Monday, May 2, 2016

Force Free Dog Training: Start With A Puppy

One thing that you can do to make any force free dog training activity easier is to start with a puppy.

Some time ago, I was asked how I would go about force free dog training a recall.  As I started to write this up, I quickly realized that this would take several installations.  Long text just doesn't work on the internet.  Its the internet age...we all have short attention spans...Ooo!  Squirrel!

Teaching recall, or really any force free dog training tends to be easier with a puppy.  Can it be done with an older dog?  Sure!  But with an older dog, it *might be* complex and *may* turn into a very long slog.

With a puppy, you have a blank slate.  The dog has no prior experiences and has formed no prior associations.  The trainer can then form the associations between behaviors and consequences.  with an older or adult dog, these same associations may have already been formed, and in a way that is contrary to what you want to see.

Let me try to explain by example.

By Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK (My wifes dog running to the sea....) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bolting Dog
You have an adult dog who bolts out the front door and runs the neighborhood.  This behavior did not happen in a vacuum.  At some point in time, the little rebel decided to release himself on his own recognizance.  Maybe there was a squirrel in the front yard.  Maybe the dog has a lot of run in him.  Who knows.  But what we do know is that that first time he did that, he had a lot of fun.  He got to explore.  He got to chase squirrels, birds and rabbits.  Anything novel is a big reward for a dog, so the newness of it all was great fun.  Plus the game of chase was a hoot.  And every time the dog bolts, the same level of fun is encountered.

The dog has an association between bolting and fun and freedom.  Since bolting continues to be fun, it is a behavior which rewards itself.

A Blank Slate
Now consider a puppy.  The pup has not bolted.  He has never explored the neighborhood.  In fact, if the pup is quite young, the front yard might be scary.  The dog has formed no association between bolting and fun.

Anytime you enter into force free dog training, you help the dog create an association between a behavior and a consequence.  If the dog already has an association, then the new consequences you provide have to be better and bigger than the results he already knows.  The dog must not be allowed to get that result any more, all the while providing a new result that is really good.  The dog has to "unlearn" the old association while learning the new one.  The unlearning part is what can be a long journey.

But with a puppy, there is no unlearning stage.  All that is required is to create the association you want the dog to remember.

So, as you venture into a reduced force or force free dog training plan, try to do it with a puppy.  It will make your job and the dog;'s job a lot easier.  If your little rebel is all grown up, just prepare yourself for the possibility of a long training journey.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day: The Greenest Food Is The Food You Harvest Yourself

On Earth Day, I like to celebrate by eating meat and veggies which I have harvested myself.  The wild turkeys have not gotten on board yet this spring, so this Earth Day, it will be a pheasant stir fry.  I've written on this before, but a lot of people do not realize that the "greenest" meat you can eat is meat you hunted and harvested yourself.

Think about it: The supermarket chicken or beef that you consume has been bred to produce more meat.  It has been injected with all sorts of stuff to improve yield.  The profit margin on things like pork and chicken is so small that farmers grow these animals in huge barns stuffed to the gills with animals.  Your beef may have been raised in Texas and shipped to Maine or Alaska or Washington.

In contrast, the deer or turkey you shoot is living wild and free until the moment you shoot it.  It lives on fresh feed.  Fossil fuels were not burned to feed it, butcher it, or ship it to a market near you.  Hunted meat is the ultimate "green" meat.

Having said that, if I had to live on meat that I hunted, I would get very hungry.  Sure, a lot of my meat is hunted, but I just don't have the time to get out and hunt as much as I would like to.

If you are like me and can't get out and hunt and fish as much as you would like...or maybe hunting and fishing are not your thing, there are other things you can do to be "more green" this Earth Day.

1) Shop your local farmers market.

Meat and veggies in these markets did not travel from South America to get to your plate.  They traveled from an adjacent county.  Also, honestly, these markets are a lot of fun.

2) Grow your own food

In a 4 foot by 8 foot garden bed, you can plant enough tomatoes, peppers, and onions to keep you in fresh salsa all late summer and fall.  With a small investment, canning your salsa is pretty easy and can make your harvest last until next year.  A small garden is really quite easy.  If you are space limited, you could grow a lot of things in pots on a deck.

