Border Collie? Malinois? I Don’t Need One!! (Or Do I?)

(This is the next blog post on interesting things I learned from the recent PABA Conference at the University of Guelph. See Part 1 to learn about it plus Dr. William “Deak” Helton.)

Before I begin let me confess two things: One, I absolutely love watching Schutzhund. I say watch because 1) I’ve never trained bitework or tracking 2) I don’t really own a dog that’s “suitable” for it. I think I like it for the same reason I like participating in triathlons. I just think it’s amazing for a single athlete to excel in multiple disciplines.

Two: While I am training my Beagle-mix Petey for Rally Obedience, I do have an eye to the future, so it’s no surprise to my friends I one day want a Malinois or Tervuren. Objectively they just look cool (see Hannah Branigan and Gambit):

But besides looking cool… why do I want one? Why do I need one? Dr. Helton’s lecture on working dogs also included QUITE a bit of interesting information on Breed Intelligence/Trainability and the overall Selection Template for working dogs. Maybe I don’t need a Belgian Shepherd after all?

Stanley Coren’s Rankings (1994)

His book, “The Intelligence of Dogs” suggested that Border Collies, Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Dobermans were the most intelligent and…

Afghans, Basenjis, Bulldogs, and Chow-Chows were the least intelligent.

Most dog enthusiasts have heard of the book, but what you may not know is how the rankings were achieved. It was from surveying AKC and CKC judges for their personal opinions about dog breed intelligence. Not exactly objective or quantifiable data.

Dog Sports Data Holds Answers

Helton went to the world of dog sports to seek out data. Competitive sports of any sort is useful for scientists as a) everything is measured and data is accurately tracked and b) scoring and timing is consistent since that’s required for fairness and honesty in competition.

Going to agility, he found two interesting facts:

  1. Precision (frequency of faults) was equal across all breeds, assuming level of practice and experience of dog and handler were equal
  2. Speed (time through course) was better for “elite breeds”

No mystery there – Border Collies are designed to move fast. But, all dogs can be trained to have reliable contacts or enter weave poles accurately.

Scott and Fuller – A Better (and Older) Study:

So let’s forget about Coren. Instead let’s look to Scott and Fuller:

“We can conclude that all breeds show about the same average level of performance in problem solving, provided they can be adequately motivated, provided physical differences and handicaps do not affect the tests..” Scott and Fuller (1965, p.258)

Physical Characteristics Are Key:

So, if all breeds are generally equal in intelligence, then it’s the physical traits of the dogs we should be focused on.

If you’re looking for speed, we’d want a dog like a Greyhound. They are built for running.

If you’re looking for a fighter, we’d want a dog like a Pitbull. They are built for fighting.

Here are a few other considerations:

Size and Thermoregulation – dogs that are too large will overheat; dogs that are too small will freeze. That’s why sled dogs are pretty small – they are designed to dissipate heat while sledding long distances.

Ocular Overlap – Dogs with eyes spread far apart (sighthounds) have less visual acuity in the centre, but are designed to see the horizon. Dogs with more centre-set eyes have more acuity in the centre and see less on the peripheral. These dogs can see what’s in front, and as a result, are more focused on what’s in front of them, and less distracted by things happening on the horizon – obviously making them less distracted during training.

Built for Speed vs Built for Biting: the broader, wider mouths of dogs like the Pitbull are designed to cause maximum damage during biting, whereas the mouth of a Greyhound would deliver far less bite strength.

The Goldilocks Rule

But, historically, dogs serve many purposes, and the most useful ones do multiple tasks well (going back to Schutzhund – obedience, tracking, and protection). So trainers have a bias towards dogs that aren’t too big, aren’t too small, are fast enough, but can kick ass enough. (German Shepherd!) Helton suggests its no wonder why all the dogs favoured by the AKC and CKC judges are all roughly the same size, shape, and even generally have similar shaped heads.

Perhaps the most important consideration for breed selection is simply convenience of the size and shape to the trainer. Let me tell you, Petey is a little dog, and it is a pain to feed him during heelwork training. A dog whose mouth is exactly where your hand is during heelwork is a lot easier to train. When I was working with Chase, the Jack Russell, his physical size required me to get down on the floor and use props to elevate him:

Since these “Not too big, not too small, just right” sized dogs are easier to observe (and hence reinforce accurately), and comfortable to train (no bending, crouching, or gymnastics required), that would bias trainers towards them. If I had two dogs – a Daschund, and a Labrador Retriever, I would most likely spend more time training the Lab, since I would get tired of having to hunch over the Doxie for extended periods of time!

Innate Skill or Born With It?

Helton suggested that practice is the most reliable predictor of success.

However, he shared a really interesting study done by Slabbert and Rasa (1997) – Observational learning of an acquired maternal behaviour pattern by working dog pup: an alternative training method?

