Ask a dog trainer

by Andrea Bratt, December 2018

Andrea is a Santa Barbara-based dog trainer who has been a welcome addition to PSDP’s Board of Advisors and owns and operates K9sBehave

Q1: “What do you know now about training dogs that you wish you had known when you started?”

I know now how important it is to teach people how to train their dogs. If I spend the time to train a dog some important behaviors but there is no one maintaining those behaviors by practicing and reinforcing them, the behaviors will deteriorate.

Q2: “How do I work on my dog’s barking?”

To modify your dog’s barking behavior, you need to do some detective work and try to guess at what is triggering the behavior. Common causes are reactive barking at sights, sounds or smells, attention seeking or demand barking (as in throw the ball or hurry up with that food or play with me now), and boredom or anxiety barking which typically happens when the dog is left alone.

For reactive barking, I use counter conditioning and desensitization protocols such as “Look at That!” to change the dog’s emotional response to the trigger. I also try to develop a management plan to keep the dog away from things that would trigger it to bark reactively unless it is actively being trained.

For attention seeking or demand barking, I withdraw attention (turn away or leave the room), quit throwing the ball, preparing the food etc., until the dog offers another, quieter behavior. It is important that you choose some alternate behaviors such as a quiet sit or a gentle nudge that will be effective in allowing your dog to let you know what it needs.

For boredom or anxiety related barking which typically occurs when the dog is alone, I try to use a variety of puzzle feeders and chewing items such as Kongs, Everlasting Treatballs, bully sticks or treat hunts to keep dogs actively engaged in a project while alone. I recommend leaving your dog alone for only short periods of time until your dog is used to being separated. You can also use dog walkers, daycares, a friendly neighbor or two to let your dog out or visit it during the times you are away. Crate training can also be effective in some cases. Some people are using baby monitors or webcams to monitor their dog’s behavior when home alone. This information can be valuable in creating a plan to minimize the dog’s anxiety when being left alone.

It is important to know that if barking has worked in the past to get your dog the things it wants and all of sudden you change your behavior to not responding to the barking, your dog may get frustrated and the barking can get worse for awhile before it decreases. We call this an extinction burst. Be patient and wait for another behavior such as the quiet sit or soft whine or…before you respond or reward.

With a small audience, a thin white woman with long blonde hair and wearing jeans and a purple polo shirt claps her hands to the side as she explains something.

Q3: “How do you chain behaviors you are working on for a task? For example, for deep pressure therapy I want my dog to lie on me and put his head on my chest. I also want my dog to do this for longer. How do I extend the duration?”

To train a behavior chain (a series of behaviors that the dog performs with a single cue) such as “Fetch my slippers” or “turn off the light”, you need to train each part of the behavior chain separately.

For deep pressure therapy you would need train “head on chest” separately from lie on me. You would also need your dog to lie on you in a position that it could put its head on your chest easily. You might lure your dog into the right position the first few times and mark and reward your dog for lying on you with its head oriented near your chest. Sometimes your dog may accidentally lie in the right position so you can “capture” the behavior by marking with a clicker or a short word such as “yes” and following with a treat or other reinforcer. You can teach a “chin down” cue with your dog targeting its chin in your hand and/or the ground at first and then transferring the “chin down” behavior to get the dog to rest its head on your chest. Some people will use a target such as a sticky note to teach a dog to touch a specific location.

To get the head rest for longer durations you would at first mark and reward each time your dog rested its head in the proper place. Then you would mark and reward when your dog rested its head for 1–2 seconds. When your dog can hold the head rest for 2 seconds you would increase the time to 3–4 seconds before you rewarded your dog. You would slowly add a second or 2 as long as your dog was successful at the last step. If your dog lifts its head more than once out of 5 trials, you would go back and do less time between rewards. Once your dog can rest for several seconds you could introduce a release cue such as “free” or “all done” to let your dog know that you want the head rest behavior until you give your release cue. It also helps with long duration behaviors to mark and reward in somewhat random time intervals. For instance if your dog could hold its head down for about 10 seconds, you could do 5 trials and mark and reward at 7 seconds, then 10 seconds then 8 seconds then 6 seconds then 9 seconds. If your dog was successful you could increase the duration. If your dog missed one time, you would stick with the same level of difficulty (6–10 seconds). If your missed 2 times or more you would relax your criteria and maybe go back to about 8 seconds of duration.

Q4: “How do you work with dogs who give up too easily? I have already tried: upping the reward, making the puzzle much easier, heavily congratulating any and all progress, and leaving the dog to her own devices, taking the pressure off of her. Any other suggestions are welcome. Related: What techniques do you use to encourage a dog’s creativity with offered behaviors and problem-solving?”

Your suggestions are all excellent. I would also add the “Give me a Break Game” from the book “Control Unleashed” by Leslie McDevitt. In this game you are giving a short (sometimes only 10 seconds) training session with lots of reinforcement in a small safe area, and then cuing your dog to take a break. You ignore your dog until it comes back for more. You end up teaching your dog to bug you to train it. If your dog doesn’t come back for more, you need to reevaluate your criteria, what you are using for reinforcement (yummier treats?), and timing if you are using a marker.

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Note from PSDP: Though it is not strictly required, we do recommend using a professional trainer to help you in your dog training. An outside perspective is useful from time to time even for the most knowledgeable among us!