7 Things We Know About Dogs

Dogs lean towards that which is comfortable, And away from that which is not comfortable.

Dogs lean towards that which is comfortable,
And away from that which is not comfortable.

This is a powerful idea when applied to dog training. It simply means that dogs look for comfort, enjoyment, and happiness, and that they will do things that cause them comfort, enjoyment, and happiness.

Before we talk about using comfort and discomfort in training a dog there are some questions to address.

First, what give us as humans, dog owners, and dog lovers the right to make our dog uncomfortable?

To answer this we need to turn to our knowledge about dogs. Dogs learn through association. Association is everything, or dogs have associations with everything. That is a big deal. Associations need some consistency to be formed. If you walk your dog every day at the same time, you dog will associate that time of day with a walk. If you get excited and give your dog a lot of attention when your dogs jumps on people, our dogs will associate a boost of excited energy and attention when she jumps on people. If every time your dog sits when asked, you get excited and give her attention she will associate excitement and attention with sitting and, more generally, with doing what is asked of her.

We live in a world that is dangerous for dogs. We live in a human world and dogs live with us. To keep a dog safe in this human world we have to use the dog’s natural ability to form associations and to do things that are comfortable, while avoiding things that are uncomfortable. In many cases the human owner of the dog may see a danger, or a reason for the dog to not do, or stop doing something, the owner need to be able to communicate quickly because the dog may not understand.

Second, is it necessary for a trainer to associate some intentional and controlled discomfort with misbehavior, lack of attention and non-compliance?

For me the answer is yes. Dogs are not born understanding the concept of “No”. I don’t think people understand that idea at birth either. The difference is people learn human language, dogs do not. Dogs learn through association, so with training we can associate the word no with discomfort, and the word yes with comfort. A dog can learn that it is more comfortable and better for them to do as they are told by controlled and proper use of intentional comfort and intentional discomfort. In time we will not need to create discomfort with the word “no”, just saying “no” will bring discomfort to the activity that the dog is doing and the dog will naturally stop that activity.

So for example the dog is chasing a squirrel, and leaving the park, the owner of the dog can say a word and that dog no longer feels comfortable chasing the squirrel and does not leave the park. That dog may not notice the busy street outside the park. The owner does and is able to keep the dog from entering into danger through associations that dog made with that word.

Third, how much discomfort is enough discomfort to communicate to a dog that good behavior, paying attention, and  complying are good things to do?

A good dog trainer is always trying to do as little as possible, using the least amount of effort required to get the dog’s attention and inform her of her mistake. No More Than That! There are four ways to use controlled discomfort, and controlled comfort to influence a dog’s behavior, to create associations and to create habits. They are Negative Punishment, Positive Punishment, Negative Reinforcement, and Positive Reinforcement.

I personally do not like or use the term punishment; punishment has so many connotations. I think of punishment in dog training as correction. If there are two pens on a table and you asked me to pass the pen and I passed one but you wanted the other one, you would correct me with, “No, not that pen, the other pen.” It would not be your intent to punish me. I do not intend to punish the dog, I intend to bring her attention to the behavior and communicate that it was not what I was intending or what I wanted her to do.

Simple negative punishment is enough for some dogs. Negative punishment is the removal of a desired item (item might be a person, a toy or a treat) after an undesired behavior.  When a dog trainer gives a dog a timeout that is negative punishment, because you remove contact from the dog. Isolation causes emotional discomfort, and anything that causes discomfort the dog will avoid.

Some dogs do better with Positive Punishment (correction), which involves creating and presenting an uncomfortable outcome after an undesired behavior. When a blind person uses a training collar to correct their dog for walking too close to a building that is Positive Punishment. The pull of the training collar is a bit uncomfortable to the dog and if every time the dog walks too close to the building she is corrected, she will stop walking too close to buildings.

In some situations Negative Reinforcement works well in making associations and creating habits. Negative Reinforcement is strengthening a behavior by stopping or removing a negative outcome. An example of this would be turning up the heat to get a person to leave a room. The heat in the room is annoying or uncomfortable and a person will leave. The reward for leaving is cooling down and feeling comfortable. With good use of our training tools we can create that effect with dogs.