Puppies that were allowed to stay with their mother and simply OBSERVE their mother perform work were significantly more likely to become skilled at that work later in life.

Helton went on to explain that this may explain why there is a tendency in human family trees to see multiple generations pursue the same craft – grandfather was a doctor, dad was a doctor, and the son is a doctor. Is there a doctor gene? A more likely explanation is early role models greatly affect early socialization and gives the child a huge head start in getting practice in the skill. The child of a professional hockey coach is much more likely to be dragged around to hockey rinks before they can even walk, and have a huge advantage to his peers when he finally hits the ice.

Perhaps keeping your border collie puppy with mom for a bit longer, and letting him watch mom do weave entries and contacts could become part of raising the perfect agility dog?

Love Your Little Dog

Maybe you’re like me and have a little dog. Fine, maybe Petey doesn’t look as cool as Gambit because he’s tiny, but that’s OK – I’ve gotten used to having to crouch to feed in position.

There are many jobs out there where little dogs SHOULD be the ideal candidate.

Like for Search and Rescue. Why would we want a big heavy dog like a German Shepherd, that occupies more space on transport, requires more food and water, and can’t crawl into small spaces, when we could have more Momo the Long-Haired Chihuahuas searching for victims?

Or more seriously why would I want a heavy dog that will set off mines doing mine detection, when a Beagle or a Jack Russell would be light enough NOT to cause us to get blown up?

Mine Detection Dog in Bosnia

Schutzhund For All?

And maybe I could try bitework with Petey. After all, he is part Jack Russell, just like Claudia Romard’s Mr. Murphy. After all, he’s just as intelligent as a German Shepherd.

Why Can’t My Dog Stay on Task? (The Vigilance Decrement)

I just came back from the third and final day of the Professional Animal Behavior Associates symposium for 2011 – this year, the presentation was focused on working dogs (search and rescue, detection, etc.) I’ll let you read about the lineup here. The PABA conference draws a lot of folks from across Canada, including my friend Katherine Mutzke from Clever K9 Sports in Squamish, BC, Alice Fisher of Dogsmart from Vancouver, Carolyn Clark, Karen Pryor Academy Faculty, and Nicky Barnham of Carolark in Ottawa.

This year I knew I had to go, because I knew absolutely nothing about the topics being presented, and only knew of one of the presenters speaking (Steve White). Having no expectations going in, I went in and right off the bat with the first speaker I was delighted with what I was learning!

The headlining speaker that I found brought the most new information to the table for me was Dr. William “Deak” Helton, the author of “Canine Ergonomics – The Science of Working Dogs“. He had a ton to say, and MOST of what he said I had never heard of before – enough to fill multiple blog posts for weeks… so in the interests of brevity I am going to write about his discussion of the Viligence Decrement. I believe it has tremendous application to us in pet dog training, because it can explain why our dogs fatigue and stop working in class or in dog sport. In class I often point out to students that their dogs “look fried” or “check out”. Here, a scientist was actually going to explain what might be going on in our dogs when this happens!

(Before I begin, you have to understand a bit about my background – I stopped taking sciences in Grade 11 – public school, I focused on Liberal Arts, and in university, I majored in business. So go easy on me if I get anything wrong)

Vigilance Decrement – What is it?

Vigilance decrement is defined as “deterioration in the ability to remain vigilant for critical signals with time, as indicated by a decline in the rate of the correct detection of signals”

In real life, it is as simple as an airport security officer missing contraband items hidden in baggage under x-ray, or a working dog failing to detect and indicate the presence of a landmine. For the airport security officer, that might be the shape of items on screen that fuzzily match what contraband looks like. For a detection dog, that might be the scent of a landmine. In both cases, shapes and smells are just signals.

In my opinion it’s reasonable to assume that a verbal or visual cue is also just a signal. A cue is a signal to indicate there is an opportunity to perform a behaviour and earn reinforcement. Why would a dog respond to a cue one minute, and assuming motivation is sufficient, and the cue is delivered identically, why would a dog not respond to the cue?

Important to note – we are always assuming that the learner is sufficiently motivated. For training, we would assume the food is appealing enough, or the toy desirable enough to want to continue doing work.

Two Competing Theories of Vigilance Decrement

The first theory is boredom. The task is so easy and repetitive that the subject withdraws effort and stops paying attention – and the subject is then distracted and daydreams.

The second theory is fatigue/resource theory. Mental energy is limited, and task performance draws on mental energy. Unless replenished, mental energy is depleted.

Helton does not believe the boredom model holds true. If it held true, you should get greater vigilance decrements if you gave people easier tasks vs. harder ones. In fact, the opposite was true – in studies with humans (male and female) and rats, the harder the signal detection test, the faster the decrease in performance.

