Friday, May 31, 2013

Our Favorite Dog Books - Pt. 2: Training Book Must-Haves

Basic training and how-dogs-learn books are must-haves for every dog person's library. There is no shortage of fantastic, do-it-yourself, at-home training books available now that explain modern, effective dog training and behavior modification. Here are some books on the "basics" that we just love. These books have each inspired in some way our own training philosophy and program at The Real Pit Bull. They are great for beginners as well as those who have experience.

Dig in and enjoy!

One of the original and best books on what "positive dog training" is all about, this is the book that will help clear up a lot of questions and misconceptions about positive dog training. It's not about bribing or begging or being lenient - it's about applying science to teach your dog how to behave and do what you want. This is a great introduction to what it means to train dogs in a modern, humane way. POWER OF POSITIVE DOG TRAINING, 2ND EDITION

The ORIGINAL Dog Whisperer, Paul Owens, is the author of this fantastic book that details how to create an amazing relationship with your dog built on trust, understanding, and the use of positive reinforcement. If you are after a deep connection with your dog and not just into the idea of getting him to obey empty "commands", this book is for you. THE DOG WHISPERER, 2ND EDITION

Pam Dennison's excellent book on positive dog training is a great foundation-and-beyond read for anyone new or even already schooled in positive dog training. Detailed, fun to read, and written with a keen understanding of how to shape behavior using positive reinforcement, this book is one that should not be passed up. COMPLETE IDIOTS GUIDE TO POSITIVE DOG TRAINING - 3RD EDITION

What is "clicker training"? How is it applied to teach dogs? This little book is a great introduction to clicker training, which is the method we use at RPB to teach dogs and modify behavior. Karen Pryor, the author, is THE authority on clicker training and the source for all things "clicker". CLICKER TRAINING FOR DOGS

This handy book is filled with "recipes" for teaching your dog a variety of behaviors using the clicker. It's a great reference book and easy to use, written in a step-by-step style. CLICKING WITH YOUR DOG - STEP-BY-STEP IN PICTURES

Just about any question you've ever had about clicker training can be found in this book. It fills in all the little blanks to help make you the best clicker trainer you can be. Unsure about how to wean off the clicker? The answer's here! Want to build duration (teach your dog to sit longer, stay put for a while, etc)? Find out how, here! Don't know how to get your dog to follow a cue each and every time, whether you have a clicker or not? The answer's in this book! Reference-style and well-indexed to help you find what you are looking for fast and easy. CLICK FOR JOY! - QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FROM CLICKER TRAINERS AND THEIR DOGS

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Clicker training takes over the world!

.....well, we think it would be amazing if it was the predominate method used to teach dogs, anyway. And RPB does its part to promote clicker training as a humane, effective method for teaching dogs new behaviors. It is our method of choice, what we use in our classes, and all of our foster dogs are clicker trained before being placed into new homes. One of our goals is to create a wide network of clicker-trained Pit Bulls - we call them Click Bulls ;-) - and Pit Bull parents who spread the word that positive, gentle training WORKS on even our big, burly, butchy dogs. Not only is clicker training a kind, progressive training method, it is also a new way of relating to the world at large. It fosters an attitude of patience, positivity and respect, as well as cultivates communication between species. It's truly a lovely way of interacting with and training your dog and has the power to positively impact our human world as well.

Clicker training: let's break it down! It starts with a small plastic "clicker". The clicker makes a fun sound that the dog learns to associate with food. In a very short time (usually only a few sessions of 5 minutes) the dog learns that "CLICK!" means "TREAT". (Training treats are small, pea-sized healthy and delicious foods that cannot be resisted. Bits of boiled chicken or liver, cheese, many natural dog training snacks that are on the market, baby carrots, Cheerios, anything the dog loves and is willing to accept as "pay".)


Once the dog begins to anticipate that a click means a treat is on the way, it's time to start teaching some new behaviors!

There are two ways to use the clicker to teach dogs behaviors - 1) the dog is "set-up" for success. We create an environment where the behavior is likely to occur (i.e. a quiet room with minimal distractions) and wait for the dog to perform the behavior or some approximation of that behavior. For instance, let's say we want to teach the dog to SIT. If we are hanging out in a boring room, where nothing interesting is going on, we can wait for the dog to get bored and say, "Hey, what gives?! Let's do something!" and happens to SIT. Once the dog SITS, we click and treat (toss the treat so the dog gets up, and then wait for the dog to sit again - watch how fast that dog is sitting like crazy waiting for clicks and treats!)

IMPORTANT! CLICK first ALWAYS, then offer the treat!

Concept: Click = GOOD JOB, that's RIGHT! and Treat = PAYDAY!

