Fearful Dogs



Yesterday I attended a “Living and Working With Fearful Dogs” seminar given by Debbie Jacobs, of fearfuldogs.com, and hosted by the Vermont Dog Club in Essex Jct, VT.

Something which was fairly astonishing to me was when she began by asking who was in attendance. In the room full of people, there was one vet, a few vet techs, a few people who worked in rescue, a few people who foster dogs, a few trainers….and then she asked who lived with a fearful dog and a slew of people raised their hands. I found that very sad.

Now I don’t know how each of those people defined “fearful” in their own dog’s case. The examples which Debbie used in her talk were not simply dogs who were, shall we say, sensitive, but rather dogs whose lives were seriously debilitated by fear. They came, I think in all her examples, from hoarding situations and pretty horrific environments (full confession: I look away at slides of those situations and plug my ears if it’s video… I just can’t).

An example of the severity of the cases she works with became apparent when she spoke of keeping the dogs under threshold. She said that everyone has a different definition of threshold and so we should be careful when speaking to others that we are talking about the same thing. For me, “under threshold” is when the dog (or horse) can still focus on me and take food. They may glance away toward a perceived threat (ideally they don’t even do that). But if the individual animal feels they have to keep looking at the threat, then I need to increase distance between the animal and the threat so that they can relax and learn that it’s ok if that thing is in the distance. And then, to desensitize, we would move a tiny bit closer, with the goal being that the animal continued to be comfortable.

Debbie’s examples, however, were so traumatized that there was no way they were going to look at a human or take food from it. All they wanted to do was get away, hide, and keep as much distance as possible from people. Her Sunny dog, many years later, still does not want to be touched by people other than Debbie. He might play or go for walks when others are around, but even after her extensive work with him, he still shrinks back from other people.

For this reason, I really appreciated that Debbie expressed full acceptance for anyone who did not want to begin or continue to work with/live with a dog like this. She stressed that it was not fun.  After all, usually what we want from dogs is companionship. If what you have is a dog who really doesn’t want to be around people, you really have to have a different idea in your mind of what your relationship will be. She also stressed how difficult it can be on additional people in the household when a dog doesn’t like them (for instance a family member of the person working with the dog). There is so much focus on rescuing dogs these days, far too many people get into these situations with no idea of what they are in for and no skills/education to deal with it once they come to that realization.

Debbie repeated a couple themes throughout the day. One was patience. A slide with that one word popped up repeatedly.  Behavior challenges are not a quick and easy fix. These very fearful dogs are an extreme example…years and years of work in some cases. The other topic she returned to on several occasions was the most important place to start: keep them feeling safe. As I already said, these were dogs who did not feel safe in life so she did some pretty creative and extreme management toward that end: giving them places to hide, allowing them to stay indoors for months and eliminate indoors if they were afraid of going outside.

Her overall training approach is one of positive reinforcement and using food, food, food, although so much in life is punishing for these individuals that she did not pretend life was all positive reinforcement (and none of us should). She supported her talk and approach with evidence based science and references. Many of her references were familiar to me but I came away with some new authors to research and studies to look up: always good takeaways.

If you find yourself with a fearful dog, of any extreme, her talk is supportive and informative. She has two books available as well as a Facebook group of support. And please get a well-educated and experienced trainer to help you.

Debbie Jacobs


What If I Can’t Go to an Animal Behavior Conference?

I am cross-posting this to both of my blogs because all species are supported in these learning situations!

This weekend is Clicker Expo. That means the social media of clicker trainers is full of pictures and posts: meeting the giants of the industry, listening to inspiring talks, and watching training in action. It can be hard to watch from afar if you wish you were there. As consolation, I have compiled a list of learning opportunities that you can take advantage of from home.

Katie Bartlett and Rosie

First of all, many of us who do go to various conferences often write about them afterward. I’ve written in this blog about previous Clicker Expos, ASAT conference (Art and Science of Animal Training, formerly known as ORCA), NEI (Natural Encounters Inc), and Alexandra Kurland clinics at Cavalia’s home farm. But the master of taking notes and sharing information is Katie Bartlett. I do not know how she both gleans so much from the talks and then manages to put it all into understandable blog posts. If you can’t get to a conference, follow her Equine Clicker Training blog. She also blogs about her own training experiences and every word is worth your time to read.

