The Importance of Determination and Resilience While Dealing with Reactivity

Having a reactive dog can be a burden and can make daily walks and outings stressful for both you and your dog. Odin is reactive and it makes it hard to take him places and makes walking an event. Reactivity occurs for a variety of reasons. It can be a conditioned response to feeling frustrated about not being able to greet another dog on leash, or they can become reactive out of fear of new/strange dogs. Odin’s reactivity towards dogs is due to his frustration of him not being able to interact with them, whereas his reactivity towards skateboards and scooters is fear based. Dealing with and overcoming reactivity requires determination and resilience. It is not something that can be changed overnight.

Punishment should never be used to help fix a reactive dog. Rather you should focus on trying to help the dog adjust their behavior to something more acceptable. Dealing with reactivity takes time and patience. Overcoming reactivity will require your determination and resilience as it will be hard to continue to put yourself into these situations. There are multiple ways help your dog overcome their reactivity.

  1. Classical Counter Condition: This strategy links the appearance of another dog with food. This strategy is most helpful for dogs that are fearful of new, strange dogs. Your dog should start linking the appearance of new dogs with food, something that makes them happy.
  2. Operant Condition on Cue: This strategy teaches the dog that another dog approaching is a good thing and the dog will feel relaxed and look to the owner for food/play. This is similar to Counter Conditioning, however instead of just giving your dog food, you are telling them to “look” and find the dog, once they do, they should look back to you for their reward. This is what I am currently using for Odin. If I see the dog first, I tell him to “look.” He looks to the approaching dog then back at me for his treat. This turns these situations into more a game rather than a stressful situation. This teaches the dog to become comfortable with the approaching dog enough to be able to look away from the dog while remaining calm.
  3. Operant Conditioning with No Cue: This is similar to the strategy listed above however, instead of telling the dog to “look” for the approaching dog, they find the dog on their own then notify you of the approaching dog. This strategy can be little harder to teach. This strategy includes what is referred to as BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training.) The dog is brought just close enough to their trigger to elicit a reaction such as them looking at the other dog (but not barking or lunging). The handler stops moving and waits for the dog to gave an acceptable behavior, such as looking away or at the owner and then a reward is given (either a treat or moving away from the other dog/trigger.) After a while, your dog will be able to show you a certain behavior when approaching another dog. Odin has started doing this with me. Once he learned the foundation of the cued “look,” he began offering looking at me directly once he saw another dog approaching. I reward this type of behavior, and if I can I try to create distance between myself and the trigger to avoid reactivity.   

All the current strategies are have one thing in common. They all provide the dog with the appearance of something awesome every time they see their trigger, and eventually the dog will learn that their trigger predicts the appearance of something awesome.

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In addition, all of these strategies take time, patience and determination. I have been working on Odin’s reactivity for about 5 months now and we have just made it to having a 50/50 chance of being able to pass another dog that is across the street without reacting. Anything closer is still too much for him and he will go over his threshold. However, his reactivity towards bikes is almost non-existent after months of training and using the classical conditioning method. He does not see bikes as something to fear, rather as something that means he will be getting food. This takes determination as it is hard to continue going out and putting yourself in these types of situations, however, not taking them out for walks is not an option. The more you practice and get out the better it gets.

Hey! You! Come over here!.pngLast night was a hard night for Odin. On our walk we passed by multiple dogs that he really wanted to play with and he got frustrated as he could not get over to them to greet them. So he barks and lunges. I assume he is barking “Hey! You! Other dog, I can’t get to you but maybe you can come to me. Hey! Why aren’t you coming over here to me?” And he lunges as a way to try to get closer to them. Having this go on multiple times during a walk is exhausting and can make it seem like you are not making much progress. However, on the days when we are able to walk past other dogs and he offers looking at me, rather than reacting, I am so proud of him and I can start to be hopeful and see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a reactive dog is that you need to stay determined and not give up. It does take time and there is hope for one day being able to walk stress free. There are going to be good days and bad days, however, how you bounce back from the bad days is what will determine your success. Reactivity can be overcome and we can help them conquer their fear/frustration, it just takes time and handler determination.