In plain English – if I gave you a book on quantum mechanics and said “hey read this”, you’d probably look very bored by page three. But it’s not because it’s too easy – it’s because it requires a ton of mental energy to follow it.

Applied to dog training? In class, many students (especially newer ones, with greener dogs) often attribute the dog’s unresponsiveness as boredom. If a dog stops responding to a known cue in class, assuming sufficient motivation, it’s NOT because their bored, but in fact, have run out of mental energy. I believe their brain is no longer detecting the signal/discriminative stimulus.

Evolutionary Function of “Shutting Down”

Simple! As Helton explained, the brain is not unlike an engine. Excessive use will cause damage, so by shutting down, it is protecting itself. The brain, literally, heats up from use, which is why brain damage can occur with high fever, and we’re mentally more capable if the brain is kept cold. Helton shared that you can measure the temperature inside the ear canal as an accurate way to monitor when the subject is going to burn out!

Refilling Mental Energy

Through rest! That’s why agility people swear by Crate Games – so mental energy is preserved or restored between performance.

On “Daydreaming”

The likelihood of the subject to start “daydreaming” or focusing on off-task activities increase as resources decrease. Just like in my last post – where Petey only noticed the bowl of food in the training area at the very end of the training session. Ignoring distractions requires frontal lobe capacity – going for the food bowl is a “lizard brain” type decision. Using the frontal lobe draws on mental energy, and once depleted, lizard brain kicked in.

A Model for Predicting Detection Success

Drawing from human-models, Helton shared his model for predicting whether the expert (in this case the detection dog) would correctly respond:

P(A) = sS – eFEF + (ex EX + vV)

Probability of Attending = Salience of of the Olfactory Target – Body Movements + Expectations + Value of Information

Salience = How big/obvious is the target?

Body Movements = How much does the dog have to worry about navigating the environment while working? i.e. searching in dangerous rubble vs. a lab environment

Expectations = If you only train the dog to search the floors, he’ll never think to sniff up high where the item may be hidden

Value of Information = I think this means the importance of the consequence to the dog – What’s in it for me if I respond?

Applying his Model to Scent Detection

Rather than have the dog do the search on-site, Helton suggests the dog could stay inside a controlled laboratory environment, and just be given air samples of the targets to smell inside the lab. For container search, for example, air samples of containers could be captured and then brought to the dog to sniff one by one. The salience increases, and body movements are minimized. Another example would be for detecting breast cancer. Rather than have the dog sniff the actual patient, patient breath samples would be collected, and then sent to the dog.

In Norway, there is a company that is doing this – they call it RASCO – Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction.

Applying this Model to my Training

I have thought about how I might apply this to training (and already do):

Salience = make cues easy to discriminate for the dog. If verbal cues, avoid using similar sounding cues (down and bow). Keep them clean and consistent so mental energy doesn’t have to be wasted thinking “was that really the sit cue? or was it something else?)

Distractions/Interruptions/Noise = I think that anything that causes mental energy to be expended, either consciously or subconsciously, will cause performance to drop quickly. So that’s why we follow good training practices to train with high intensity and make it easy for the dog to focus and preserve mental energy.

Expectations = I think this closely relates to the process of generalization and gradually training in as many environments, with as many variables (over time) as possible.

Value of Information = This is just creating good reinforcers, to make sure that our cues are worth paying attention to and acting upon.

Other Ideas (Buck Rogers Stuff?)

Random musings, but…

Should I put an ice pack on Petey’s head between training sessions? Or right before we do our runs at the CARO trial?

Caffeine reduces vigilance decrement in people AND honeybees (yes, it was in the presentation). Caffeine pills for Petey before training sessions or at least trials?

Fun Fact (PABA Related)

The Canadian Border Services Agency’s detection programs were created with the help of the University of Guelph. Their dogs are trained using positive reinforcement – they work for a ball! Three working dogs were brought for demos over the course of the weekend. This black lab cross was too much for his past owners – not a good house pet for the average dog owner – but perfect for working dog life – and worked like a champ looking for currency in the room (he catches people that lie when they say they aren’t carrying over $10,000 in currency).

Currency Detection Dog
Currency Detection Dog

The next post I’ll do about this topic will delve into Helton’s findings regarding breeds and dog characteristics and their intelligence and suitability for work. As a Beagle owner I loved hearing this. Maybe I don’t need that Malinois after all… ?

Preparing for Rally Trial – Week 3

Quick update! With two weeks left to go, here’s what I’ve gotten done so far:

  • All of the basic behaviors are at a decent level of fluency
  • I actually did drive to the trial location in Barrie and did a class there, just to see if Petey could work in the environment. He can, so we’re good.
  • I have been training all around town, including training right in front of the house where there is an understimulated Doberman that barks incessantly, and also training right next to dogs playing fetch and wrestling.