Several conferences also video some or all of the talks and make them available afterward. Clicker Expo offers many of the talks this way. Word of mouth has it that ASAT will also be offering videos in the future. The Karen Pryor Clicker Training Store also sells videos from many well known trainers that you can watch from home.

This winter I have participated in several learning opportunities from home. Last year I splurged on both Expo and NEI so this is the year to pay the piper and not spend money on hotels and flights. It does not mean I had to forego continuing my education.

Last fall I enrolled in the Fear Free Pets program. Their program has been so successful that they are updating their site. When I went there just now, the site is “under construction” but the email I received from them states they’ll be back up next week. The course “aims to take the ‘pet’ out of ‘petrified’ and get pets back for veterinary visits by promoting considerate approach and gentle control techniques used in calming environments.” It is aimed at veterinary clinic employees as well as trainers who would like to help their clients with fearful pets. I found the information very helpful and wrote about it in “Fear Free Kitty” on my own blog.

Karen Pryor Academy offers ten different courses in training, dog sports, shelter training and also veterinary visits.  Access to these courses is for 12 weeks to a year, allowing you time to learn at your own pace and giving you the flexibility to fit it in around other responsibilities. I took the Smart Reinforcement course with Ken Ramirez last winter and have been thrilled with the use I have been able to get out of what I learned.

IAABC offers a rotating list of courses that vary from genetics and DNA; to shelter dog behavior; to writing. Some include the option of mentorships with leaders in their fields. I have just completed Eileen Anderson’s Writing course which I audited, although the option to submit writing to her for comment was also available. I haven’t taken a writing course in 30 years and it was quite a thrill to be focusing on my own writing again. With luck, readers of this blog will benefit from my renewed attention.

The Pet Professional Guild offers monthly webinars. Last week I attended one titled “Scent and the Assistance Dog” which was fabulous. I’ll confess I haven’t been equally impressed with some of the other presenters but the webinars are reasonably priced, especially if you are a member.

For anyone who teaches other people (this includes all of us who help people train their animals), TAGteach is invaluable. I received an email recently that they have a new (free!) course that offers an introduction (or a refresher) to TAGteach principles.

Percy and I with Alex

I have to include Alexandra Kurland’s online course in this list. Alex is the one responsible for the clicker in my hand and the treats in my pocket. Reading an article she wrote in 1999 started me on this journey and she has kept me going in the right direction. Her course is a comprehensive presentation of her training principles.

Finally, I have just begun “Horse Biz Boot Camp” with Cadence Coaching. This is my first experience with this type of coaching, but I was invited to join by Marla Foreman who had a two-for-one offer. Since my goal this year was to find ways to increase my income (to be able to afford more conferences next year!), certainly some help in the business side of things will be beneficial.

The ones I have listed here are all opportunities I have taken advantage of myself. There are many others. These and others range in price from free to hundreds or thousands of dollars. If you have any you would like to recommend, to me or to other readers, please give a link in the comments below.

It always seems like winter is a good opportunity for spending time on education and yet I never fit it all in. So many good books to read, webinars to watch, courses to take. And here it is March and the days are already lengthening to the point where it’s light after dinner.  But it’s snowing again…

Does Management Fail?

One of the very first things I tell clients, as a matter of fact I almost always say it during our first contact via phone inquiry, is that there are two paths we can take to deal with any problem: management and training. I believe those two things are equally critical to success and so I was surprised to read somewhere recently that a common phrase in dog training is “management always fails”.

On one hand, I understand and completely agree with the statement, but on the other hand, it seems to trivialize the importance of management. So here is the way I see it, and why I continue to point it out early in my relationship with someone wanting training help from me.

First, I loosely define management as physical constraints: a leash, a fence, a crate and a baby gate are all examples of management which I often suggest*. (see note below) I say that we always need to use management until the training takes place. This is because of one of the laws of behavior.

a behavior which is repeated has been reinforced

a behavior which is reinforced will be more likely to be repeated

 So, if the dog is repeatedly behaving in such a way that the person calls me for assistance, then the undesirable behavior must be being reinforced.

