! I began in the aisle, just tossing a piece of kibble on the floor to start the game. He ate it and as he was finishing crunching, I’d toss another.  He liked that game.  I opened a stall door and tossed another piece which he chased down.  I stood in the stall and tossed treats out into the aisle each time he looked at me. First to the left, then to the right. This was a great way for him to get a little exercise in the bitter weather, back and forth up and down the aisle.

IMG_4927A couple more tosses and I picked up my pitchfork.  This time I tossed three pieces of kibble far down the aisle, which gave me just enough time to scoop one manure pile into the wheelbarrow. I tossed another three pieces the other direction. The kibble would roll and bounce which sometimes took him a minute or two to find, giving me more time to muck. Sometimes I’d toss 5 or 7 pieces, but I always made sure that as he was approaching the stall, he’d be met with kibble to hunt. Pretty soon he was coming to the stall door and stopping himself, waiting for the next toss.  Success.  This was the critical point. I never had to say a word or stop him.  Simply expecting the next kibble toss was enough to stop him at the stall door.

Now I could wait a second or two before tossing.  I had a whole week, so I was in no hurry. Each morning we played this game and before long, he would sit outside the stall as I worked, only occasionally tossing kibble. Oftentimes, I’d toss a whole handful.  That kept him busy longer and allowed me more time to work.

After a few days, I decided the behavior was strong enough to introduce some more distraction. After cleaning one stall, I left that door open as I went to the next stall.  Granted, the stall was clean, but there were still many edible bits in there.  Big Black Dog paid no attention. He was waiting in the aisle for kibble games. I left that stall open as I moved on. No problem. He was focused on me (yay!) and ignored the temptations in the stalls. After a few more days, I left the stall across from me open even before I’d cleaned it. That way I could easily see if he slipped into it when I might otherwise think he was still hunting kibble. When he looked into it, I simply said his name and tossed kibble. Temptation averted. By the end of the week, I could do all my chores with all stall doors open and he never entered. Why would he when all the reinforcement was in the aisle?

Good Big Black Dog.





Resource Guarding- How to introduce New Household Members

bigstock_Angry_Chihuahua_Growling__Ye_7629174-720x437I recently received the following question on my Facebook page:

Knowing you post discussions on training issues, I need some guidance on guarding behavior. Our 2 yo sight hound/?? mix has been with us for 1.5 years. He doesn’t guard anything from people, and really just raises his lip a bit if one of the other dogs tries to take his food. I feed him separately so he gets his fill, but he is not a big eater.
However, more than a few times, he has snapped and really growled at the Golden and the Cairn if he perceives encroachment while I am petting him. The altercation takes place very close to me as he is usually right next to me when it occurs. The other dogs are absolutely okay with all being around me, and fortunately, tend to ignore his aggressive behavior. I have been correcting him verbally, which he decides means taking himself into a time out on his bed and not looking at us.
Is this correction appropriate? Can you suggest something else that would be a more positive approach? Thanks for all suggestions.

This raises a few issues so I thought I would write a complete post about it here to share, rather than trying to respond  on Facebook and to one person only.

First, I commend this person for referring to this as “guarding” behavior, rather than aggression or jealousy.  I find myself telling people that dogs don’t get jealous and then realize that doesn’t make sense when people SEE behavior which so looks like jealousy.  What I mean is that by labeling dog behavior as “jealousy”, then we lump a lot of human jealousy behaviors into the definition which doesn’t fit dog behavior.  As humans, we can stew on jealousy, spending time thinking about how to get revenge on someone we are jealous of.  This leads to people thinking that dogs who chew up furniture or pee in the house do it because they are jealous of the new dog and are “getting back at” the owner.  I do not believe this is remotely true.  I believe bringing a new dog (cat, baby, spouse, etc) into the house can upset the normal balance which can lead to stress which can lead to frustration or house soiling, but that’s not jealousy and indicates a dog who needs compassion, not derision.