So, finally, I am going to work on actual stations and signs. I started with Weave (four pylons) and magically I noticed that for this station, Petey started doing strange things with the first pylon. He jumps it, bumps it, bites it, paws it, you name it. All the stuff I have done so far always involve the pylons on my right, so I guess this threw him off.

To address it, I just broke down the weave station into walking through gates of pylons and then slowly closed the angles off.

Also, I came to realize that Petey also has limits. You’ll notice in the videos I start with two distractions. One is a tupperware full of beaver urine. The other is a stainless steel food bowl full of rollover. In the beginning of the training session, he pays no attention to them at all. By the end (last part of the video) he starts smelling and pulling towards them. I’ve got to ensure he stays rested and I don’t overwork him. As mental stamina fades in training, so does willpower!

And lastly with all the hard work lately, I try to make sure he has a lot of good downtime to sniff. Also I recently picked up a very nice Bowser dog bed from The Dog Bowl down the street.

Petey at Kings Mill
Petey at Kings Mill

Preparing for Rally Trial Day 2 – Luring and Pressure for the Stand

Today was my 2nd day having a chance to work with Petey to get him ready for his Rally Trial… now exactly 1 month away.

CARO Rally Novice is actually a pretty simple class with a fairly short list of behaviors. There is one though that has been missing from Petey’s repertoire for a very long time – a stand!

He has a long history of reinforcement for sits and downs (having started with him three years ago with a very “family dog/pet manners” orientation, stand was not a behavior I thought useful to teach), so up until this point, the instant any food/toys/training regalia comes out, he’s frantically offered sits and downs. If I used targeting to get him into a stand, like how Susan Garrett featured this on her Facebook page, the moment I clicked, he’d sink into a sit or down, unlike MANY dogs I’ve seen in class that hold the stand much more naturally.

At ClickerExpo this year, I attended a lecture by horse trainer Alexandra Kurland. She challenged the trainers in the room to teach a single behavior using multiple methods – luring, targeting, shaping, even modelling, and using pressure. I also attended lectures by Kay Lawrence on Luring and Targeting, and in the luring lecture, she emphasized that each teaching approach has pros and cons, and its dependent on the learner, the behavior, and the teacher on which is the most appropriate. In her own words, the quality of the final behavior is not determinable by the method used to teach it, assuming a sufficiently talented trainer.

Back to my elusive Stand with Petey –

In the past, I’ve tried shaping it, but he’s a squirmy little bugger, and has a tendency to tap his toes and wiggle around in between the click then treat.

Hand targeting was challenging as he’d sink into a sit well before I could deliver a treat to his mouth.

So, I just gave up on teaching him Stand. Fortunately, by committing to a Rally trial I forced myself to just do it, so last week I started. Here’s what I did:

  1. Worked on a raised platform to minimize forward steps. In this case I placed him on a stair landing, and I worked two steps below. A must for short dogs!!!
  2. I initially lured from a sit to a stand.
  3. Prior to releasing the lure, I applied downward pressure on his rear-end to engage his opposition reflex to push up, so he’d resist sitting
  4. When I felt enough upwards pressure, and he had maintained correct position, I released the lure.
  5. I removed the lure and simply used a hand target to get him up.
  6. In CARO you are allowed to touch to stabilize the dog in a stand, so all that is left of the downwards pressure is a very light touch on the rear as a cue to hold the stand.
  7. Finally!!! Enough duration for the CARO Novice Stand.

(At the 0:35 mark you can see what my rudimentary stand looks like now)

A definite pro of luring is you end up getting very clean, precise behaviors. No garbage behaviors have snuck in with Petey’s new stand. The bad rap that luring has is with trainers who don’t have an understanding of training to know when the dog is, in Kay’s words, “going operant” – at that point it’s time to switch to targeting or shaping.

If you haven’t heard of Kay Lawrence before – shame on you – but that’s OK, because I actually only heard about her for the first time last year at my first ClickerExpo. She does some really funky stuff with luring and targeting. I also looked at her YouTube channel and unfortunately the best videos she played at ClickerExpo are not on there – but I did find this – a 9 minute video of a student of hers showing her technique to teaching trotting for the show ring – using a “follow” target stick – that has a measuring cup at the end of it and a treat inside!


On the topic of pressure – I think I’m a few days away from not even having to touch Petey’s rear end to remind him to stay standing… but without that pressure during the early stages I don’t think I would have gotten any stand as quickly as I was able to. A few words about pressure – either body pressure or leash pressure – both are very useful tools. Prior to this, the only pressure work I had ever done was Shirley Chong’s “Give to Pressure” or Grisha Stewart’s “Silky Leash” – applying leash pressure, engaging opposition reflex, and then clicking/treating for the dog giving into lease pressure, counteracting their own opposition reflex, and moving into the direction of the pressure, vs. against it. At ClickerExpo, Michele Pouliot showed video of how guide dogs are trained not to pull on leash/give to pressure, so that a small pull in any direction of a guide dog will trigger them to promptly move into, away from, or walk backwards. The video she showed was amazing and unfortunately does not live on YouTube or anywhere else.

