Timing is everything

I’m writing this as it’s a topic I find myself surprising dog enthusiasts with fairly often. Whether you’re using reward based training methods or finding yourself at wit’s end and resorting to a reprimand, there is one thing that holds true for both if it’s going to work in either case. Timing.

Timing is crucial for both the canny canines and the dopey doggies to associate your reward or reprimand with the desired action or inaction. At DOGgED I steer clear of punishments and try to focus on reward as much as possible, although I definitely don’t negate the power of a well timed no, I find encouraging the positive behaviours to have better long-term results.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post (much earlier than I intended but life happened with a vengeance) the 2-4 second rule. This being that a reward or reprimand needs to happen within 2-4 seconds of the desired action or inaction for it to be positively or negatively associated with said action. I am generally inclined to stick to within 2 seconds with any dog as this minimises room for error.

Why is this important? Well, there are two classic examples of common issues where this is particularly relevant. Example one being recall. A human is exercising their dog off lead in a park, the human loves the dog and wants to maximize the time in which the dog enjoys it’s time outside, playing ball perhaps, sniffing butts probably. The human has left it to the last possible moment to recall the dog and the dog is not immediately returning (these are some good butts!) This leads to frustration in the human and possibly further reluctance in the dog to return.

Timing plays it’s part here in two ways. When the dog finally does return to it’s human, many humans are inclined to reprimand the dog at this point. The human may be late and believes the dog will understand that the reprimand is for not returning at the time of asking.

However understanding the 2-4 second rule, what the dog actually takes from this interaction is that it gets reprimanded on returning to it’s human. It is likely then that the next time the dog is off lead it will continue to be reluctant to return once the time for fun is up. We can easily see the cycle that can result from this, often the human will give up on allowing the dog off lead at all.

It may seem counterproductive to many but by only every praising or rewarding your potentially petulant pooch when it does finally return to you, no matter how long it takes, the dog will only maintain a positive association with this action. Over time, it will only get easier.

The second way in which timing plays it’s part with recall is through expectation, if you demand a dog leaves it’s favourite activity right when it’s started or you’re in a rush and are expecting it to return immediately regardless of circumstance, remember it’s only access to these activities are when you facilitate them. Compassion and patience is key. Allow a ten minute buffer if you’re time restricted, especially in early days. Our dogs are finely tuned to our emotions and if they sense frustration or irritation it may only exacerbate their reluctance to return. Humans have the option to come and go as we please, dogs are bound by our schedules and activity levels.

This brings me to my second common example of the importance of timing. Dogs don’t like to be alone. Even the dogs that seem calm when we leave them would much rather we didn’t. Some struggle with the absence of their humans more than others. Some don’t show any visible signs of this seperation anxiety, some communicate this any and every way they can.

A human leaves for a few hours and on returning finds that their beloved dog, their well fed, well cuddled dog that eats and sleeps better than they do has destroyed favoured possessions in an apparent rampage of bad behaviour. Worse still, depending on your perspective, it has left the smelliest of gifts on their place of respite, the bed.

Here, again, quite understandably the human perceives this to be deliberate misbehaviour and reprimands the dog assuming the dog understands it is for the mess the human has returned home to. Yet we must apply the 2 second rule, even though human logic dictates that since there are examples of the undesirable behaviour lying all around, the dog will understand the reprimand is for the pieces of expensive wall paper or remains of well worn slipper lying at our feet.

This is not the case, from the moment the human arrived home the dog would have sensed the unhappiness, the following reprimand only serves to reinforce that when a human leaves they return angry, leading to further anxiety in the dog, leading to increased negative behaviour in the human’s absence.

It only takes one incidence of this for a human to expect it, as I’ve said dogs are finely tuned to our emotions, the pitch of our voice, our facial expressions, even the gait with which we walk. If we expect something to be wrong before we even know it to be, dogs will know this, without even realising we can easily find ourselves returning home full of tension, maintaining the cycle of anxiety in the dog and frustration in ourselves.

It is extremely difficult at times but the best thing we can do if not able to apply the 2 second rule to a behaviour is to ignore it until we are able to apply it. Remembering that anything that occurs within the 2 seconds of anything happening in our dogs lives is what they may always associate with that thing/situation/action gives us a lot of power to shape their lives for worse or for better.
It takes a lot longer to undo a negative association or behaviour than it does to create a positive association or behaviour. If your dog does something you desire, be quick to praise it! They will be eager to repeat this over time.