So, I encourage people to look at behavior like this as resource guarding.  The resource being guarded can be anything from food, to a person, to a favorite chair, to access to the door, etc.  And each dog (or horse or whatever), may have a different importance associated with that resource.  Food may be more important for one dog, and access to a chair or bed more important to another dog.  And this is why the linear model of dominance is a myth.  I have one horse who will willingly share a hay pile…but gets very angry if another horse tries to approach when I am with him.

The more limited a resource, the more likely it is to be guarded.  If there is a chair for every dog, (and each chair is of equal value in their eyes according to comfort, view of the outdoors, warmth, etc!), then there won’t be nearly the problem with someone guarding a chair. So when jacks sharing bedwe have multi-dog households, people are a valued resource; we only have two hands after all!  And one lap, depending on the size of the dog.

So, what is my advice to the above problem? I had a similar experience when I brought Eloise into the household.  I was adamant that a new dog would not make life unpleasant for my dear Beetle.  I didn’t want a new Jack coming in and pushing him around.  Eloise was perfect in that regard.  She came quietly into the family.  At the same time, I wanted her to feel welcomed and loved, not like a second class citizen. Beetle was not thrilled with this interloper and raised his lips and growled if she came close. So my job was to make her presence and proximity a Good Thing as far as Beetle was concerned, rather than a threat.  If I had scolded Beetle when she came close, then he would have equated her with unpleasantness. And that, in turn, would have made him more uneasy when she approached. “Eloise comes close=scolding.  I hate her.” Yes, there I go anthropomorphizing.  Sorry.  But you get the idea.

Beetle loved to be in a chair with me when I was reading.  It was warm, soft and he was close.  He wasn’t actually in my lap as he’s not a lap dog.  He squished in next to me.  Eloise is a snuggled who is more than happy to be in a lap, but got growled at when she even entered the room.  Immediately I imposed the following: if Beetle was in the chair and Eloise entered the room, I started giving Beetle a neck rub- which he loves. That served two purposes.  It distracted him in the immediate AND it began to teach him that Eloise approaching meant good feelings.  If food was within reach, I would also begin offering him treats as she came closer.  If she walked away, then the neck rubs and treats stopped.  The new equation was “Eloise comes close=treats and neck rubs!  Bring her back here!”.

Now this wasn’t an immediate nor clean switch.  There was still growling.  If he growled, I simply got up out of the chair and walked away.  I didn’t scold or use any other punishment.  Losing his warm seat mate was punishment enough.  Now growling=Jane leaving.  Growling does serve as a threat.  But it wasn’t working on the right target.  I don’t know if that made any sense to him or not, but overall, he quickly learned that having Eloise around was just fine, and she could jump into my lap and curl up and he just got more and more attention.

One final word in general about growling: I have to quote a good friend who says “punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”  (and the same goes for punishing a horse for putting ears back).  Those are warning signs.  They tell us the animal is uncomfortable, worried, angry.  We need to respect those emotions.  If we punish, we do nothing to change the emotion.  The dog or horse is still uncomfortable, worried and/or angry.  But he isn’t allowed to express it.  So the emotion builds…and builds…and eventually it bursts out in a bite or some other stronger expression. We need to own that.

If, instead, we observe the things which are upsetting our animals and work to change the way they feel about those things (by using things they like when the threat is at a LOW LEVEL), then the threats cease when the feelings cease.  Everyone is happier and safer.

The original question was about a dog who had been in the household for 1 1/2 years and it’s this “new” dog with the problem. This is not surprising as when newer family members begin to settle in, they feel more comfortable; become more attached to places, things and people; and therefore these resources become more valuable and a tendency to guard them can arise. If this behavior continues, or if it arises out of the other dogs not allowing him access to resources, then it can take more time and focus to come to a resolution.