1207886480433131649gerald_g_rabbit-svg-hiExample: the dog who doesn’t come when she is called and instead runs off. If she continues to run the other way when she is called, something is reinforcing that behavior. It could be chasing rabbits in the woods; or playing with the neighbor’s dog, or getting into the trash somewhere; or any number of other things. Whatever it is, it’s more fun to do that, than to return to the person calling her name. If the person was more fun, the dog would choose to run back, instead of away. As long as that reinforcement continues, the behavior of running away will also continue.

Now of course my job is to help the person understand how to train the dog, which I will do by teaching the person how to use great reinforcers such as treats and play and a great relationship so that the dog begins to choose those things instead of chasing rabbits and eating garbage. But the problem is habits which were built through history of previous reinforcement.

When we begin, the scale is tipped heavily toward the bunny chasing. A couple treats for coming when called will just barely begin to adjust the balance. If the dog goes out the next day and chases bunnies again, we’ve just lost all the advantage we gained with treats. We need a history of many repetitions of treats for coming when called to give the scale a chance to become balanced. And if we want a reliable recall, we need the scale tipped heavily on the recall side, not just balanced.

The only way to give our treats a chance to balance out is to prevent further reinforcement for bunny chasing. So we keep the dog on a leash, or in a fenced yard (visible fences only please!). Now the dog cannot chase bunnies, and with daily practice of recalls in the house or in the yard, we pile the recall side of the scale with treats, and games, and fun. Day after day we pile on more and more until the scale is weighted so heavily in favor of responding to recalls that it overwhelms the bunny chasing side and the history of reinforcement has built the habit of coming when called.

curious dog with tennis ball

So, the management is a success in my carefully designed world. Why then, do trainers say “management fails”? I believe that expression refers to someone who relies on management only, without the added benefit of training. People who do not train their dog to come when called, and rely solely on management, are bound to be disappointed. Guests visit, and don’t know how to body-block the dog from pushing out the door and the bunny hunt is on. The leash gets dropped while the person ties a shoe and zoom, the dog is gone. Children come to visit and the dog is so excited that she jumps up on the baby gate which comes crashing down and now the dog is free to go.

If the dog has a solid recall, the open door, the dropped leash, the faulty baby gate are not a disaster. You simply call the dog back, give her an awesome treat for responding and the problem is prevented.

“Management fails” is similar to saying “life happens”. The careful dog owner should plan to use both management and training. Because training alone can be risky as well. If I am walking next to a busy road, I do not rely on my recall alone to protect my dog from traffic, even though my dogs are off leash at home all the time. We live far from the road and there is very little traffic on that road. I know there is plenty of buffer zone for my dog to wander away from me and be called back and still not be anywhere near the road.

Whether you rely more heavily on management or training will be specific to you, your dog and the environment. My dog’s leash manners are not good enough for a dog who might live in an urban environment where she had to be on a leash all the time. But that isn’t the environment I live in. My dog’s recall is very reliable even at long distances because our environment allows her to be off leash in woods and fields.

I always invite people to tell me what their daily life is and what their goals for a perfect dog are. Then we decide together, along with the dog of course, what should be trained to perfection, and when management will be called on.

note: In addition to physical restraint, there are other management tools I use such as stuffed kongs for enrichment, to help fulfill a dog’s needs and prevent boredom, but for this topic, I was just referring to limiting the dog’s access to reinforcers for behaviors we’d like to eliminate.

Fear Free Kitty

Today I received these pins from the Fear Free Certification Program. I completed the course in the end of October and was gung ho to write a blog post about it. But the election happened shortly thereafter and, well quite frankly Fear Free was the opposite of the way I felt. But it’s time to put one foot in front of the other and work for what we want, which is precisely what we are trained to do as Positive Reinforcement trainers.

The Fear Free Certification program:

aims to “take the ‘pet’ out of ‘petrified’” and get pets back for veterinary visits by promoting considerate approach and gentle control techniques used in calming environments.

from the Fear Free website.

I was interested in taking the course because as trainers, we focus on preparing our animals for potentially unpleasant experiences well in advance of the experience itself. That said, my history with animals has given me plenty of experience with the “but we need to do this now” situations. I have traveled with veterinarians to horse farms and all too often the people involved have not done the necessary preparation work so the doctor has to do what she has to do in order to get the job done. As a result, that tends to be the approach taken with all patients. Even if the animal behaves well for the usual handler, someone new arriving with the smells and sounds and differing body language of a veterinarian can put even the most cooperative of animals on edge.