Every morsel of food that is grown in your back yard is something that is not processed, packaged, and shipped.

3) Buy a hunting or fishing license

Do this even if you don't choose to hunt or fish.  Money collected from license sales is directed back into conservation efforts.  These conservation efforts are not limited to improving hunting and fishing options.  The projects more often than not directly benefit non-game species.  Additionally, habitat improvements which target game species will help non-game species as well.

Partaking in just one of the above is huge.  All three, and you are entitled to the badge of smugness reserved for Prius drivers.  Enjoy your Earth Day.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Your Dog Is Overweight: Recognizing Obesity In Dogs

Yes, your dog is overweight.  How do I know?  OK, I really don't.  However, I have found far too many people who really don't have a clue what an overweight dog looks like.

On more than one occasion, people have looked at my dog and offered comments like, "Looks a little thin", "Too skinny", or "a little anemic".  For those of you who have yet to meet Shiloh, let me describe him.  Because of genetics (and nothing to do with me), he is trim, athletic and well muscled.  Every description I've read has him at an ideal weight.

Another story: Went to a friend's house to help him remodel. I was greeted by his pups, who I hadn't see in a while.  Each dog was slightly overweight and I told the owner as much.  Slightly offended, the reply was that they had just come from the vet and given a clean bill of health.

By VinnieRattolle (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
This Dog Is Overweight
 One more: A good friend took one of her dogs to the vet.  She knew that the dog needed to lose a bit of weight.  when the vet proclaimed that the dog's weight was just fine, my friend called out the vet.  Here was the answer: 
"Well, yes, your dog could stand to lose a bit.  But honestly, people take such offense when I tell them that their dog weighs too much that anymore, if the weight problem is not too drastic, I just let it slide."
CC BY 2.0,
This Is A Healthy Weight Dog

Our dogs lives are too short.  The list of complications for our dogs from being overweight is well known (see here)  .  But the first step for a better (and possibly longer) life for your dog is to understand what a healthy weight looks like.

1. A dog should have a waist

When you look at your dog from above, there should be an hourglass figure.  Broad in the rib cage, broad in the hips, but narrower between.  If it is a straight line, your dog is overweight.

Also, when looking at the dog from the side, there should be abdominal tuck.  In other words, the should not hang down, but should be up tight into the dog.  The lower the belly is hanging, the fatter the dog.

In short, the dog's waist ought to be tiny.  If thick when viewed from above or from the side, your dog is overweight.

2. Ribs should be felt, not seen

If you can't feel the ribs without having to press and dig for them, then your dog is overweight. 

Check this out for some pictures.

Look, I'm not trying to guilt you into anything.  But you might not have all the info.  Push the topic with your vet.  Don't ask if my dog is overweight.  Ask if your dog is an an ideal weight and you might find a different answer.

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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Off Leash Training: Expectations

When people consider off leash training  for their dog, often, they have a picture in their mind.  And, often that picture looks like this:

What do we see here?  We see folks strolling in the woods, and the dogs are strolling along side.  The dogs never go too far away.  In this and other pictures, we often see Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers.  These are dogs that were originally bred to work near to their handlers.  That is the nature of any retriever...the dog stays close and then is sent out to fetch and return to the handler's side.

I had a conversation recently with a dog owner.  She was struggling a bit with off leash training.  Her pup's recall is not what she wants it to be.  She expressed her mental picture: going camping with the dog and the dog stays in the campsite with them.

Her dog is a Brittany.  Unlike a retriever, a Brittany is bred *not* to work close by the handler's side.  Brittanys and other pointing breed dogs are bred to run "out there", looking for critters.  Even the closest working pointing breed dogs will still work in excess of 50 yards.

The breed of dog is important when considering your goals for off leash training.

There are two categories of behaviors for a dog.  First, there are the learned behaviors.  He learns that there is a squirrel in one particular tree.  He learns that if he comes when called, he gets cuddles, loving and treats.  These behaviors can be reinforced or these can go extinct if not reinforced.

The other category of behaviors are intrinsic.  These things were bred into the dog or genetic to dogs.  Many dogs like to chase squirrels.  This desire is genetic.  Same with the (unfortunate) desire to roll in smelly things.  This is fun because it is fun.  It is in the DNA of a dog.  Changing these behaviors is much harder because you are going against the very nature of the dog.