As with all behavior, that which is practiced and reinforced becomes stronger. Therefore it is important to address problems as soon as possible. It always helps to have the support of a good trainer- if you need to find a great dog trainer:

jack heads sleeping
Beetle and Eloise now happily share sleeping spaces



A Very Special Guest- A Big Black Service Dog

IMG_1991We had a very special guest visiting us this week.  He is in training (with someone else) to become a service dog. His trainer is away for professional education and so he needed to stay with someone else for 10 days.  I got the job (lucky me!) because I am helping his future person learn about positive reinforcement training and will spend a lot of time with them during “transfer”. After his trainer decides he is ready to go the new person, they will need to work together under supervision to figure each other out, develop a comfortable flow, and transition into a working team. I got that job because of my location (proximity to future owner) and my relationship with his trainer.

It’s a humbling experience.  I knew it would be.  Service dogs and the people who train them amaze me.  I am a fan of Laurie Luck of Smart Dog University. She is on the faculty of both Karen Pryor Academy and Clicker Expo.  Last year, I attended her talk and lab about teaching service dogs different behaviors including how to alert to odors.  Introducing the topic, she acknowledged the “wow” factor but also said, “it’s just behavior”.  If we know how to train well, which includes a lot of topics, then we can train some amazing things.  Laurie raises dogs for a service dog agency and frequently posts stories and photos of the process.  I highly recommend her blog.

So what have we done so far?  In the first 36 hours, my initial goal was to get to know him and let him get to know us.  “Us” includes me, the house dogs (I do not intend to introduce him to the Livestock Guardian Dog as there is no purpose to that), my husband and importantly, the horses.  His future person is a horse person.  Much of his future life will be spent in the many venues of horses- from the barn to competitions. This guy has not met horses before.  The first time he saw mine, there was a staring contest.  Dog stared at horses; horses stared at Big Black Dog. I was shoveling food pretty quickly and there was a bark or two but he refocused on me quite well.  He’s had good basics for attention and responding to cues. Each viewing over the next 36 hours got progressively more relaxed until yesterday afternoon when he could glance but not bark.

Day 2 I took him into the barn for the first time.  Looking at it from the perspective of a dog who has never been in a horse barn before, there is a lot of newness! A dog’s sense of smell is so much stronger than ours but I don’t even know a person who isn’t affected by the smells of a barn the first time (and then there are those of us who know we are home when we smell that particular scent). His nose went to work immediately.  Being in the middle of hard winter, all the barn doors were closed up tight so I could let him loose to investigate.  My own dogs go immediately to the kennel because of a very high history of reinforcement in there.  But this guy sniffed everything.  Of course he decided it was fine dining as well so we began work on “leave it”! The cat went straight up a wall and then begged to be let into the loft where he did not have to meet the Big Black Dog. All in good time, George kitty.

Big Black Dog decided that winter in the far north is a mixed bag.  He loves to go out but can’t figure out why his feet start burning and then can’t figure out how to walk without putting them down. But he loves to tunnel in the snow.  Thanks to the bitter cold we’re having, all the snow is fluffy, fluffy powder. He lies down and squirms along, completely disappearing under the deep powder and all you can see is a mole track as he wriggles through the deep snow until he explodes up out of it looking like chocolate covered with powdered sugar.

Day 3 we went for a visit with his future person.  He has met her before and was very excited to be at her house. He trotted around reacquainting himself with her dogs and her home. When it was time to go to work, we put on his harness and they practiced walking (on both sides), going through doorways, up and down stairs, sits, downs and retrieving dropped items. There was a huge difference since the last visit.  This time he waited for her to initiate movement.  He watched her carefully to try to figure out what she needed.  He was much more reliable and much less reactive than previously.  It was very helpful for me to see how they worked together so I can communicate to the trainer some new things that we need to figure out.  For instance if he is on her left and they find themselves at a door which swings toward them to the left, what is the most graceful way to maneuver him into a better place so he doesn’t get squashed by the door and is still where he needs to be to help her?

I think what has struck me the most in working with them is the importance of stimulus control for this dog.  There can be no “oops” in his working life.  Too much is riding on it.