Finally there is Positive Reinforcement. Positive Reinforcement is a very powerful tool in shaping behaviors, forming associations and creating habits. It works by rewarding a dog after a wanted behavior. Positive reinforcement is great for letting the dog know that you agree with the behavior that she is displaying. This works really well for some dog because dogs lean toward that which is comfortable and Positive Reinforcement is all about comfort.

All of the techniques have flaws, but when used together they do not fail, and there flaws are countered. Positive and Negative together make reality. We can’t have one without the other. It is because some things are negative that other things become positive. Our job is to balance and align the positive and the negative in our dogs lives.

You want your dog to choose not to jump on people, because you think that jumping on people is a bad thing to do. Your dog does not think it is a bad thing to do. She enjoys it. If we correct that behavior if will become uncomfortable for the dog to jump on people and the dog will soon associate jumping on people as being an uncomfortable thing to do. Your dog will stop jumping on people and you will reinforce that positive behavior with a pat on the head. It is an honest, straight forward, easy concept and your dog will understand you better because it works in concert with all the other things that we know about dogs. Thank you, Keep Practicing, and Enjoy Your Dog!!!


7 Things We Know About Dogs Pt. 6 – Dogs Form Habits

Dogs form habits much like humans do. A habit is something your dog does without thinking about it. It can be a behavior that your dog has always done, or it can be a behavior that your dog has been doing longer than 30 days.

“We’ve been told (and I’ve repeated in my books ) that it takes about 21 to 28 days to learn a new habit. That doesn’t sound like too long a time, but the research also found that people tend to drop out a new behavior after about 2 weeks if they don’t go out of their way to keep going. But a new study from psychologist Phillippa Lally of University College London found it took an average of 9.5 weeks to get students to incorporate a new habit into their daily lives. Two and a half months — oh my, that’s a serious chunk of time. Good for us to remember when we are working with our dogs. There’s little question in my mind that one of the most common mistakes we make with our dogs is to get a good behavior started, and then stop reinforcing it too soon.

Of course, we have to be careful to about making assumptions from human research to canine behavior. Indeed, we have to be careful about generalizing the results of one study on college students (96 of them, asking them to form a new healthy habit like drinking a glass of water before eating lunch) to the rest of human behavior at all.”**

Most of my clients come for training to deal with habitual behaviors that their dog displays. Common ones are house training issues, jumping up, pulling on the leash, barking excitedly at dogs on leash, playing keep away in the backyard, even staying in an adrenalized state can be habitual.

Habits form by-way-of consistency, and association. Dogs learn habits through association. Association cannot be achieved without consistency. We all know the story of Pavlov’s dog.

Pavlov rang a bell and gave a dog food. The dog started to drool.

Pavlov did this for a while then rang a bell and the dog started to drool. Without food being present.

When we look at this story we start to see the beginning of habit formation. Pavlov rings a bell and gives the dog food. Every time he rings the bell he gives the dog food and the dog drools. The food triggers the drooling behavior.  He does this consistently for a period of time. Then he rings the bell with no food present and the dog starts to drool. This is called Classical Conditioning. Now if Pavlov continued to ring the bell and getting the dog to drool for over a month that behavior would be habitual. Meaning that even without food present that dog would continue to drool upon hearing the bell indefinitely.

How to break a dog’s habit:

Step 1: Know exactly what you would like to see change.

Step 2: Know when the habitual behavior is most likely to happen.

Step 3: Notice what your dog does before (the sign) committing the habitual behavior.

Step 4: Do not allow the behavior to happen, stop it when your dog gives the sign.

Step 5: Continues to stop the behavior from happening for a month or more.

When a month or more has passed and your dog has not done that behavior under those conditions a new habit is formed.

It takes time and effort to overcome habitual behaviors. Once there is a new habitual behavior it takes little effort to maintain it.

One of my biggest goals and challenges as a trainer of dogs and a teacher of canine communication for people is recognizing and changing habitual behavior in both species.

Our dog’s habit is to show shy behaviors; often our habit becomes coddling and petting the dog while she is showing shy behavior. We may not even notice that we are petting the dog for or while that behavior is happening.  When we stop petting the dog while showing shy behaviors and start asking the dog to do things for us when she is showing shy behaviors and petting her for those great things that she does, that is when we start to change her habit of being shy, and we start to teach her that as long as she is paying attention to us there is nothing to fear. We start to send the message there is nothing to fear, we are in charge. In other word our dog’s habits will change after our habits change.