In a nutshell, I’m glad that I was able to dust off luring, and take advantage of body cues/pressure, to produce a serviceable stand for the upcoming trial in a short amount of time.

Finally Entering a Trial

Hi Everyone,

I’ve been on the busy side lately, with opening our second location in uptown Toronto on Avenue Road and Lawrence, getting our online dog training school,, off the ground, and attending ClickerExpo in Nashville… oh while I was doing that I also sat for the CPDT-KA examination in March (results pending). But all that is past now and things are settling nicely, so I’ve decided to enter a Rally Obedience trial scheduled over a long weekend in May (perfect, since we close the school over long weekends!)

The trial will be held at the Red Barn Event Centre in Barrie, Ontario; this is where Emily got her last leg in Novice and got Elsie her Rally Novice title.

Now the world knows, so I have willingly put a lot of social pressure on myself!!! Nothing like a little negative reinforcement for motivation!!!

I like being methodical about my training, so by my count, I have approximately 14 available afternoons for getting Petey ready for the trial. So I’m putting together my training plans of all the behaviors I need fluent and on-cue, and what criteria elements I plan to introduce to try to proof the behaviours as best as possible.

Before starting training, I decided to take advantage of Pavlov and I am in the process of conditioning both a special collar for Petey, and a special article of clothing for me. I won the collar at a raffle at Whattapup’s opening party. It’s made by The Hydrant, which is a Toronto-based collar/leash manufacturer. For me, I bought an inexpensive zip-up vest from Mountain Equipment Co-op to use as a poor-man’s training vest. I’ve just been putting on the collar, and putting on the vest, and feeding or training Petey.

Petey’s working collar by The Hydrant

The first “unofficial” training day was on Friday evening when I took Petey to Whattapup’s  training hall, as Mirkka had planned to do some training with our fellow trainer-friend Nancy after classes had ended for the night. Check – in a new indoor environment, with dogs milling about and even wrestling, he was focused and worked just as well as when at When Hounds Fly.

This evening was the first “official” training day where I worked on three behaviours primarily.

  1. Front – Just getting it reasonably straight and reasonably close, with a finger point to crotch as the cue
  2. Finish Left – Just getting it reasonably straight and tight with a verbal cue plus either the shoulder lean or left hand swing
  3. Heel – Working on building duration and around and over various articles (I scattered treats on the floor and left novel items around)

So far so good! I look forward to blogging more in this mini-series all the way up to the trial itself.

On Dog Walkers

A responsible and conscientious dog owner selects all their dog care professionals (veterinarian, trainer, groomer, etc.) with care. There is, however, one professional, that needs to be chosen more carefully than any. Yes, even over your dog trainer. That’s your dog walker.

Dog walkers spend a considerable amount of time with your dog. So much of the physical and mental well-being of your dog is dependent on how your dog walker operates his or her business and what their knowledge of dog behavior is like. Unfortunately, many dog walkers that I see would not meet my expectations – I would not put my own dogs in the care of most of the dog walkers I see out there.

I have the luxury of working mostly evenings and weekends – so I take my boys out for walks during the same hours that most dog owners are at work. I walk amongst the dog walkers. I’m often confused for them.

In recent months, some of the things I’ve witnessed include:

– Constant leash corrections – I was picking up Chase (the Jack Russell that I was training for eTalk) and in the span of just a thirty second elevator ride with a dog walker, I counted twenty leash corrections on a Golden Retriever puppy that must have only been 14 weeks old. All the dog was doing was sniffing, or looking around. By the end of the week, if you extrapolate that, that puppy will have received approximately 2000 leash corrections – and not once been taught what to actually do (how about asking the puppy to sit?)

– Violent “alpha rolling” – at Cherry Beach I witnessed a dog walker tackle and then sit on a Chocolate Lab. The dog walker must have been around 200 lbs in weight. Besides creating a dog that is afraid of people/physical touch, that kind of crushing weight can break bones or at minimum cause stress and damage to the spine.

– Bored, unexercised dogs – I see dog walkers that take their groups to the same boring concrete tennis court day in, day out. The dogs don’t even move anymore. They just sit there bored out of their mind. Mentally unstimulated, physically unexercised. What a waste. The worst offender I’ve seen is a dog walker that takes a group of dogs on a leash walk around a 400 meter oval track round and round for an hour – it’s the saddest group of dogs I’ve ever seen.