Keep Talking to Your Dogs, Research Shows They Like It

IMG_0778If you have a dog, chances are you have had a conversation or two with them, or if you’re like me you have multiple conversations a day. It is not unusual for anyone to over hear me talking to or serenading Odin (usually Disney songs). Most pet owners instinctively communicate with their animals in a high pitch and affectionate voice that is similar to baby talk, coined dog-directed speech (DDS). Odin responds to me by tilting his head with an inquisitive and happy look on his face, almost like he is trying to understand what I am saying. My family and husband make fun of me for having this types of conversations with Odin. But does communication do anything for your dog?

Researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom set out to answer this question. They wanted to determine whether or not dog speak is useful for dogs. For the study, they performed two experiments where humans interacted with dogs. The first experiment tested adult directed speech against dog directed speech while the second tested content.

Experiment #1:

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In the first experiment, there were two speakers. Each speaker played previously recorded content to see which the dog would be more interested in. One speaker’s recording had dog-related content (such as “Who’s a good boy?”) spoken in DDS, whereas the other speaker played a recording that had adult-related content spoken in adult-directed speech (ADS) with no dog related content. ADS is the normal speech patterns, tone, and pitch that would be found in a normal conversation between two adults. Both the recordings were played for each dog and the dogs then would show their preference in speaker by either looking at or moving towards the speaker. The experiment was performed using a total of 37 dogs and on average, the dogs spent more time showing preference for the DDS speaker relaying dog content. The dogs were more likely to interact and showed preference towards the speakers using DDS to relay dog related content.

The results from the first experiment revealed that dogs prefer humans who address them using DDS and are relaying dog related content. However, was their preference based on the content or the type of speech? Did the dogs only favor speakers because they were using DDS or was it because of the content? The next experiment was used to further investigate the extent the dog’s preference was based on the type of speech or the content being spoken.

Experiment #2:

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The second experiment used 32 dogs and was set up similar to the first experiment. There were two speakers and each played a recording for the dogs. However this time, the content was swapped. One speaker’s recording had dog-related content spoken in ADS, whereas the other speaker played a recording that had adult-related content spoken in DDS with no dog related content. The results from the experiment showed “that there was no significant difference in dog’s’ attention or proximity preference to speakers of DDS or ADS where content and prosody did not match” (Benjamin, 2018). This showed that neither content nor type of speech was responsible for the DDS/dog related content preference found in the first experiment. The dogs did not show preference for DDS when the content was not dog-related.

Overall, the results from the study showed that dogs need to hear relevant words in DDS in order for them to find it relevant. So next time you want to interact and communicate with your dog, remember to convey dog related content in a high-pitched emotional voice. And next time someone teases you for talking to your dog using DDS, remember that you have the science to back you up!

Benjamin, A. & Slocombe, K. “‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog-directed speech”. Anim Cogn (2018) 21: 353.

Rally Obedience and Communication

I have loved doing Rally Obedience (called Rally-O) with Odin. I was a little worried about starting with him when we first signed up as he was only eight months old. I didn’t know if he had the focus, drive, or knowledge to be successful in the classes. Rally has been an amazing experience between Odin and I and it has greatly improved our relationship and communication.

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Rally-O is all about using the right motivation to your dog so they perform the right command at the right time. You and your dog work as a team to complete the course and you need to develop strong communicative strategies to fulfill tasks and complete the course. When practicing Rally-O, you dog learns how to obey classic obedience commands (sit, stay, down, etc.) while having fun. The real core of Rally-O is the relationship and chemistry between you and your dog.