Let your return to them and their return to you always be a positive one. Let us remember their only access to things they enjoy are on our terms yet, they are selfless in their willingness to make us happy with their presence. Let us remember that anything outside of 2-4 seconds is pointless in terms of desired behaviour modification and may only lead to the reinforcement of things we do not want or expect.

Before I go I will provide an answer to one of the great mysteries of dog. Why dog? Why on my bed?!
The answer to this whether it is why are you in it or why have you left this mess in it are one and the same. Our scent is at it’s strongest in our bed. Dogs derive comfort from being surrounded by our scent when we are absent. If they have toiletted in your bed it is because they were anxious at your absence but they had tried to seek comfort for the same reason.
It is love for you that takes them there, try not to be too unhappy at the drool puddle on the pillow, it is a love puddle.

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Calling all humans, please don’t feed the hounds!

So my second post is a topic that people will hopefully find helpful and for the sake of many dog owners should possibly be a public service announcement. While ignorance may be bliss, one person’s bliss is another person’s blister.
Dogs. They’re great. They are (mostly) fuzzy, cute, often charming, accomplished entertainers even when they’re not trying. They have a brilliant understanding of humans and an unerring memory for anything that results in a reward.

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My first post  https://doggedblogged.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/domination-in-dogs-is-not-motivation-and-why-thats-important/ was on the topic of motivation, well, it is safe to say that most dogs are highly motivated by food. Even those who are choosy or who’s owners say “they’re not that bothered by treats.” This is only because that dog knows exactly when it’s next meal is coming or has the option to be choosy in the first place. We dog lovers are of course all suckers for keeping our furry companions happy. Our dogs know this and I assure you, use this to great advantage. We are most lucky they do not have thumbs.
Now when I say, please don’t feed the hounds, I am not referring to a person and their own dog. This is not a lecture on dog ownership, if you want one, well, you know where to find me.
This is on the topic of food and feeding any dog that is not your own or that you haven’t had explicit permission or instructions to do so.

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I’ll begin with the easy reason, allergies. Oh but it’s just chicken you say after slipping a pooch a tasty morsel. The last result I assume anyone attempting to treat a dog wants to see is anaphylactic shock. I have had two canine clients with allergies to chicken. I have many more with a host of other allergies. Depending on the severity of the allergy and size of the dog, at best we have an upset stomach and at worst we have death.
Sticking to the subject of food sensitivities, there are many human foods no dogs should be consuming under any circumstances. Again, size of the dog is very important, a large dog may snaffle something they shouldn’t and get away relatively scot free, a small dog may not be so lucky.
Most people are aware of chocolate being harmful to dogs, this is due to theobromine. We humans process this easily but it builds to toxic levels in dogs very quickly. Many don’t realise however that sugar isn’t good for dogs either, it affects them much the same as it does children, dogs are already hyperactive enough and many human products contain xylitol as an alternative to sugar, this is extremely toxic to dogs and often leads to poisoning or fatalities.
On the topic of health alone there are many reasons to not casually feed a dog, obesity and weight issues cause a whole host of health problems in canines and you may think, oh it’s just this little bit, well, so may another ten people. A lot of processed human foods contain  high amounts of fat, sugar and salt. All fine in moderation for us but have a much greater adverse affect on dogs.

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Here’s my favourite word again, motivation, what is your motivation for feeding said dog human? In my experience there are two types who give their food to dogs. Those who like dogs and want to be liked in return and those who fear dogs and want them to go away.
For those seeking doggy friends. Cupboard love is not good love! It’s a lazy way to win favour. That dog is not faithful and the moment your food supply and willingness to give it has been exhausted, your new friend is gone with the flatulence. Yes they are very persuasive but ultimately you are only making the life of the dog owner/minder difficult.
This dog is canny, you are teaching it that strange humans or humans in general supply food on demand and it won’t stop with you. The thing is not all people are receptive to this, it can lead to unwanted harassment of others and chips away at the control of the person in charge of the pooch.
Which brings us to fear, I’ve seen those who are afraid of dogs throw their food at a dog in an attempt to get it to leave them alone. Now the reason this isn’t productive is really the same reason as the one just stated, that dog is learning that you the human, are a supplier of the food it wants. If you fear dogs and are giving it your food, you have now become supply on demand and you can be sure it’ll keep returning. Definitely not the desired result.