Yet here was a course claiming to have techniques to use in that very scenario. I wanted to see what their suggestions were and with luck, help the people I work with “take the pet out of petrified” for their veterinary visits. The course was designed for dogs and cats, but I am always inspired for other species, regardless of the specie I may be learning about in any given situation.

As it turned out, I learned a lot which I hope to be able to share it with veterinarians I work with. Personally, I learned most about cats. And telling you about this will require me to make some confessions.

My cat George has never been a priority for training. I don’t expect him to come when called or anything else. I enjoy having animals who live most naturally in their surroundings and George has it made in that department. He is never confined unless he chooses to be. He has plenty of opportunities to hunt (I am perfectly comfortable with his thinning of the bird and mouse population and in fact that is precisely why I have a barn cat).  He is fed and has a warm barn to sleep in with his choice of hayloft with lots of hiding spaces (his preference in the summer) or heated tack room (his preference in winter).

But when it was time to take the yearly trip to the vet’s office, poor George definitely got stressed. A very friendly cat who always shows up at chore times, he never suspected that one day out of 365 when I’d scoop him into a cat carrier. And it got worse from there. We usually have five or six dogs at any given time and I like to save time and money by taking everyone in at once. My car is canine packed…and then George’s cat carrier gets stuck in an empty available spot. He’s quite safe, but invariably has a dog or five staring at him for the trip. When the course pointed out that one should not swing the cat carrier but cradle it against your chest, I thought of George swinging frantically as I generally had a leash or two in the same hand as the cat carrier. Poor George.

As I listened to the course describe how cats like small enclosures (though regardless of the popular youtube videos, George showed zero interest in a couple boxes I offered him. I decided it was because he had all those nice natural tight spaces in the hayloft). In any case, I vowed to do better by him in the future and promptly ordered him a smaller cat carrier than the old dog crate (held together with baling twine) I’d used in the past. AND I got one with a door in the top, just like the ones recommended, so the kitties can stay in their safe space for at least part of the exam since the doctors and techs will have access.

img_8133When the new carrier arrived, I happily carried it out to the barn to begin to get him accustomed to it so it wouldn’t be a shock when he had to be put into it. I feed him on a table in the kennel/feed room of the barn where the dogs can’t interfere. I put an old saddle pad in the crate base and set it on top of some mineral storage drawers, up high, just as they recommended.

I had to remind myself that George is bigger than the average cat. He managed to eat the kibble I sprinkled in it but there was no way he was going to stay there afterward, scrunched under the shelf.


I moved it down lower, to where he usually ate and fed him there for a few days. He always climbed in happily to eat whatever kibble I put there but I never saw him in it otherwise. Of course, he never hung out there previously.

At this point, temperatures were dropping with the onset of winter and he began asking to go into the tack room at night. Last winter I wrote about how George quickly trained me to let him in or out of the tack room by scratching frantically at the door and we had to go through an extinction burst (several) to eliminate that habit. Now he just sits by the door and waits until I see him and take pity on him by opening the door.

I placed the new cat carrier in the tack room. He was quite pleased with this arrangement since I’d never offered him a bed before, and for several nights he curled up in it. Unfortunately, when I progressed to the next step of putting the top on, he stopped staying in. He’d perch there to eat any kibble I put in, but not sleep in it. It may just be too small for him, or maybe I need something which takes up less room than the saddle pad since he takes up a lot of room himself.

As with all training, there is obviously more work to do. I am grateful for the opportunity to help George be less stressed for his vet visits, though I can’t promise him he won’t be stuffed in the car with all the dogs. As I said, he’s a very friendly cat and he has an impressive purr motor which he fires up for the techs as soon as he’s out of his carrier so I don’t think he’s too miserable. img_8195

Elusive Illusory Choice

Much has been written, discussed and preached about choice in training in recent years. Those of us who use positive reinforcement consider “choice” to be one of the benefits of doing so. I say that my animals have choice because I use cues, instead of commands, a distinction which to me means that I give a cue, and if the animal chooses not to respond, the only consequence is a lost opportunity to earn a reinforcer such as a treat. I do not repeat the cue (unless I think the animal has not perceived the cue for some reason), or punish, or apply any pressure to get the animal to do what was cued.