The second way to use the clicker, is to use your body to gently guide the dog into position. A food lure in your hand is the most common, efficient way of using your body to get the behavior to happen. A small piece of food, held in your hand, lured over the dog's head (close to his nose) so he sits, followed immediately by a CLICK then treat, is one way to teach a SIT with the clicker.

After the dog "gets" what he's supposed to be doing (i.e. SIT = ka-CHING! payday!) you can start cuing the behavior - saying the word SIT, THEN clicking and treating. The next steps involve working on the behavior in various locations, teaching the dog that he won't get paid after EVERY single performance of the behavior, but that he WILL always at some point get paid, then weaning the dog off the clicker.

Clicker training gives you a way of efficiently communicating with your dog. Once your dog knows what the clicker means ("Good job!") you can effectively use it to "talk" to him. It is also a hands-off method. We can teach complex behaviors without ever having touched the dog!

People might be surprised at how fast clicker-trained dogs learn, how eager they are, and how much fun they seem to have while engaged in training sessions. One reason clicker-trained dogs pick up new behaviors so fast may be explained by the relationship between the click and the oldest part of the brain, the amygdala. From,"Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concomitant emotions. The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a cover story surveying this research in 1999."

Clicker-trained dogs are enthusiastic and willing participants in training because they are given choices (which creates a fast-learning environment as opposed to FORCING behavior), set-up to succeed in training, and provided with LOTS of positive feedback. They know immediately when they are doing something "right", provided with quick "pay" for a job well done, and allowed the opportunity to use their brains. Clicker training isn't about forcing dogs into position (where us humans do the work) or jerking them into compliance (imagine if YOUR boss taught you new tasks at work by pushing you around the office hallways all day, or smacking your hands with a ruler when you typed incorrect information). It's all about working WITH your dog, in a team capacity. You are both exploring, interacting, learning about each other. People who clicker train seem to get as attached to the clicker as the dogs do! It is an enjoyable, positive thing to do with your dog.

Clicker training uses positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors, fix behavior problems, and simply communicate with your dog. It fosters an attitude of trust between participants - there is no fear or intimidation involved in this sort of training. It focuses on the positive, what's RIGHT, instead of what's "wrong". This eliminates frustration and resentment, and "acting out" behavior. What would happen in our daily lives if we focused on catching each other doing something right? How about focusing on the good in the world each day, thanking the Universe for what you've been gifted with, instead of wasting emotional energy on what you hate about your life? The whole idea of clicker training is that by focusing on what's RIGHT, we get more of it; the "wrong" gets pushed out by default.

Before we end this post, let's talk a moment about methods that perpetuate the myth that Pit Bulls are "tough, aggressive, hard-headed, unresponsive to kindness/positivity and difficult to control": those that utilize prong or choke collars, physical punishment, and electric shock. Pit Bulls are intelligent, gentle, emotional dogs that do oh-so-well with training methods that are respectful of them as feeling, sentient creatures. Clicker training gives them the opportunity to learn and perform behaviors without threat or coercion. It is a respectful, KIND method of training that doesn't hurt the dog OR the image of the breed - it showcases just how intelligent and EASY to control Pit Bulls are. Harsh methods that rely on pain to train showcase only the unwillingness of the trainer to expand his or her mind and extend compassion to a weaker creature that is at the mercy of the human at the end of the leash.

This post is only a very basic introduction to clicker training. Although this method of training is remarkably simple, it has endless applications and this post should be seen as only a brief glimpse into the world of clicker training. A gateway into that world is Karen Pryor's Karen Pryor is the pioneer of clicker training and her site is THE source to begin your journey into clicker training. Please go have a look around her site!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

No pinching or poking - saying no to prong collars.

There are lots of great reasons to avoid use of prong (aka 'pinch') collars. There are just as many reasons offered up from those who insist on using them. The bottom line is, if someone is married to the idea of prong use and has experienced success with one, it will be very difficult to convince that person to stop using one and move onto something more dog-friendly. Humans are not immune to the laws of learning and the reinforcement one receives from successful application of a prong can be very powerful and drive continued use, even after valid intellectual arguments are presented.

I'd like to talk about my transition away from prongs - a collar I had a lot of success using for a while.

I'll preface this blog by stating that I as a professional trainer specializing in Pit Bulls and aggression have not used prong collars in many years. My tools of choice are flat buckle collars, martingale collars, front-connect harnesses and as a last resort, head collars like the Gentle Leader. The Real Pit Bull uses these same tools on all of our foster dogs and in our classes. RPB never ever uses prong collars.

