In Terms of Training: Lure vs. Capture

There are several different ways to get a behavior from your dog. In this article I am going to look at two that are very common, and talk about when I use them, and why.

Many dog trainers (perhaps even the majority), regardless of methodology, begin training by using the lure and reward method. This method involves the handler holding a treat directly in front of the dog’s nose in order to move the dog intluring a dogo the desired position.  This method can be used to quickly achieve a position, at which time the dog earns the treat that is in front of him.

Pros: Luring can provide fast results. By placing a treat directly in front of your dog’s nose and lifting it up above his head you can cause his bottom to go downward as he attempts to maintain contact with the treat. It provides a quick result, and can encourage the handler to continue practicing until mastery is gained.

Cons: Repeated luring can lead the dog to too strongly associate the lure with the behavior, leaving you with a dog that only works when the treat is dangled right in front of him. While a skilled trainer can fade the lure quickly, some average dog owners have difficulty.  Luring also does not ask the dog to actually think about what he is doing.  He is thinking “treat”, his bottom hits the floor, he gets the treat. He is not being required to use his mind and make the connection, and only does so through many repetitions. Imagine you are going to dinner with a friend in a place you have never driven before.  You want to take separate cars, so you follow your friend.  You get to the destination just fine, but you may not know exactly how you got there because you weren’t thinking about where you were.  You were just focused on the back end of your friend’s car.

clicking dogAnother method, which can be used in conjunction with or instead of luring, is capturing.  In capturing, the trainer waits until the dog performs a behavior on his own and captures it with a marker, like a clicker.  It’s like taking a snap shot of a behavior you like so your dog will know exactly what he did right.  The marker has already been associated with something the dog likes, so the dog learns that the marker means he is doing what he is supposed to. When you mark a behavior a few times, the dog begins performing it in order to earn the click.

Pros:  The dog is thinking, and the overall time needed to learn a specific behavior is typically less than with luring.  In addition, the dog can perform the behavior anywhere in the room in relation to the trainer, so the dog does not get stuck with the idea that sit absolutely MUST be right in front of his owner. It is also easier to extend out the amount of time the dog stays in position by simply extending the time before the click. Finally, there is no lure or body language of any kind involved on the trainer’s part, so there will be no lure to fade, and no risk of you having to touch the floor every time you want your dog to lie down.

Cons:  The initial behavior may take longer to get, and trainers who are unfamiliar with the ultimate success of the method may grow impatient, leading them to resort to other methods to train the dog.

Both luring and capturing are useful methods in getting the behaviors you want from your dog. Once their limitations are understood, you can easily work around them.  For instance, I only lure the dog three times with the treat and three times with an empty hand before I start capturing a behavior.  This does away with the risk that the dog will only perform when you have a treat on his nose.  I also reserve luring specifically for behaviors that the dog does not perform naturally. Anything the dog is going to do anyway I simply capture.  With patience, capturing the behavior has huge payoffs in setting the behavior into the dog’s long term memory.

The Right Approach

Sometimes the difference between an aggressive dog and an accepting dog is the behavior of the human.  Many dogs do not manifest fear in ways that we expect, and we need to pay attention to our body language and theirs in order to make the greeting successful.

Killian in his wheelsThis is Killian.  He’s cute, isn’t he?  I’m crazy about him, and he is crazy about me.  He was not always so sure of me.  There was a time when he growled – A LOT. It took time to earn his trust, but it was worth it. He’s a fun little guy. But he needs a minute to get used to people before they swoop down on him, and he absolutely does not want you in his face, nor does he want a hug from a stranger. He isn’t a bad dog.  He just needs time to figure you out.

Killian 005This is Killian the day he came to live with me.  He had just lost the use of his back legs, traveled 250 miles with a stranger, and endured being poked by two different veterinarians. Killian’s paralysis means that I only have the front half of the dog to give me clues as to his mood. But on this day I didn’t need anything more. His unease shows in his eyes. They tell me he feels anything but secure as I take this picture. These are eyes you need to watch for when approaching, or even more critically, allowing your child to approach, any dog.  Yes, even YOUR dog.

A google search of kids and dogs brings up a plethora of photos that make dog trainers really uncomfortable. Remember Killian’s eyes warning me that he was not okay with what was going on?  Check these out…

dog and babyDo you see it?dog and baby

ATT00004What about this one?ATT00004

dog tongue flick and crescent eyes while being huggedThis dog is really stressed out.  He’s not only saying it with his eyes, he is doing what we call a “tongue flick”.  Absent food, this is not a good sign. We can only hope that this dog is a typical beagle, and can take a lot before becoming aggressive. Unfortunately, in situations like this, if the dog has given all the signs it is stressed and receives no relief from the situation, a bite can occur.  An onlooker might say the dog bite was unprovoked, and that the dog gave no warning. Unfortunately the dog IS giving warning, but his warnings are going unheeded.

Here’s another tongue flick. The dog is telling us he is hugging dog tongue flick

Approaching a dog in the correct way can relieve tension and allow the dog to relax.  Because bites are most often the result of fear or stress, whatever we can do to not be threatening or cause the dog stress should be our approach. Here are some ways you can tell the dog that you can be trusted.