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A Rally course is comprised of 10 to 20 signs that display exercises that demonstrate the controlled communication between you and your dog. The signs in the course vary based on your level, which ranges from Novice to Master. Each of the signs provides instructions regarding the skill that is needed to be performed. It is the job of the handler to communicate the commands to the dog (examples of the novice signs are shown to the right). The dog and handler move throughout the course together are expected to work as a team with the dog heeled at the handlers left side.  

Rally-O is intimidating at first. You are walking into a course with your unleashed dog and they are expected to stay with you and listen to your commands. Of course, this is made easier during practice with a handful of yummy treats (Odin gets hotdogs or lunchmeat which are high value for him). Moving through the course and working together in classes has greatly strengthened our communication and relationship. Sometimes it feels like we are telepathically communicating to each other about the course. You learn to read your dog’s body language and are able to tell when they are about the break focus and need a little extra encouragement to continue and they can tell when you are about to signal a command.

your text hereCommunicating with your dog in Rally-O can occur in multiple ways. In competition, you are allowed to use verbal communication, hand gestures, or luring in order to communication with your dog. As Odin prefers hand gestures, majority of our communication is done through hand gestures and luring while we work on getting his verbal up to par. Rally-O relies very heavily on your dog’s ability to heel, which can be easily taught using a high-level reward and keeping it in your hand at your chest. This also is a good way to train them the “heads up heeling method” which allows for your dog to pick up on subtle cues and focus on you. By giving your dog a clear focal point, you are giving them a reason to want to heel. They can see the treats but most importantly they can see you. This becomes important once you start competing as treats/rewards are not allowed on the course. The “heads up heeling method” gives them a consistent point of reference. To reinforce the “heads up heeling method” I always click and reward Odin whenever he is in the heel position and is making eye contact with me. Whether we are on walks, at the park, or even just hanging out in the house. If he is focusing on my face and my behaviors/cues, he will be able to understand and see what I am communicating to him.

When watching your first Rally-O competition, it can look like magic. The handler’s dogs seem to know the meaning of every head nod, look, or sweep of their arm. Don’t be intimidated by the videos online and jump into a course. Rally-O was designed to be for any handler dog team with basic obedience skills. The relationship and communication skills that will be developed between you and your dog are the reward that awaits you at the end of your training.

Revitalizing Your Determination: Building on What Your Dog Loves

It takes a lot of time, dedication, and planning to create workability. Life gets busy so sometimes training gets put on the back-burner. Determination is an important factor to ensure that you are facilitating and continuing a good relationship with your dog. Sometimes you need to change your training plan to refresh and revitalize your determination. By changing up your training and trying new things, it can bring the fun make into training and bring it back to the front of your priorities.

This past week, Odin and I completed his Nose work and Rally courses. Without these courses, continuing his training will be difficult to keep up with his training will be solely up to me until his next training courses start. So, I need to enhance his at home training to cover the advanced things he would be working on in his classes. I need to ensure that these training are fun, positive, and successful in order to continue to keep up our determination.

Some of the things to think about when creating your own plan for continued training and to help increase/revitalize your determination:

  • What does your dog love that you already know about?
  • What are some new things to try to see if your dog loves them (new treats, new toys, new games, etc.)?

As this is the first week Odin has had without training classes, I didn’t really know where to start with his continued learning. We work on perfecting and solidifying things he already knows (sit, down, stand, back, spin, stay, etc.) daily. However, I needed to introduce new objectives into his training. So, I started thinking about the questions I listed above.

  • What does your dog love that you already know about?


Odin is a jumper and he has mad hops (he can easily clear 5 feet). He loves jumping to catch his Frisbee in addition to jumping when he is excited (fortunately he jumps vertically and not on people). Since this is something he already loves doing I thought it could be something interesting to incorporate into his training.

  • What are some new things to try and see if your dog loves them?