There was a time in my dog training adventures when I transitioned from choke collars to prong collars. They were "more humane", or so I thought. Hey, at least they weren't a tool with the word "choke" in the name. The trainers who introduced me to this collar would call it "power steering", because so many dogs would almost instantly stop pulling on leash with just a few little wrist-flicks from their handlers, following along easily and becoming almost magically well-behaved. It was pretty easy to control dogs with these scary-looking but supposedly-harmless collars.

It didn't take long before I started questioning WHY prong collars worked - or DIDN'T work, as the case may be. Especially when I ran into trouble with my personal dog - a 70 lbs AmStaff who developed extreme dog-directed aggression. Not only did prong collar "corrections" (jerks on the leash) not seem to help his behavioral problems, my dog seemed to be getting progressively worse. He'd see a dog, freak out, I'd jerk the leash, and he'd double his efforts to get at the other dog. This went on for ages. What was the problem, here?

After some trial and error, I tossed that stupid prong collar away, never to pick it up again. I discovered the Gentle Leader headcollar, then gradually weaned my dog off that collar and onto a front connect harness and martingale collar. My dog was MUCH happier. Who wouldn't be? Who likes prongs poking into their neck, amirite? The damage was already done, however: the time spent in a prong collar had only made my poor dog's behavioral issues worse and it would be a long road to undo that damage.

The success I had with the newer, humane training tools convinced me - and I'll never, ever go back to prong collars, not for my own dogs, not for clients' dogs, and not for RPB dogs.


Let's just look at the design of the prong collar for starters. WHAT is it designed to do?

Prong collars are made up of a series of interlocking links, with little blunt-edged prongs facing and laying up against the dog's neck when the collar is placed on the animal. When tightened, those prongs push into the dog's neck and towards each other causing a "pinching" action. The prongs don't actually puncture the dog's skin, but they DO cause discomfort at the very least, and pain at worst. Even when used correctly, prong collars are DESIGNED TO CAUSE DISCOMFORT - that is how they work and how they get a dog to "stop" doing whatever behavior you'd like them to stop doing (usually pulling).

(Ever have a trainer tell you that screech the dog makes when hitting the end of a leash on a prong collar for the first time was just the dog being "startled"? Uh huh. Right - the dog's just "startled". And to those who insist on denying the fact that prong collars work because they are aversive - i.e. uncomfortbale or painful - I only wish you'd have someone put a prong collar on your neck and without saying a word, guide you around on a leash. See if you follow because the collar feels like a soft, pleasureable massage you'd like more of, or instead is causing discomfort you're trying to avoid/get away from by following.)

Behaviorally, these collars can cause all sorts of problems. Here're the three biggies to worry about:

  • Dog parents can become highly dependent on the prong collar, with the dog ONLY behaving while wearing one (dog gets collar-wise)
  • They can cause heightened arousal and aggression
  • They can cause unintentional negative associations in the dog's mind (i.e. "Other dog = painful neck = other dog causes neck pain so I must work even HARDER [more aggressively] to get that scary dog away!")

    Pat Miller, a noted trainer, lecturer and author, has this to say about the use of prong and other aversive collars and resultant behavior problems: "Choke chains, prong collars and shock collars utilize mild to severe punishment, called ‘corrections’ by trainers who use them, to let the dog know when she has done something wrong. I don`t recommend their use. Punishment can be difficult to administer effectively- timing and severity of the correction are critical to effective punishment training - and even when done properly there is a high risk of unintended and undesirable side effects, including aggression..."

    In addition to behavioral issues, there is evidence that prong collars can cause physical problems for dogs, as well.

    Dr. Peter Dobias has this to say about prong collar usage: "For years, I have observed the relationships between [the use of prong collars] and the neck injuries and health of dogs. I have learned that if the flow of energy in the neck is interrupted or restricted, a whole array of problems may arise including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions, thyroid gland dysfunctions to name a few. I also suspect that the patients that have severe energy flow congestion in the neck area have a higher cancer rates."

    So prong collars can make behavior problems they supposedly remedy even worse. And maybe even cause health issues. This is when being used correctly. Many people will say, "Ok, sure, but they've always worked GREAT for me, and my dog is wonderful on a prong! And he's totally fine!" Well, I cannot force anyone to stop using prong collars. I can hope dog parents give them up and switch to more dog-friendly tools that were NOT designed to cause discomfort. But that is just a hope. What I CAN do is present some reasons why I personally, as a professional, and why RPB, do not use them. I've found way more reason to NOT use them, then to use them. Here's hoping you will too!

    In another blog entry, I'll talk about the tools RPB uses in its classes and on its foster dogs. There are plenty of alternatives to prong collars; tools that when used properly along with positive reinforcement training and behavior modification, can make a real difference in your dog's life, as well as yours. ~Mary Director - RPB