How close a dog stays near you is a intrinsic behavior.  Changing it is to change the nature of the dog.

When you do off leash training, you may find you need to alter your expectations, based on the dog.  I run my dog off leash all the time.  I do so in a 700 acre state park and I use a GPS tracking collar on him.  He comes when called, but I need to use a whistle as he is often out of sight and earshot.  If my expectations for off leash training were to have the dog within a 5 yard circle when we went for a walk, I would be working against the grain.  I would be working against his internal motivations.  Possible?  Sure, but definitely an uphill battle, and if the dog likes to range, you'll need to be ever vigilant.

In the weeks ahead I hope to talk more explicitly about off leash training.  But the first step in that training is to evaluate your dog and determine a reasonable expectation based on the dog's own motivations.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Trained Retrieve: Progress With Non Force Fetch

I wanted to post an update about how the non force fetch trained retrieve is going for my dog.

fir0002 | [GFDL 1.2 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Progress has been happening in leaps and bounds lately.  Every day I delay in publishing this means I need to revise what the dog has accomplished.  I can toss the training object anywhere in the house and he will pick it up and bring it to hand.  This includes throwing it down the stairs into the basement.  In the back yard, he will run to get the object and bring it to hand.

I've also started "pile" work in the back yard.  Pile is a misnomer.  Several bumpers are placed on the ground a distance away from the dog.  The dog is sent repeatedly to fetch from the pile.

Since moving the show into the backyard, his enthusiasm for the trained retrieve has increased.  He was bored in the house, but will retrieve with enthusiasm in the backyard.

A point that I have tried to make before is the necessity of truly understanding what motivates your dog.  I have a certain "play" routine with the dog that is reserved for outside.  No play is available until after trained retrieve work is finished.  I think this playtime is what is really motivating the dog to participate.  Right now, this specific kind of play is more important that food rewards.

Between each successful fetch instance, I am still rewarding with a treat.  But the *big* reward is the play time at the end of fetch work.  This is an application of Premack principle.  The idea behind Premack is that enjoyable or "highly likely" behaviors can be used to reward less enjoyable or "less likely" rewards.  In other words, rewards are actions and behaviors just as much as they are things to eat.  Google "Premack Principle" or take a look at this piece I wrote some time ago.

The plan for future work is to increase the distance for a pile of 3 objects.  Once he gets that, we'll shorten the distance and increase the number of bumpers.  Finally we'll increase the distance to the increased number of bumpers.  My intermediate goal is 9 bumpers each at a distance of 50 yards.  Only after all that drilling is done, we'll start over and switch to birds.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Dog License For An Intact Dog

I have recently moved to Western Michigan from the greater Chicago area.  One thing I've noticed is that dog licenses are much more expensive if you keep an intact dog.  This is true if you regardless of whether you are a breeder or just have legitimate reasons for keeping your dog intact.

Here is how I have heard it explained:  Intact dogs are the reasons our shelters are being overrun.  Therefore, owners of intact dogs should have to pay more for the problem they are causing.

Sounds good, doesn't it.  You should have to pay for a service you are using.  I fly in a plane, I pay for a ticket.  There are toll roads in if you use the toll road, you should have to pay for its upkeep.  And if you keep an intact dog, you should have to pay for the burden that all of those puppies are placing on the system.

Fainomenon [GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Too Many In Shelters?
All of those puppies...I wanted to see how bad things are in my county.  So I just did a search for puppies in my county.  There was 1.  As in "the loneliest number".  Then I did a search for all dogs.  Including the puppy from the earlier search, there were 44 dogs.

At this instance in time, in my county, puppies account for 2% of all the dogs in the shelter.  Where is the "overrun" that owners of intact dogs are responsible for?  If intact dogs and unplanned litters were overrunning shelters, would not puppies account for at least 25% of all the dogs in the shelter?

The truth is, shelters are not being overrun with puppies.  Unplanned litters are not the cause of overcrowded shelters.  Now, to be fair, I have not visited every shelters...there could be a glut of puppies in shelters in other parts of the country.  Just not here in Western Michigan.