Shyness is not always an habitual behavior, but sometimes it is. I am using shyness as one example. There are many other examples.

** Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, CAAB















7 Things We Know About Dogs Pt. 5 – Dogs Live in The Moment

The fifth thing that we know about dogs, and that needs to be applied to our dog training is that dogs live in the moment. This means that dogs do not dwell on the past nor plan for the future. The evidence that I have for this claim comes directly from dog behavior.

Dog behavior regarding the past

When dogs act they seem not to take into account previous experience. They do not behave like they remember the past.

For example, your dog knocked over the trashcan then you come home and scold him for going through the trash. The next day your dog knocks over the trash can again. Or, your dog eats dog poop and he gets terrible diarrhea, you put him on a rice and chicken diet to clear up his diarrhea, and a week later your dog eats more dog poop. Or, your puppy urinates on the floor, you see it awhile later and bring your puppy over to it, rub his nose in it, and clean it up. Then you notice he just urinated on the floor again and his body language clearly shows fear. Or a dog that chases cars gets hit, her mom gets her all healed up, but then she chases a car as soon as she is well enough to run. These are just a few examples, there are many more.

Dogs sometimes seem to have what we consider “memory.” This is an illusion. What we are actually seeing is learned association, the dog’s ability to be efficient, and also habitual behavior. This explains what we see when we ask a dog to heel, we stop walking and the dog sits. This also explains the “guilty” look that a dog may show when you return home to see that your dog knocked over the trash again.

Dog behavior regarding the future

Dogs do not seem to plan for the future. Feral dogs do not attempt to save food. They eat as much as they can from what is available. Dogs may hoard things like bones. I believe this is due to association, habit, and maybe instinct. Dog gets a bone and always chewed bone on his blanket.  Dog takes bone to chewing spot and starts chewing. Then dog falls asleep and forgets about the bone. The next time he is given a bone he does the same thing.

Other mammals have shown that hoarding can be an instinctual behavior.

Squirrels, for example, hoard because it is the right time of year. They are not consciously preparing for the future.

I can teach a dog to fetch a slipper, then I can train a dog to fetch a slipper everyday without a command, but no one I know can teach a dog to fetch a slipper every day except Saturday and Tuesday. There is no evidence that dogs measure time in hours, days or weeks.

My final reason for believing that dogs show no awareness of the future is that dog body language is very expressive, but there are no postures that indicate future intent. A dog that is showing fear is expressing that she is currently fearful. She has no way of expressing when her fearful behavior will end. She can express when it had ended, when it has begun, but not when it will end or begin again.

Dog behavior in the present moment

It seems that to a dog’s mind, everything that a dog does he does now. Nothing he does is in the past, there is no past, nothing he does is in the future, and there is no future. There is the smell of that signpost now, there is food now, mom leaving is now, and dad not being here is what he is sensing now. The fact that dad was not always here does not bother your dog when dad is here now. The idea that dad will not always be here does not bother a dog as long as dad is here now.

To understand a dog’s present moment behavior you must also understand your dog’s body language, motivations, associations, and habitual behaviors. We must understand these things well in order for us to understand how our behavior affects our dog’s behavior. Dog’s body language are similar to human body language. The trick to understanding body language is being aware, and thinking about what you are seeing. Professional dog trainers spend a lot of time watching and thinking about dog behavior and body language. The fastest way to learn to understand body language is to work with an experienced professional dog trainer.

If you want your dog to sit tomorrow, you have to teach her to sit today. If you want your dog to stay off the couch when you move into your new place, you have to keep your dog off the couch now. If you want your dog to have a good habit, you have to enforce the habit at every opportunity, as the opportunity arises. If you want your dog to behave a particular way when you are not watching, you need to have your dog behave that way while you are watching.

The fifth thing that we know about dogs, that they live in the moment, is one of the hardest things to apply to our dog training practices. This is because it requires our attention and our awareness. It also requires quick almost instantaneous and correct action. It requires effortless action; It requires good habits, and good, effortless habits require lots of practice.