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Having briefly referenced handler  control. Let us now take a moment to sympathise with the dog owners, minders and professionals desperately trying to maintain said control of these mischievous mutts in the face of munchy mutiny. As I mentioned it only takes one successfully won treat for that dog to learn there is a possibility of more.
You the feeder do not have to face the wrath of the person who’s clean clothes were ruined by an excited snack hunter. The same snack hunter you fed last week when it jumped so enthusiastically at your thigh.
You the feeder aren’t expending energy every day trying to offset undesirable behaviour that your feeding has positively reinforced. You the feeder need not apologise to other dog owners for K9 robbery section sausage.
You the feeder need not incur the costs of someone’s lunch after encouraging a sharing is caring attitude in a precocious pooch.
You the feeder need not shuffle your feet and avoid eye contact at the vets as a disappointing weight gain is read aloud.
You the feeder need not clean up the mess (at best) left by an unhappy digestive system. Probably under the watchful gaze of disapproving eyes examining the effectiveness of your cleanup.
You the feeder need not see the pain or suffering the worst case scenarios cause.

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At the end of the day, most who do feed the hounds do it with innocence and good intentions, dogs are scavengers, they will take food wherever they can get it but this doesn’t mean they should.
They may look super happy chewing on your yummy scraps or sharing your dogs treats but give them a few seconds and they’ll find something else to be happy about. You are not responsible for its happiness. If a scratch behind the ears or above (never below) the tail aren’t enough to win you favour then do another human a favour and let them or encourage them to move on.
Lastly, if you have been given permission to treat, my last request to you, please follow the four feet on the floor rule or ask them to sit first. Manners too can be undone in a moment!

Domination in dogs is not motivation and why that’s important.

This is probably the longest post I will make but I wanted my first post to address something important that I frequently find myself discussing, not just with clients but also with strangers, dog owners and dog enthusiasts alike when out and about with the DOGgED crew. The DOGgED crew being myself and a number of weird, wonderful and very lovable pooches.
I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on a fast and furious wrestling match, distracting an avid food enthusiast away from a tasty human picnic lunch or ensuring a work focused furry goes undisturbed by an overly excited ball thief and boom, there it is, a reference to dominance.

A well intentioned human (mostly) will use the term to describe a wide variety of actions and behaviours on display. I hear it used as a reference to motivation, oh they’re trying to dominate are they? It’s used as a description of personality as if this encompasses all one needs to know about that particular dog, oh spot is really dominant! End story. Biological urges, dominance! Resource guarding, dominance! I could go on but you get the picture.

So, if not dominance you say, then what? Well, we all know the expression, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, well the same is true for dominance. By focusing on what we perceive has been achieved, we lose sight of the real motivating factors that lead to this end result and also how to manage them. It is used as a catchall term for an array of biological urges, behaviours and personality traits resulting from experiences where it really has no relevance or use.
In fact I believe that by focusing on this perceived state of dominance we are not only doing dogs a disservice but also ourselves as the humans that care for them. It is reductive at best and harmful at worst. Every dog is a whole being with a unique personality, experience and environment. By assuming that they are in a constant battle of dominance hierarchy with ourselves and other dogs, we not only limit their potential but also the potential of our relationship with them. In worst case scenarios applying dominance theory can actually exacerbate the issues we seek to remedy.

Now, just because I reject dominance as a useful descriptor does not mean I don’t believe in dogs needing boundaries and structure. In fact in today’s society, with so many of us living so closely together, we need these things more than ever to coexist peacefully and safely as a society. If we allow a dog to do as they please at all times, then suddenly expect them not too, this is not dominance when when they continue doing what they want, it’s learned behaviour.
This is why focusing on motivation is important and useful to us in trying to achieve this. I believe that by examining the motivations of the individual animal and taking a holistic approach based on their unique environment and experiences, we can ensure a happier, safer and more sustainable life with our beloved canines.

At a fundamental level we have the dog’s biological needs; drives manipulated through domestication, individual preferences and learned actions or behaviours derived from positive or negative experience. Understanding why, allows us to work with dogs instead of attempting to fight against their motivations, we can channel their instincts or preferences, saving ourselves energy, frustration and creating a calmer, more compassionate environment for all.
Motivation is of course the basis of reward based training, by using something a dog desires as a reward for behaviours we desire, whether it’s simple praise, food treats or toys, we positively reinforce the actions we seek to continue.