Nor is there a glut of shelter puppies in the greater Chicago area.  Several years ago Crain's Business published this article which states what I am saying here: there is a shortage of puppies.

Why is it that shelters have too many dogs?  The overabundance of dogs in shelters is due to people getting dogs on a whim, and when they get too hard to care for, dumping them in a shelter.

Instead of charging extra for a dog license for an intact dog, I propose the following, which would really cover the costs of unwanted dogs:
  1. License fees are higher for dogs not micro-chipped.  
  2. When a dog shows up at a shelter, scan for the chip to find the owner.
  3. When a dog is surrendered or unwanted at a shelter: send the owner a bill.  You can get the owner info from the chip.  If no chip, you have already billed the owner with an increased license fee.

With such a plan, you are actually charging those who are contributing to the problem: those who see dogs as disposable.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

How Do You Train A Dog: Distilling The Basics

How do you train a dog when techniques seem to be changing all the time.  Do you need to understand positive only training.  What is R+ and P-?  Do I need to be the alpha dog with calm assertive energy?

People have been training animals for a very long time.  Dogs, horses, and hawks have been trained for millennia.  In reality, for all time, the essence of  training has not  changed.

How do you train a dog?  It boils down to a very simple concept:
There are things our dogs like and things our dogs do not like.  Dogs will work to get what they like and dogs will work to avoid what they do not like.

That's it.  But the art and devil are in the details.

You can look at Cesar Milan.  You can look at Victoria Stilwell.  You can look at any trainer and break everything down to one of two categories:  Things a dog likes and things a dog does not like. 


Here is one I hear all the time, from the world of training bird dogs: "Don't train with treats because you won't have treats in the field.  Train with praise."

Praise Depends On The Dog
What if your dog is not motivated by praise?  From the dog's point of view, praise is certainly a good thing, but there are other things that are even better, like that chicken on the counter, or that deer he wants to chase.

I don't train my dog with praise alone.  You know what I use?  Raw beef.  Cheese.  A chance to chase a bird.  I can get a much bigger effort using rewards the dog likes more than he likes praise.


Consider the dog that jumps up on people.  Owners scream and holler and express displeasure.  But the dog keeps jumping on people.  Why?  Again, from the dog's point of view: he dislikes getting yelled at, but the reward of jumping and greeting new people outweighs getting yelled at.

By OakleyOriginals (Dog Day Afternoon) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Not All Dogs Hate Water In The Face
I don't yell at my dog, because all it does it makes me hoarse.  Instead, I spray a stream of water in the dog's face.  He really does not like that and will adjust his behavior accordingly...much faster than yelling would ever accomplish.

How do you train a dog?  It does not matter what *you think* the dog likes.  What matters is what the dog actually likes.  It does not matter what *you think* the dog dislikes.  What matters is what the dog actually dislikes.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Can A Dog Learn From Failure? It's The Only Way.

Should our training plans set up a dog for failure? Can a dog learn from failure?

Many trainers, both positive only and traditional will emphasize the need for success. Both kinds of trainers emphasize the need for creating training situations where a dog CANNOT fail. But there comes a time where failure must happen and it must be dealt with.

When you first start training a behavior, every effort is rewarded. Treats fall from heaven like manna.  But in order to get the behavior that you really want, you need to raise the standard. Every time you raise the standard, the dog is failing more.

I experienced this when I first started doing dishes. At first, my wife was quick with the complements:

Thanks for your help! You are so strong and handsome. Yes you can go fishing this weekend.  

Eventually, though, the standard needed to be raised:

Dear, I've found the dishes get cleaner when you use soap.

Real Life

I am training my dog to retrieve without the use of force. The goal I was trying to accomplish is to get a behavior where the dog puts the bumper into my hand. To get this going, when the dog had hold of the bumper, I was shooting my hand under the bumper in order to catch it before he dropped it. In my hand gets a treat, anything else does not get a treat.

Here is the art of training: the dog has learned that dropping the bumper is what gets him the treat. Dropping it when I move my hand. I can shoot my hand under him usually in time before he drops it, but it is a race. If I don't show my hand, he'll hold the bumper. As soon as I move my hand, it gets dropped.