The importance of that is the information I receive when I observe the animal’s response. If I say sit, and the dog does not sit, there are many possibilities for why including distractions, pain, unclear cues, and stress among other things. So I have to then try to figure out what the issue is, and work from there.

A recent example was when I purchased a new dog bed for Eloise. A little background: when we moved here three years ago, I put a lot of energy into making the dog kennel in the barn be a very reinforcing place to be. I knew from experience that the dogs needed to feel safe from horses’ feet, and everyone else needed to feel safe from doggie mayhem. I included a dog kennel/feed room in the barn design, complete with a dog door out the back to an enclosed area so they could see me in the arena while teaching. I put a steel framed dog hammock in the kennel and fed lots of treats over long periods of time when the dogs went in and stayed in, while leaving the door open so they had choice of whether or not to be in. The training worked like a charm so that Eloise practically begs to be let in there and, until this winter, stayed in there happily for hours at a time, even with the door closed, which after all, was the point: to securely separate dogs and horses.img_8356

So why, this winter, did I keep finding her curled up in a hay bale in the wash stall, instead of in the kennel? This was after horses had been turned out and I left the kennel door open, both so she could choose and so I had easy access to tools that were kept in there. Sadly, I think not having her Beetle friend to curl up with meant she was not as warm as previous winters, even though she had “his” sleeping bag and fleece blankets just as before. My daughter clued me in to some reflective beds, designed to reflect a dogs heat back to them. I ordered one and when it came, Eloise was very, very, pleased with it when I put it on the floor next to me in the house . She started curled up but soon was sprawled out like a summer day (see photo at top!). When she got up, I put my hand on it and was amazed at the heat! Happy with the result, I took the new bed to the barn and set it up on the hammock (on top of the sleeping bag and fleece as further insulation).

But she continued to curl up in the hay. I thought it might just be a new habit, so I closed her in the kennel…and her response was to stand very sadly by the door looking out. Hmmm. I could not figure this out. Luckily, we then had a warmish day and I did not putimg_8349 her little blanket on when we went to the barn. That morning, she was on her new little bed. The next morning, with her blanket on, she was back on the hay bale. I can only deduce that she was getting static electricity or some other reaction when wearing the blanket combined with the new bed. When I cued her to get on the bed while wearing the blanket, she would stand perched on edge of the hammock, next to the bed, not in it.

When I look at photos of her, she looks much warmer without the blanket on the new bed, than curled tightly in the hay, so I have decided she’s better off that way. And when it’s bitterly cold, she can choose to go out the barn dog door, and into the dog door to the house…and she’s curled up in MY bed, warm as can be, when I come in from chores.

What is important to me is that Eloise can choose between several good options. Too often we say an animal has choice but it is similar to the choice given to a child when she can eat her dinner or go to bed hungry. Yes, that’s a choice, but not a great one. If the meal is truly unsavory to the child, she must choose between the lesser of two evils. I’m not saying that’s always a bad thing. Sometimes we may need to set that up in order to keep an animal or ourselves safe. But we need to be careful of how often we do that, and if we do, we need to admit that the animal may not truly be choosing to stay with us, but we’ve made it uncomfortable or scary to do otherwise. In some circles, this is known as “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard”.

Because Eloise has these options, I was able to notice when something made her uncomfortable, as opposed to a situation where she was just locked in the kennel, or “commanded” to go in and stay in. I am much happier knowing that she has choices of where to be. She usually chooses to be with me, but if it’s too cold, she can choose to go in the warm house.

Another interesting situation of choice is when I let Case, the young Border Collie, out for a noontime break. He is a very busy boy and the only time he relaxes is in his crate (I actually tested this the other night. My husband was reading in front of the wood stove, I was reading on the couch, Eloise was curled up with me. Case was loose in the house for a rare Christmas event. He did not stop moving. For an hour. He walked around the house, sniffing, investigating, walking. When he approached a person his tail and his whole back end wagged happily. He’d get a distracted stroke on his side for a moment and then he’d be off again, wandering around. There’s a reason he lives in a crate!) He goes to the barn for chores in the morning and afternoon but I like to let him out at noontime when I’m home. I open his crate and he shoots outside through the dog door. I return to the kitchen. He has free run (I don’t recommend this and I do keep an eye on him from the windows but he doesn’t leave the property). He wanders around like he did in the house the other evening: sniffing, investigating, leaving yellow stains in the snow. When he is ready, he comes in the house and finds me. Rather than deal with his restlessness, I go downstairs and he goes right into his crate, at which point I hand him a bully stick and close the door.