Now a classic use of the word dominance is when two dogs squabble or face off against each other. In general, a full blown fight is rare unless an owner has sought to encourage this action at other times which is of course unacceptable. Alternatively, the owner used an aggressive form of training and the dog is lashing out and frustrated.
Other instances of this are usually when two dogs are fairly evenly matched, a conflict is sparked and things escalate quickly. An example being two dogs prioritising a motivation at equal value. Let’s take two collies, both highly work motivated, playing fetch and retrieve with their respective owners in a public space. Their game collides or there is a brief confusion with the toys being used and one collie takes the other’s toy, that’s the spark and if there is no clear victor from the offset things can escalate quickly. Survival is an important motivator, if there was a clear victor one dog will generally defer.

Fear is also a big motivator for certain aggressive behaviours which are also often labelled as dominance. However here we are looking at biology, we’ve all heard of fight or flight (and the lesser acknowledged freeze) it’s nature at its most basic.
Ignoring fear for the time being, the order of priority of a dog’s motivations will dictate how well multiple dogs will coexist with each other or indeed ourselves. If you have two dogs for example, one with a high food motivation, one with a high toy motivation then you’ll probably find that as long as there is no fear in their environment and you the human are consistent and fair,  then one will defer to the other’s priority i.e the food motivated dog will not challenge the toy motivated dog for toys and the toy motivated dog will not challenge the food motivated dog for food providing all their fundamental needs are being met.
In the same vein, if you live with a dog and constantly deny it access to it’s motivations, for example a ball obsessed dog without using the ball as a reward for good behaviour at the very least, then you will likely build frustration and find you have a dog reluctant to behave how you desire. I’m some instances this could lead to conflict if the dog seeks it’s motivation in public spaces, thus encroaching on another dog’s priorities and resulting in a clash of personalities.

It’s important to work in harmony with the dog that you’ve got, rather than the dog you thought or hoped it would be. By focusing on the individual dog that you have, instead of attempting to force them to your expectations, by helping them enjoy life and making it rewarding for them to do what you want we will find that we have better behaved and less frustrated dogs overall.
Before moving on I will quickly mention, un-neutered dogs and to a lesser extent unspayed females. Natural drives to procreate and survival of species could lead to conflict and clashes over territory etc. This is not dominance, it’s biology. There is no gain to be had from attempting to punish this. We are responsible for dogs breeding or not breeding through domestication. Better to neuter/spay if we don’t wish them to use their natural instincts.

Returning to fear, as motivation this can lead to very unpredictable behaviour. Example if we use negative consequences in an attempt to train a dog, first of all this consequence needs to happen within 2-4 seconds of the undesired action for it to be associated with that action by the dog (this also applies to a reward).
Secondly if a human is punishing a dog or seeking to reduce “status” such as with dominance theory after the fact, to what is that dog associating this negative consequence? It could be anything in their environment at that time, including whatever prompted the undesirable behaviour in the first place or perhaps, something completely unrelated. The added fear of the consequence could result in an even worse reaction the next time that dog faces whatever prompted the unwanted behaviour. We may have also inadvertently created more negative associations within the dog.

I am not without compassion or understanding for humans. Life is challenging, it is all too easy at times during negative experiences or when feeling negative emotions to turn to negative consequences. I myself am guilty at times of focusing on the “don’ts” and “nos” and forgetting the “goods” and “yes! Well dones”. It’s natural to not want to be judged by other humans or perceived as irresponsible dog owners/care givers. I believe a lot of the reprimanding we do, in public spaces at least, is for the benefit of other humans, to show we care about our impact on others.
I know one thing to be true though, rewards and positive reinforcement are powerful motivators, at the end of the day, ask yourselves this; if it’s really cold out and you have nothing to do but getting out of bed in the morning resulted in the tastiest treat you’ve ever had, alternatively, staying in your warm cosy bed for as long as you liked resulted in the removal of everything you enjoy and value, which option would you choose? I’ll take my bottomless caramel soy latte and neverending gooey pastries to go please and thank you.

The sooner we realise dominance is not a motivator and that personalities are made of many components the better, some dogs are just grumpy and lacking in patience just like humans, (hey Dad!)  “Dominant” is too vague to be useful and it seems fairly pointless to prescribe solutions that appeal to humans idea of this. Whereas, by making desired behaviours more rewarding than undesired behaviours, over time and yes some dogs take more time than others, (I’m looking at you Schnauzers!) we can all get what we want, safely and happily with just a drop of frustration. At the end of the day the result is worth it. Dog is God spelt backwards, coincidence?