– Related to boredom – wandering dogs. I go to the dog park armed with amazing treats and squeeky balls, and I’ve worked hard to pump up my dogs’ motivation for toys. They fetch. They chase me down when I hide or run away. Often, a “stray” dog from a dog walker’s group will notice us having so much fun and latch on and try to hang out with us. I’ve left Cherry Beach and headed to the parking lot and have had dogs follow me out – dog walker nowhere to be seen.

Bored dogs at off leash dog parks make their own fun. If they’re not chasing balls or sticks or moving around, I’m fairly certain they’ll end up bothering other owners and other dogs. That’s how inappropriate play, bullying, and eventually fighting breaks out. Dogs that are subjected to physical punishment, especially when delivered by the unskilled hands of a dog walker (you can’t possible time punishment correctly if you’re in charge of six dogs) will eventually develop fear and aggression. In both cases I would rather see the dog stay at home for nine hours a day.

But, enough with the negative! There is hope… there are good dog walkers out there. They are in the minority so I hope you are lucky enough to have one. Last summer, I tagged along with Julie (she is a dog walker by day, and has two employees that walks dogs for her as well) because I wanted to learn a bit about what good dog walkers do, and also improve my own skills in handling multiple dogs at once off leash. I brought my video camera and here’s a montage of what a brilliant group dog walk should look like:

Good dog walkers:

  1. Bring treats. Every day these people are with your dog for about two hours. There are many opportunities where your dogs will do something brilliant – that behavior should be reinforced, so it is repeated. Julie reinforces dogs for making good choices – especially recall.
  2. Get them hooked on fetch. Three great things come from fetch. Gives physical exercise, conditioning a new reinforcer (dogs that’ll do anything for the ball to be thrown), and keeps them busy and out of trouble.
  3. Keep moving. No sitting on a park bench checking text messages, while your dog harasses other dogs due to boredom and causes fights.
  4. Consider mental stimulation. A leash walk around and around the same block is about as exciting as going on a treadmill, as is going to the same fenced in box five days a week. Your dog walker should mix it up regularly.
  5. Pay attention and avoid problems. Strange dog with testicles on a pinch collar hard staring at your dogs coming this way? Recall your dogs and move away quickly. Every other person and dog is a potential risk that requires assessment and the best solution to problems is to avoid them altogether.
  6. Realize they’re not a dog trainer. Julie is, but most aren’t. I recently received an email from a great dog walker I know. She included her client, and described her dog’s recent displays of aggression, and asked for help. A professional knows their limits.

If you’re considering a dog walker, or currently have one, ask hard questions and get good answers. A bad choice – your dog will suffer and you will see the behavioural fallout. A good choice – you’ll see countless benefits, such as improved off-leash recall and a tired, relaxed dog.

Coming When Called!
Duke and Petey Coming When Called!

Book Review: The Evolution of Charlie Darwin by Beth Duman

The Evolution of Charlie Darwin
The Evolution of Charlie Darwin

Published by Earth Voices Publishing, 2011

191 Pages

“Do you want to learn to train your dog using the gentlest dog-friendly methods but you get overwhelmed reading long, complicated training books? If so, this book is for you!”

The Evolution of Charlie Darwin is part dog ownership manual, part chronicle of the the adoption of a rescue dog. The author, Beth Duman is a well known animal trainer – most recently she lectured at the 2011 APDT conference, and is a core dog trainer with Dog Scouts of America, CPDT certified, and is a Victoria Stillwell Positively trainer. Charlie Darwin is her rescue dog and this book chronicles the first year of his life with her, organized around a large collection of training articles.

I’m going to start this review by posing a question to you, assuming you are a fairly knowledgeable dog owner that understands how clicker training works, why we shouldn’t use force and intimidation with our dogs, and have a good general understanding of the science behind how we interact with our dogs.

Have you ever discovered that a friend or family member is getting a new dog, for the first time? What went through your mind when you first found out?

If you’re like me, I hope they ask me for some pointers – perhaps recommendations for good books, finding a great puppy school, develop a love of training their dog, etc.

My worst fear, and what makes my stomach turn, is when I find out later they didn’t take their puppy to puppy socialization classes, or took their dog to a yank and crank or dominance theory trainer, and have been leash popping and tsssting their dog just like “that guy” on TV does. And, it happens. I have friends on Facebook that post videos of going to dog training classes where dogs are tethered to them as they wrap them around poles and trees. It absolutely breaks my heart.

That’s how a book like this can help. It covers a lot of ground – on topics as important and as varied as bringing a new rescue home, how to introduce them to your other pets, crating and confinement, long-lines, socialization, recall, polite greetings, loose leash walking, desensitization to handling, shaping go-to-mat … a LOT of topics. Each topic gets a short two to three page treatment – enough detail for the lesson to be understood, but not so much as to bore anyone. It is really like a collection of useful articles that if you could have eight hours in a quiet room with your friend, you’d go through with them (who does!).