7 Things We Know About Dogs Pt. 4 Dogs Learn Through Association

In order to communicate with dogs we have to understand them as dogs. We have to look at the species as the amazing animals that they are. One human trait that will make this difficult is our tendency to anthropomorphize, or to give human form or attributes to an animal, plant, material object, etc.

We will combat our natural tendency to anthropomorphize dogs by looking in a matter-of-fact way at some things that we know about dogs. By looking at what we know as facts about dogs it will enable us to use those facts to aid in our interspecies communication skills.

This blog entry will focus on the fourth thing that we know about dogs; Dogs learn through association. We know dogs can learn through making associations as this was proven in the famous experiment done by Pavlov where he rings a bell and the dogs start to drool. I’m sure you see your own dog demonstrating his learned associations every day. Maybe you pick up your leash and your dog runs excitedly to the front door because he associates his leash with going for a walk. Your dog probably hears the garage door opener at the same time every day and he runs suddenly gets very excited because he associates the sound of the garage door opening at that time of day to mean “Dad’s home!”

One way that we use associations in dog training is with conditioning and counter-conditioning. In the first months of a dog’s life most owners spend a lot of time socializing their puppies to new people, places, other dogs and animals, experiences, etc. to ensure their puppy grows up to be a happy-go-lucky adult dog. This socialization process is done through creating positive associations with these new experiences. If by accident a young puppy has a negative experience with something during this socialization period, i.e. a dog attacks your young puppy, and creates a negative association with dogs, you then have to spend time counter-conditioning your puppy so they are not afraid or reactive towards other dogs later on in life. However, the good news is that most negative associations can become a positive association with time and patience.

Often times, because dogs are so perceptive and aware of human body language and habits, people can create accidental associations. An example of this would be a dog that has separation anxiety when their owner leaves the house. The dog has probably created associations with their owner’s morning routine, i.e. putting on their shoes, grabbing their keys and purse or briefcase and then leaving for work. Separation anxiety is such a difficult issue to resolve because it takes much longer to counter-condition those associations the dog has made and has had reinforced on a daily basis. Frequently we hear from clients that are concerned because their dogs bark and cry in their crates and when we ask for more details we find that the only time they put their dog in the crate is right before they leave for work or other long period of time when they are out of the house. Their dog has then created a negative association with the crate, because whenever they are in the crate their family leaves. So to the dog the association is: crate = separation and/or abandonment.

In the previous blog, we talked about dogs doing what is efficient for them. Dogs learn what the efficient way is through trial and error and ultimately, association. Every interaction you have with your dog is training. He is learning something. Whether it’s learning how to get his way through good behavior or bad behavior, your dog is learning through association.

The goal in dog training is to improve our ability to effectively communicate ideas to our dogs and one way to do this is with association. One of the most important associations many owners want their dogs to make is the difference between “Yes! What you’re doing right now is exactly what I wanted, I like it, keep doing that” and “No. Stop doing what you’re doing now and pay attention to me.” By teaching our dogs commands we have the opportunity to help our dogs make those associations and understand the difference between yes and no. If your dog understands yes and no then there is nothing you can’t teach them and no situation in which you will feel unprepared.

So keep training and Enjoy Your Dog!!!


7 Things we know About Dogs, pt3

In order to communicate with dogs we have to understand them as dogs. We have to look at the species as the amazing animals that they are. One human trait that will make this difficult for us is our tendency to anthropomorphize, or to give human form or attributes to an animal, plant, material object, etc.

We will combat our natural tendency to anthropomorphize dogs by looking in a matter-of-fact way at some things that we know about dogs. By looking at what we know as facts about dogs it will enable us to use those facts to aid in our interspecies communication skills.

This blog entry will focus on the third thing that we know about dogs. Dogs do what is efficient for them to get their way. I used to think that dogs just wanted to please their owners. That seems right at first, but when we look closer we see different things.

A dog’s first priority seems to be maturing, surviving and producing offspring. The maturing part happens with time surviving. Reproducing is a trickier thing for a dog to manage. In order for a dog to reproduce, that dog needs to move into a position of leadership within their pack.