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I was going through my Instagram and saw a live video of Frisbee parkour and I was inspired to try. Frisbee parkour consists of the dog jumping off the trainer to reach the Frisbee. This was something I wanted to try with Odin and decided to add it into our daily training sessions. I worked on training him to jump into my arms. We first started with him jumping into my lap while I was sitting in a chair. Once he was comfortable with that, I switched to wall squats and had him continue to jump into my lap/arms until I was fully standing. Odin was excited to use jumping in a way that was rewarded and was enthusiastic about learning the new trick. Getting him to settle down was a little challenging as he was very excited about jumping. It was very rewarding to see Odin get joy out of doing something he loved while using it in a constructive manner.

Sometimes you need to revitalize your determination and change up your training plan to ensure that training does not fall into the back-burner. If training falls onto the back-burner it can greatly affect the relationship between you and your dog. Changing up your training program can be as simple trying something new that excites both you and your dog. By using something that you already know excites them (jumping) and expanding on it (Frisbee Parkour), your training determination can be revitalized and both you and your dog will continue to have fun while training.

(Here is the link to a video of the final product of Odin jumping into my arms.)



Changing Motivators: How Do you Motivate An Unmotivated Dog?

Last night, during Rally Obedience class, Odin was a little off his game. He was tired from a day of play, full from gorging himself with stolen snacks (freeze dried liver. Yum!), and it was around 85 degrees during class. He was sluggish, unmotivated, and not driven to partake in the classes activities. I knew that I would need to change up his motivation in order to get him reinvested in the game. The happy voices that I usually use to help motivate him fell on deaf ears and he was full of stolen treats so his regular training treats were of no interest to him. When your dog is not motivated to perform or train using their usual motivators what do you do? If we were at home rather than in class, I would have given him a pass on training for the day. However, since we were not home and in a training class I was going to need to change up his motivators in order for him to complete the training and the rally course. How do you motivate an unmotivated dog?

There were three things I did to help motivate and encourage Odin to perform and train in class.

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  1. Take a Break
    • Sometimes your dog may just need a quick break to reset. I gave Odin 5 minutes of chill out time which included belly rubs and playing tug of war with his rope. Just like we may need study or work breaks, dogs may need a quick break in order to re-engage. Giving your dog time to relax and play will make training become fun again.
  2. Increase the Food Reward
    • You may need to increase the value of their treat or try a different type. Just like how we would not want to eat pizza all day every day, dogs do not want to have the same treats day after day. Try changing up their treats or try something of higher value. Since Odin was ignoring his regular training treats, I upgraded him to bits of hotdog. Once he knew I had this high value treat, he become re-focused and motivated to work again because his reward was of higher value.
  3. Use Toys as Reinforcement   
    • You don’t always need to use food to train. Toys can be used in a similar fashion. If your dog is more playful than hungry, then toys will be more motivating to work for. Toss the toy or play a quick game of tug as a reward for behaviors rather than treats. This is another thing I used to re-motivate Odin to work. Since he is very ball focused, I can use his tennis ball to re-engage him and motivate him into working if he knows the ball will be his reward.

If your dog isn’t going for their normal motivators, making a few adjustments can go a long way. Trying taking breaks, changing up their treats, or use toys as reinforcement. Changing up motivators can make your training more enjoyable and rewarding for both you and your dog.

101 Things To Do With A(n) [Insert Object Name Here]

During my last Summer School Class with Odin, we played a fun game called “101 Things to do with a Box.” However, since Odin associated boxes with nose work, we needed a different object for him to play with that he had no previous association with. So, the name of the game changed to “101 Things to do with a Skateboard”, however any object can be used to play this game.

The game emphasizes the importance of shaping and how it can create effective communication between you and your dog. Shaping basically means using and reinforcing a series of small steps to teach your dog a new behavior. Shaping allows the dog to try new things and the clicker (or verbal marker) facilitates communication between the two of you. If you click, the dog knows it is doing something right and will continue to behave that way. By breaking the training into small achievable steps, the communication between you and you dog will become clearer which will speed up learning and reduce confusion between you and your dog.