1) Don’t look him in the eye. Approach from the side. Don’t come straight at him.  Avert your gaze and let him get to know you.  Eye contact in the dog world is threatening.  Don’t do it.

2) Don’t approach him from above, and don’t lean over him. If you offer a hand, offer it from below so he can sniff it. I don’t know anyone who likes a pat on the head.  Most dogs don’t like it much. Having someone tower or hover over you is uncomfortable for anyone, and if your intentions are not clear to the dog, it can be very threatening.

3) Don’t hug the dog. If he knows you, he may recognize it as benign and even learn to enjoy it, but that takes time and a good relationship.

4) Keep your posture back.  Dogs that are on offense have a forward posture.  Dogs that mean no harm keep their posture back. Lean back on one foot or lean back in your chair.

When approaching a strange dog, always ask the owner before getting too close.  Listen to them even if the dog looks harmless.  Even if the dog is small and cute and in a wheel chair.

If you see the above signs in your own dog, rethink what you are doing. Also watch for yawns, panting when it isn’t hot out, refusal to look in your direction, and becoming frozen like a statue.  All of these are signs of stress.  Give your dog some space.  He really doesn’t want to bite. And he is telling you how he feels.  Please, for his sake and yours, listen.

Time To Walk the Dog!

waking the dogSpring is here in the beautiful Boston Mountains, and if you are anything like me, you are ready to get out and enjoy it! There isn’t much better than a relaxing hike with your best friend, but for so many, walking the dog is anything but relaxing!

I sometimes imagine that, if our dogs could change one thing about us, it would be the speed at which we move.  Our dog’s natural gait is typically much faster than ours, and varies in speed. It’s no wonder they often drag us out the door and down the road!

Training your dog to walk nicely on the leash can be great for both of you. He will get more exercise and stimulation, and you will be able to enjoy his company while getting exercise. While this exercise can take some time, it is really worth doing.

Here are some step by step tips to help you teach your dog to walk nicely on a leash.

1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT. All mammals have an involuntary dogHarnessLeadreflex that causes them to pull against anything that pulls on them. It’s called “opposition reflex”.  The more pressure your dog feels pulling him back, the more pressure he will apply to try and counter it. Switching to a piece of equipment that reduces the pressure on your dog when he pulls will actually reduce the force with which he pulls.  I recommend a harness for my clients. In addition, a harness is safer for your dog. The neck is a sensitive area, and damage to the trachea, esophagus, and thyroid are permanent.

2.  IF YOUR DOG IS PULLING, STOP IMMEDIATELY.  Any behavior we reward will be repeated, and if your dog is trying to get to a particular smell or location and he pulls you there he will receive his reward. This will teach him to pull on the leash to get where he wants to go. So the first thing you need to do is establish a new rule: He no longer gets to move when the leash is tight. When he tightens the leash, stop.  Try and get his attention thewoman walking dog first few times and see if he doesn’t reduce the tension on the lead himself. Once he does, proceed forward. If he stands (or sits) with the leash pulled tight, give him your verbal command for walking (I use “Let’s go!”) and turn and go the other way.

3. TEACH YOUR DOG WHERE TO WALK.  This doesn’t mean teach him where NOT to walk.  There are so many places you don’t want him to walk.  The best course of action is to teach him where you DO want him to walk.  Reward the position with treats, toys, and praise. Be consistent about where you want him to walk.  Practice sits in heel position, and take a few steps at a time, rewarding him as he stays in step with you.  If you focus on where NOT to walk your dog may get confused or even give up.  He may also develop leash frustration, which often turns into leash aggression. We want the walk to be fun for everyone, not torture for all.

Stick with it, keep practicing, and have fun!


Genetically Predisposed to Aggression?

dog headWe’ve all heard the news stories about people being maimed and even killed by pit bulls.  So what is the truth about dog breeds and genetic predispositions for aggression?  Can aggression be bred into a particular dog?

There are certainly biological reasons for aggressions, and genetic abnormalities play a role.  For years now trainers have been hearing stories of increased aggression in Golden Retrievers. According to Temple Grandin in her book Animals In Translation, this is due to selective breeding for other more desirable behavioral characteristics. Selective breeding over time often leads to a myriad of issues, both physical and emotional. Over breeding can lead to seizures, which can look just like aggression in dogs.  According to Dr. Jean Dodds, thyroid disorders are a major factor in aggression, and genetic predisposition is part of that puzzle.Golden retreiver with muzzle

We know from studies done with foxes that friendliness to humans can be selected for. This is undisputed.  So it is certainly also possible to select for aggression.

But this leads to the second question we could ask on this topic:  Aggression towards whom? In the case of dog fighting, selecting for aggression would mean selecting for aggression towards other dogs.  It is entirely possible that aggression could then generalize into aggression towards humans, but it is not necessarily so. Most dogs prefer the company of humans to that of other dogs, so they very clearly view us differently. If you as a reader has seen ANY studies on this topic I would love to hear about it, but it seems that a specific study that bred for aggression would likely be unethical.