The pack leader is the one dog that can get the rest of their family doing what that dog wants them to do and also not having to do anything the leader does not want to do.  The leader is the one that controls the attention of the group; if they want attention they get it. They are also able to control the behavior of others in the group. The leader decides when to play and when to stop playing.  The leader decides when to go to the water source and when to leave the water source. The leader prepares the family for the hunt, and is responsible for feeding and caring for each member of the pack. The leader position is a stressful position, but a position that must be filled.

Humans and pet dogs live in a mixed pack or a mixed family, in a human dominated world. Because of those two facts it is our responsibility as humans to claim and hold the leadership position and all the stress and responsibilities that goes along with that position.  For us, as humans, to do this effectively we need to know how dogs lead each other, and adapt our own ways of leadership and communication to our situation and present needs.

Dogs lead and communicate with each other mainly through body language, space, distance, and energy. They also use vocalizations such as barking, growling, loud panting, howling, yelping, etc. The next step in being an effective leader is to identify what our dog wants. This may or may not be obvious. If your dog is staring at a cookie and barking we are probably right to assume that dog wants a cookie. If a dog is howling in a crate we would be wrong to assume that the dog is miserable and thinks the crate is a horrible place. Reason being, dogs are denning animals, and the crate is like a den to most dogs. One reason your dog is howling or barking in the crate is that the crate creates separation from the rest of the family. In a dog pack the whole family would enter the den together. Dens are natural to dogs but separation from the pack is not natural for dogs. The fact is we live in a mixed pack and separation is part of human dog family life. The howling your dog trying to figure out a way to get the door open to rejoin their pack.

An example of this is when my dog D-Dee was a puppy I put her in the crate. Not because she was bad or hard to handle but because she needed training about how to respect my house. She needed to learn not to go to the bathroom indoors, not to chew my stuff and that separation from her pack mates was and would continue to be a normal part of her live. (Read my house training blog entry is you would like more info on socializing your dog to a crate.)

So when D-Dee was eight weeks old I put her in the crate when I could not watch her.  At first she barked. She barked every time I put her in the crate. To me she was communicating, “Hey you, this den has a door.  This door is not open; can you open it?  Now.” My answer was to ignore her. I put her in the crate when she was tired, she barked for a bit, I would ignore her and she would go to sleep. After a few days she stopped barking when I put her in the crate.

Then she started scratching at the bottom of the crate. To me it looked like she was communicating, “Well I know you can open the den, you do it when I am not barking. So how do I get you over here to open the den when I want you to? While I consider that I will try to dig under the door and maybe I can do something to get the pack back together.” So she scratched at the bottom of the crate, of course I made sure that she was not hurting herself but I never let her out while she was scratching. If she was scratching and I gave her attention by looking in the room she would stop and look at me. If I left she would continue scratching. In a day or two the scratching stopped.

Next D-Dee started to spin fast in the crate. At this point she was nine or ten weeks old. The spinning was kind of funny. A puppy Dobie is not very graceful. While it was a little funny, I did stop to think about why she may be doing it. I knew she got enough exercise. So I watched her and started to think that she may be showing frustration. She barked and I did not open the door. She scratched, was unable to tunnel under, and I did not open the door. Now she was spinning. Okay so I thought maybe I should let my puppy out, she is frustrated. We all know what that is like. Then I looked at the behavior and decided that I would not like my 70 pound full-grown Dobie to think she could get out of the crate that way. So I did not open the door. After a bit the spinning stopped.

One day I walked into the living room and D-Dee sprang up into a sit and looked at me. I went over, opened the crate, let her out and praised her. Nearly every time she did that I let her out and I never let her out if her behavior was not the behavior that I thought I could live with. D-Dee is now three years old. She loves her crate which she uses as a den, entering whenever she wants to be left alone. I still close the door from time to time. When she wants to get out she springs up and looks at me. Then I rush over and let her out.

All that is to illustrate that dogs have the ability to figure out what works to get them what they want in a way that a human can agree with. She wanted the door open and through a process of trial and error she figured it out. With patience and consistency from me, she learned. She also started to learn how to learn. That is another story for another time. Please keep an eye out for the continuation of this series. I hope you find this helpful in understanding your dog. Please share and comment, but as always keep it civil. Have a great day and Enjoy Your Dog!!!

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