Along the way, Duman includes excerpts from her own training journal with Charlie Darwin, where she writes about her own frustrations with two of his most naughty habits – running off with stolen objects, and fence jumping. We get a glimpse into the thought process of an experienced positive reinforcement trainer about how to address behaviors in her own dog – without using force or intimidation.

While there is content specifically for new puppies, this book shines as a guidebook and reference manual for those with new adolescent or adult rescues – just like Charlie Darwin.

Although primarily written for new dog owners, or those unfamiliar with positive reinforcement training, experienced dog trainers can get a lot out of this book as well. In many ways the book can be looked upon as a checklist of important topics to cover in private consults, group classes, and lectures.

This week, it’s featured on and 30% off, so pick up a copy for yourself, and consider it a book to get for friends and family that are getting a new dog and need that first solid reference manual on their journey.

What I liked:

  • It is a solid collection of training articles covering possibly every topic that a new dog owner should know
  • Each article is detailed enough to make sense and benefit the reader and their dog
  • It can be read in any order, so it is very much a reference manual, which makes it very useful for time-pressed people

Some considerations:

  • It’s best suited for those with a new adolescent or adult rescue. A puppy owner (8 weeks old) would benefit from this book in conjunction with a puppy-specific book as well.

Free Training Plan: Around

Hi Everyone,

After slacking off for two weeks while on holidays (When Hounds Fly was closed, and I also slacked off on Petey’s training) I’m back at it and yesterday I taught Petey a new behavior – “Around” – which is just to go out and go around an object, either left or right, based on how I send him out.  The whole exercise took approximately 20 minutes (of course, broken up into many short, high intensity sessions).

Here are some comments about the training plan:

1) Initially Petey has no idea what to do. We’ve been doing a lot of “go in/on” so he was just jumping on top of the bucket. That’s why I put my leg there – I was hoping he wouldn’t jump up.

2) I moved onto using “Aim for It” (described in Agility Right From the Start) – which is basically just click for action, treat for position.

Click 1 – for heading towards the object

Click 2 – for looking at the intended path

Click 3 – for moving along intended path

Click 4 – for turning head towards intended path, and then cue to mat

Subsequently, less intermediate c/t are required and very quickly, the dog understands the whole path to take as one behavior.

3) Good Agility Practices / Loopy Training

There’s no time for dead time in training! Like I mentioned in my previous post about training with high intensity, the dog is either working, or on their mat.

In clicker training, a loop is:

Cue > Behavior > Click > Consume Reinforcement > Cue > Behavior > Click > Consume Reinforcement

I use the tug toy frequently as a way to deliver the reinforcer, and transport the dog back to their mat – at which point, another loop in the training starts again.

When using food, it’s important to deliver the food in a way that the dog does not have to get frustrated to find it. Usually, my aim is pretty good, but you’ll see on the video there’s a bad bounce (2:11) and Petey has trouble finding it. Having to sniff/scan/search for food breaks the loop. This is inefficient training and can also cause superstitious behaviors to creep into your training.

When it’s time for a break, I send the dog to their mat.

4) The opposite direction: I didn’t include any video, but I started with Aim for It to teach the other direction.

5) Object Generalization: My goal for our first session was for Petey to go around a pylon. So I started with the Pylon on top of the bucket, then moved to a small paint can with the pylon, and then just the pylon. It was nice and easy.

What do you think of the training plan I used? Comment below if you have feedback!

Good Training Decisions Are Obvious With Experience

I’m now a month into the Silvia Trkman course and beginning to crack open the 3rd set of bi-weekly lesson plans.

One of the new exercises I’ve been working on is the 2-on 2-off, which is where a dog learns to go onto a platform, and only have the front two paws come off. This is, as I understand it, used for coming off of obstacles like the A-Frame or Teeter so that the dog doesn’t jump off prematurely, but completely walks off the obstacle.

I started working on the 2-on 2-off, and my first session looked like this (go to the 1:08 mark)

Silvia said it was going fine but I should vary my position, so I kept on working on it, and started working on building distance and some duration. By the third session a few days later I had something like this (starts at the 1:08 mark):

Class was on hiatus for about a week so no comments or questions. So I did a couple more sessions like that. Something dawned on me after the fact though. I was creating a superstitious behavior chain of overshoot the platform and then back up on it! Woops, duh, that should be obvious right? The dog would come off the A-Frame and then back up onto it again.

So today, humbly, I went back and started working on it again. The next clip is a bit on the long side (6 minutes) so you can jump around, but now I’m only c/t if Petey finds the 2on2off position on the first attempt (jump ahead to the 2:35 minute mark):

Fortunately I didn’t get too far along the path before getting back on track.