If one paid attention to the news media, one might assume that there are certain breeds that are more aggressive than others, but the science just doesn’t bear this out.  Frequency of bites of pit bull type dogs are all over the news, but what the news media fails to point out is that there are many other factors that this can be attributed to. For example, there are close to thirty breeds that are often mistaken for pit bulls.  Misidentification certainly plays a role in over-reporting of biting incidents attributed to pit bulls.  Another factor is the commonness of the breed in any particular society. In northern climates where sled dogs are most popular, huskies and malamutes are the ones involved in most reported bites.  Anyone who has walked into a shelter in the United States knows that dogs that resemble pit bulls are extremely common in the US. In one rural North Carolina shelter on any given day you could walk in and upwards of 30% of the dogs looked like they might be pits or pit mixes. So if there are more alleged pit bulls, there will naturally be more reported bites by pit bulls.

In addition, reporting of bites is a problem. Most dog bites are actually from smaller breeds, but these breeds do not do as much damage as a large dog, so that the bites are never reported to the authorities.  It’s not that they are less aggressive, only that they are less powerful.  There is a dachshund or a chihuahua out there somewhere that WANTS YOU DEAD (and I should probably point out here that I have both of those breeds in my home right at this minute, and the love of my life is a long little doggie).

The treatment of these dogs is also an issue.  More dogs die from behavioral issues due to lack of early socialization than die of all the puppy diseases combined. Many people who want these big, tough looking dogs, don’t want them to love everyone they meet, so they are socially isolated.  Social isolation during the first few months of life is probably the biggest cause of aggression. If I don’t know you, and you approach me, you are scary. If I am a dog and you are a threat, then I may bite you.  And we can threaten dogs in a lot of ways that we humans don’t even realize. Want to make a dog really uncomfortable?  Get in his face or give him a hug. Yet how many youtube videos are out there where people allow their infants and toddlers to do just that?  Want to really convince your dog that you cannot be trusted?  Try grabbing him and throwing him on his back in what has been termed the “alpha roll”. If he doesn’t bite you, then you have a really patient dog.  I would bite you.

Proper training is another way to innoculate your puppy against future aggression.  If you can teach your dog to make the right decisions, and you can learn how to communicate with your dog in a way he can understand that shows him that you are not a threat (even when you are doing something he is not comfortable with), then it is far less likely that you will have a conflict in the future that will result in a bite.

So does genetics play a roll?  I’m sure it does.  Can dogs be bred for aggression?  I am sure that they are already being bred for aggression. But does that make a particular breed “born to fight”?  Not at all. Dogs, like humans, are individuals.  Some humans are genetically predisposed to be psychopaths, and some of those psychopaths hurt people. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Are some humans born into environments that promote violence?  Absolutely. But most people are just trying to survive, and would prefer never to hurt another human being.  Most dogs would prefer this, too.  Hurting and being hurt are not a good way to survive, and like everyone else, dogs want to survive.


Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to decode Animal Behavior. Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson.

AMVA, Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed.  Read this article here.

The Canine Thyroid Epidemic. Dr. Jean Dodds, DVM.

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statements on: BSL & Puppy Socialization.

Just QUIT!

Chloe sittingBy definition, positive reinforcement is rewarding a behavior to increase it’s frequency.  So how does a positive reinforcement trainer (R+) address unwanted behavior without resorting to punishment?  It’s easier than you think!

The first thing you have to do is find out what reward the dog is already getting from the unwanted behavior.  Dogs don’t have complicated agendas, so we can often figure this out fairly easily.  For example, if your dog is jumping up on you, it is simply his attempt to get your attention. Dogs, like children, will take negative attention if they can’t get positive attention, so any attention you show to your dog when he is jumping is rewarding the behavior.  Behaviors that are rewarded get stronger, so the behavior gets increasingly worse.

You may have heard other, more devious reasons, for the jumping behavior.  Let me assure you, your dog does not have an agenda, and is not trying to take over the world.  In fact, you (or whomever raised your dog as a pup) may have inadvertently trained your dog to perform this behavior by picking him up whenever he jumped on them.  I mean, who can resist that cute little round ball of clumsy puppy cuteness? He jumps on you, you pick him up and cuddle him.  And then he grows up to be 80 pounds, and the jumping isn’t so much fun anymore. So now how do we make it stop?

The first thing is to take the reward OFF of the unwanted behavior. If your dog jumps on you to get attention, then that is the last thing you want to give him.  Don’t look at him, talk to him, or acknowledge him in any way while his paws are on you. The behavior has just lost it’s reward.

Next (and this is where the positive reinforcement really shines) you teach your dog a new behavior to replace the one you don’t like, and you choose a behavior that is not compatible (cannot be done simultaneously) with the unwanted behavior. For jumping, I typically use sit. Your dog cannot jump and sit at the same time, so if the rewards happen with sit, but don’t happen with jumping, your dog will choose to sit.

Learned behaviors are not unlearned overnight. And like a child who is used to getting his way and is suddenly told “No”, the behavior, like the demands of the child, will get more intense before it goes away.  Don’t give in.  Be consistent, and you will find that your dog walks up to you and sits in front of you, asking politely for your attention.