His choices are between being outside loose, or in his crate. Yes, he gets a bully stick when he goes back in, but I feel that’s a fair trade. If, instead, I didn’t feed him his meal until he went in, that would be less fair. He needs to eat so that wouldn’t be much of a choice. But the option of being outside, for as long as he’d like and coming in when he’s ready, even though it means being confined to his crate for several more hours, tells me that when he comes in, he’s perfectly comfortable being confined.

I think the conversations on choice are good. I think we learn a lot by having them. Giving an animal choice does not mean they get to do whatever they want all the time. I could cue Eloise to go in the kennel and she would, even when the hay bale was preferable. If Case is outside, and a car arrives, I can open a door and call him in. But remaining open minded about what truly are fair choices is on an ongoing thought process and listening to their responses can teach us a lot about them.

Indoor Training


If this photo of our weather station is any indicator, winter has arrived. With complete snow cover, temperatures well below freezing and wind chills around zero (Fahrenheit), it’s time to get creative with our training opportunities.

For the horses, that means training which can be done in the barn and in short enough training sessions that hands don’t freeze. I continue to hunt for gloves which can keep my hands warm, dry and also allow me to manipulate my fingers well enough to extricate a treat or two from my pocket or pouch. So far, they elude me (if you live in temperatures similar to, or colder than above, and have any you recommend, please let me know!).

img_8227For the dogs, it simply means finding activities which don’t take much room so that we can continue to train indoors where it’s toasty and warm, (and pretending to hibernate in a hay bale during chores).

One thing which I find very helpful to work on during winter downtimes is husbandry skills. Whether it’s teaching a dog to do a chin rest in preparation for ear ointment, getting a horse comfortable with a deworming tube, or teaching a dog to file her own nails, all can be done in super-short sessions and all will make life much easier in the future.

img_7718 img_7010


To give myself some new projects, I’ve just signed up for a fun, 12 Days of Christmas training series from Donna Hill. Check it out!

Do As I Do

“Do as I say, not as I do” is not an expression that I never intend to use. If I am going to give training advice to others, I better believe in it; and if I believe in it, then I should be doing the same myself.

Obviously situations differ, and what is applicable in one time or place may not be in another. This is most challenging when people come to my farm for horse training and see me doing something with one of my horses that they then want to try with theirs. However, when the background (horse or human), understanding, or situation does not support that, they can find themselves unsuccessful, or in over their heads.

But recently I have been hearing myself giving dog people advice which I realize I don’t necessarily follow. Sometimes it is because the situation has changed, other times it’s because my own training has slipped. Sometimes another idiom applies: “the cobbler’s children have no shoes”. Only in my case it’s “the trainer’s dog gets no training”. Eloise is a companion dog and she is a good one. Her basic skills as such were developed years ago and it’s the maintenance of those which I need to follow through on.

One skill I help dog families with is waiting at doors. The way I introduce it, the hand on the doorknob becomes the cue for the dog to wait in stillness (sit, stand or lie down is personal preference). The dog remains there until given another cue indicating she may go through the door. I really like this as a cue because it prevents door bolting which is a safety issue as well as convenience. I train it for all doors, inside and out, as well as car doors. It prevents dogs from dashing outdoors when I go out to greet visitors, prevents dogs from being under the feet of horses, and prevents dogs from jumping out of a car at a busy rest area. It also prevents muddy dogs from jumping into the car when I am just trying to get something out of it!

What I have noticed recently is that my hand on the doorknob is no longer the cue for my dogs. I have to add a hesitation and looking at the dog. If I do that, the dogs sit and wait. If I don’t add those, they immediately go through the door. At first I thought I should clean that up, but I realized that there is a reason that happened, and it’s ok with me to add that small step of a hesitating glance. Winter is coming. It will be cold and snowy and windy here before we know it. In those conditions, I do not want to hold a door open any longer than absolutely necessary! Therefore, when I open the door, we all dash in or out, trying to keep as much cold as as possible on the correct side of the door. When mud season comes, as it will, then I can hesitate and look before opening a door, to keep those muddy feet where they won’t leave a mess for me to sit in.