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 11.03.52 PM.pngHow to Play the Game:

Step 1: Choose Your Object

  • You can use a cardboard box, skateboard, or anything that you want your dog to interact with. For Odin, we started with a skateboard.

Step 2: Arm Yourself with Treats and Your Clicker

  • Grab some treats and your clicker. Put the object on the floor and stand a few feet back and wait for your dog to interact with the object.

Step 3: Start Shaping Fun Behaviors

  • Watch for any kind of behavior your dog does towards the object (no matter how small). If they move towards the object, click and treat. If they put a paw on, sniff, mouth, or move the object click and treat their behaviors. Right know you do not have a specific goal in mind, therefore you reward any interaction with the object. You are trying to communicate to your dog that the game revolves around interacting the object. The clicker and reinforcement increases the communication around what you want them to do, which is to interact with the object.

Step 4: Have a Plan and Reinforce the Plan

  • Now that your dog has learned that interacting with the object is the point of the game, you should have enough behaviors to start to determine what you want the dog to do with the object. For example, I decided that I wanted to shape Odin into standing on the skateboard. Now when we played the game, I would only click and reinforce behaviors that led to him standing on it. If he put one paw on the board, I would click and treat. Once he learned he needed to put a paw on the board, I waited until he offered to put two paws on the table, then I would click/treat. This is still a work in progress for him so I will continue this strategy until he successfully stands on the skateboard. The same type of series of steps goes for any type of behavior you want them to do. Work in small steps which will lead to them completing the behavior.

Breaking the training down into small steps makes the training go faster because the communication is clearer and the dog understands exactly what to do. Using shaping and the “101 Things to do with an [Object]” your dog will start to enjoy learning and exploring new things and will look forward to interacting with you during training.

Letting Your Dog Choose Their Own Motivation: The Premack Principle

The Premack Principle is an important tool to have in your dog training arsenal. It states that a high probability behavior will reinforce a low probability behavior. In terms of dog training, this means that what the dog wants to do (such as sniffing a bush or chasing a squirrel) can be used to reinforce what you want the dog to do. The high probability event of chasing the squirrel reinforces them heeling/focusing or whatever behavior you want them to do. The Premack Principle can be utilized in multiple different ways and for different behaviors you are training for.

The Premack Principle takes the conflict out of dog training because the dog chooses what will motivate them the most to perform the action. You are able to remove the conflict and reward the dog with what they want if they perform the low probability behavior that you want. If your dog really wants to sniff grass and you ask them for something (like a sit) and they perform it successfully, then you can send them to do that awesome thing they wanted to do (sniff grass). You become the gateway to all the wonderful, amazing things in your dog’s environment. Sometimes food becomes less of a motivator and you will need something better to motivate the dog to train or reinforce behaviors. What could be better than letting the dog choose their own motivation? Also, you are not going to always be the most interesting thing in the world to your dog, however you can be the gateway to the most interesting things in the world.

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Let’s talk about the Premack Principle and playing ball. Chasing the ball is the high probability behavior that the dog wants to do, however they know that they need to drop the ball (low probability behavior) in order to get what they want. Chasing the ball can be used to motivate and reinforce the behavior of dropping the ball which in turn will make the behavior of dropping the ball much more likely in the future.

In addition, when teaching dogs that they need to wait at the door rather than simply rushing through it, the Premack Principle can be utilized. You make going through the door (the high probability behavior) contingent on the low probability behavior of sitting and waiting for you to let them. Being able to enter into a new environment through a doorway is the reward for sitting and paying attention to you. For any training situation, you can click/mark and treat any time you dog focuses on you rather than the focusing on the distraction they want to go to, then point and give them the verbal que that they can go and do want they originally wanted.

You don’t need to be the most interesting thing in the world to motivate your dog to do what you want. The Premack Principle can be used to allow the dog to choose their own motivator (high probability behavior) that can be used to reinforce the behaviors you want them to perform.