The other thing I have been working on in this program is perchwork and hind end rotation. If you’ve seen my YouTube channel, you might know that I first taught Petey to perch and rotate for Finish a year ago. But, there’s a problem! I only taught counter clockwise, so he could not go clockwise! This course is forcing me to deal with that, so I am working on a clockwise rotation.

His clockwise rotation is still weaker than counter clockwise, but, it’s coming along nicely. I don’t have much footage of when I first started working on clockwise, but let me tell you, it was like trying to get the toilet bowl to flush the opposite direction. Counter clockwise was so heavily reinforced it was incredibly difficult to get the first movement towards the other way.

Last year I was just greedy and wanted the perfect finish fast, and I got it. But, I should have been thinking about developing Petey symmetrically, because equal awareness for left and right would be important for exercises like cik and cap for faster jumps in agility.


Cik and Cap
Cik and Cap

All these considerations – should be obvious with experience. Having no experience in serious competitive agility, they weren’t obvious to me!

I’ve always felt this way, but these little roadbumps in my training really confirmed that what I already knew. There is a reason why Mirkka teaches our Rally-O class – she has trained dogs to Competition Obedience standards (which are much higher), and why Julie teaches our Tricks class – she has choreographed, trained, and performed full Canine Freestyle routines, and why Emily teaches our Canine Good Neighbour class – two of her dogs are CGN titled dogs.

There’s no such thing as overqualified when it comes to selecting your instructors because only with experience do good training decisions become obvious.


Good Shaping is Stress*-Free

Today during new student orientations, When Hounds Fly welcomed a new student with a 16 month old English Bulldog. Their owner had completed three levels of classes at another dog training school (a typical Toronto dog training school – mostly positive, old-fashioned lure-reward type school). She had watched a lot of our videos and was excited to come to our school and do our Foundations Skills program, even though her dog probably knows many of the behaviors taught. I was really happy to hear that, as it was clear she knew that she was coming to learn how to be a clicker trainer!

“We’re really anal here about good training. You came to the right place.” I said.

“Great, because I don’t want my dog to be confused, wondering what he’s supposed to do, yawning and stressing out anymore.” she replied.

What a brilliant observation. Being a sloppy trainer is not just detrimental to you, in terms of lack of progress. It is highly unfair to the dog. They feel stress and anxiety with poorly timed clicks, low rates of reinforcement, or confusing criteria. Being a great clicker trainer means the dog should seldom, if ever, feel stressed during training.

When you train your dog, what kinds of signs of stress do you observe? For Petey, the first sign is stress lines around his eyes and mouth. If it continues to worsen, he whines quietly while moving frantically. At its worst, he stops moving and lays down, panting and whining. Other dogs bark at their handler in frustration. Some lay down and look depressed. I knew of one that would start growling. None of these feelings are helpful as we are trying to condition good feelings about training.

In my previous post I mentioned I had just enrolled in an online distance course. The first exercise I’ve been working on is to train Petey to put four paws inside a food bowl. The instructor does not give very explicit training plans – figuring it out yourself is part of the learning process. In the below video, I have taken snapshots of the four sessions I did over three days:

In the series of four training sessions on video, I started with a US postal service box, then a black ikea box, then a cardboard box that housed my kettle, and finally the water bowl dish. In each session, Petey never showed signs of anxiety or stress. While he sometimes struggled to get his paws in the container, he knew what he was doing.

Good training means the dog is never stressed or confused. A good training plan is needed first. This four paws in a food dish exercise is a great exercise in thinking about how to shape properly by splitting criteria. It’s so easy! Start with a giant box and work your way down to progressively smaller boxes until you get to the final size you wish. Move down a size/raise criteria whenever the dog hits a certain success rate (80% typically). Box dimensions (length/width/height) are easily quantifiable, so criteria is black and white. Instead of starting with a tiny box, or a food bowl, and getting frustrated, I just spent a lot of time finding perfect size boxes. Then the training went quick!

Unfortunately, not all behaviors have criteria so easy to split and identify as the dimensions of a box. That’s the skill of a great clicker trainer – determining how to split criteria to the smallest increment, devising ingenious ways to setup the training environment so criteria is easy to identify, and ensuring the rate of reinforcement is high enough that the exercises are easy for the dog.

In my earlier videos and training sessions a year or more ago, Petey often got confused and would lay down and get stressed out. I kept on training and pushed through. From now on, if any dog I train shuts down that way, it’s time to stop training and go back to the drawing board.

Always be asking yourself – how can I make this easier for the dog?

Nesting Dolls
Answer: Split Criteria Like Nesting Dolls

*Update: A mere hour after I posted this on our Facebook Page, Casey Lomonaco posted a really great comment: “I partially agree. Learning is stressful, but there is a big difference between eustress and distress.” Thank you – yes – learning is stressful, and I think during a great training session, especially when you are raising criteria, our dogs are buzzing and feeling eustress. And that is a good thing. Thank you Casey!