I'm working with a pro trainer on this approach, and his suggestion is to make it so the dog cannot fail. If I were to follow this advice, all I would be doing is reinforcing him dropping the bumper when my hand moves.

Better Advice

The dog needs opportunity to fail. However, in setting up the dog for failure, he still needs to succeed, a lot more than failure. If the pup is succeeding all of the time, then it suddenly drops to a 20 percent success rate, the dog is going to give up. I need to engineer the situation such that failure occurs, but success is still the most likely outcome.

Not sure exactly what will work, but here is what I am going to try:
  • Since my hand movement is triggering the drop, I will always have my hand out.
  • I'll keep my hand just out of reach, either to the side or in front, so that a small move will put the bumper in my hand.
Can a dog learn from failure? It is the only way he can learn. But what is critical is not rewarding the wrong behavior. Rather, the trainer needs to engineer a situation where success is easily attainable most of the time.
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Sunday, February 28, 2016

My Dog Knows What To Do But Doesn't Listen

How many times have you heard the statement: My dog knows what to do but doesn't listen?  You've heard it from others.  You've said it yourself.  It can be incredibly frustrating.  It reduces you to pleading and yelling.  Maybe even beating.  But nothing works.

I heard this recently.  Let me give you a bit of the backstory:
In the hunting dog world, there is a concept called "honoring" or "backing".  When one dog has indicated that there is a bird up ahead (called pointing), all the other dogs in the area are to stop moving, so as to not accidentally flush the bird out of range.

I went hunting with a couple of friends at the end of last year.  One of the dogs on the ground was a dog I had trained, but hadn't seen for several years.  When I had last worked with Jack, he was great at honoring.  Yet when I saw him that day, he blew past other dogs and flushed the birds.

When I asked the owner about this, there was a lot of explanation...and it concluded with the ever-famous words: He knows what to do but he doesn't listen.

I put a long leash on the "rebel" dog.  I managed to get a hold of his leash before he charged in.  My dog was on point and standing like a statue.  A third friend went in and flushed the bird.  When the bird was airborne, I released his leash and praised him.  It took one repetition and the dog was honoring again.

Does He Really Know?

The short answer:  No.  Most times, a dog has no clue.  This is because we have done a poor job "explaining" why the behavior is worth their while.  Jack is actually very eager to please.  All that was needed was a situation where he could be praised.  He knew what was wrong...he had no clue what was right.

How To Help A Dog Really Understand

What you need to do is show a dog how a behavior is advantageous.  Take the ever popular "jumping up".  When the dog is young, ignore the dog when he is jumping up.  In contrast, get on the floor when he is calm and greet him on his turf.  If you are consistent, the dog "understands" how to get what he wants.

If your dog knows what to do but doesn't listen, the reality is that he (most likely) does *not* know.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why Does This Blog Exist

Why does this blog exist?  Why do we need another blog?

The purpose of this blog is to try to make dog training more available and more accessible to the average dog owner.  Training is in large part science and in large part skill in the trainer applying the science.  I believe that there are those who have innate knowledge.  But their knowledge and their skill is describable and available to mere mortals such as ourselves.  I can take any episode of Dog Whisperer and explain why it works.  My desire is to educate you so that you can explain why a training  exercise is successful.  I want you to be able to pull back the covers and understand what is happening underneath

I train bird dogs for hunting.  Pointing breeds. In this training, I have found that a lot of my experience is applicable to most every dog.  Pointing breed, flushing breed, and companion dog.

I am not a pro trainer.  I have trained a few dogs (my dogs and my friends' dogs).  I've trained a few wild hawks.  I've trained one cat and a parakeet.  I even once trained my wife without her knowledge.  I train because I find it fascinating and I love it.  I love to learn more about it.

If you contact me, I'll not lie to you.  If I've trained (or trained away) a particular behavior, I will tell you.  If I have a good (but untried) idea, I will tell you.  I'll refer you to other trainers when necessary.  But, above all, I will reply.

This blog is a continuation of another blog (  That one was hosted by the Chicago Tribune, but since I have moved from Chicago to Western Michigan, I had to relocate my writing here.  But, please, check out earlier posts there to get a handle on who I am.

Welcome aboard.  Please subscribe (on the pane on the right).  Feel free to email me.  It'll be a hoot!