Video of Eloise waiting to get in the car.

Another behavior I have been studying is my recall. Eloise comes immediately and quickly to her name or a whistle 99% of the time. How do I maintain that and what happens the other 1% of the time? I maintain it by understanding her reinforcers, how difficult recalls in various situations are and balancing them accordingly. When we are around the farm, there is enough history of reinforcement that I really think I could say she comes 100% of the time. The reinforcement she currently gets in that situation is social: I tell her how brilliant she is, I let her jump into my arms, I give her wiry little back some scratches, I sit down on the grass and let her lick my face, or we go in the house together which often means mealtimes. I see no weakening of that behavior so that means the behavior is being well maintained.

If however, I hear a car (or truck) pulling into the driveway, she gets a big dog biscuit from the box I keep in the barn kennel/feed room. I was thrilled this week to hear a car pull in, and look up to see her running into the kennel without a word from me. Bingo. She knows the routine and that enormous biscuit for a little dog keeps her entertained for a while. Obviously it is sufficiently rewarding not only for her to come when I whistle under those circumstances, but for her to predict it, and just run to the feed room on her own when a car arrives. New arrivals have become the cue. What more could I ask for?

The times she gets reliably high value rewards are when we go for walks on our road. She is off leash and loves to hunt in the grass along the roadsides. When I hear a car coming, I either call or whistle, she comes to my feet and sits looking at me until I release her. img_8081I have to be careful in this situation that the car passing does not become the release cue. This can happen because the car leaving becomes a predictor of the release cue. But if there is another car after that first one, which occasionally happens, I do not want dogs bolting back into the road! Therefore I have to vary the times between the passing car and the release so she learns to wait for my cue. I think the fact that she almost always gets a high value food treat before the release helps this as well. So yes, I am careful to carry cheese, or hot dog pieces, or leftover treats from client sessions when I go on road walks. Because it is a safety issue for her to come to my feet immediately, I want to be sure it is heavily reinforced. Recently I have been wondering if I am too predictable. I think I need to mix it up to keep it interesting. It’s important to use reinforcement variety.  So even though I use a variety of foods, I want to use other reinforcers as well. This time of year a fun way to do that is to pick up a wild apple along the roadside as we walk. Instead of  handing her a food treat, I use my verbal release cue and then throw the apple down the road. She loves to chase it as it bounces this way and that and rolls unpredictably over the stones. Beetle used to love to chase snowballs but Eloise doesn’t find that fun so I’ll have to come up with another game for wintertime for her.

So what makes up the 1% of times I do not have a reliable recall? img_7939

I’d say it’s a tossup as to whether she really can’t physically hear me when her head is down a hole (most likely in the photo) or whether her terrier nature does not allow my recall to interfere with what needs to be done (such as when her head comes out of the hold for further frantic digging). In either case, unless I carry live mice in my pocket, img_8092nothing I can give her will compensate for leaving the hunt. In those times, Do As I Do means don’t even try a recall, go get your dog. I am always close enough to her on our road
walks that I can see when the digging begins. I can choose to stand by and let her have her fun or end it sooner rather than later. If I need to end it, it’s pretty easy to go get a 12 pound dog. The tricky part is preventing her from scrambling out of my arms in a frenzy. In this photo, we’ve gone a good couple hundred feet (during which I was holding on to the equivalent of a greased pig) and she is still in my arms staring desperately back toward her hole.

The final area I have been musing on is enrichment.

You can see that she gets walks, hunting and more hunting. Here, her fuzzy little bottom is propped on the edge of a crate full of barn supplies.
Apparently mice had been investigating the supplies and left a scent trail which kept her busy scrambling around  under the stairs the entire time I was doing chores. She also gets bully sticks to chew on when I leave her home, or Kongs to enjoy. What she doesn’t get much of is new training. She adores training sessions, and loves to learn new things so I really need to make sure to leave some room in my day to do those things with her.

I tell my clients that’s a good thing to do. I need to do as I say.