Posts tagged dog training
Camera Shy to Camera Guy

Helping an anxious dog to overcome their fears

Every person has felt the unpleasant, sickly edge of fear at some point in their lives - and no one wants their dog to feel that way.  Unfortunately, a dog who is feeling mildly scared or anxious can look pretty innocuous.  He might pant even though it is not overly warm, flick his tongue or lick his nose, hunch over, or glance (or even move) away.  Have you seen your dog do this?  If so, read on.  You can help. 

Note: If your dog is really scared of something - hides, stops moving altogether, or acts aggressively - please contact a good, positive trainer, as the procedure described below is quite technical. In the case of moderate or serious fears, mistakes can make your dog's fear even worse. 

Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa (back, heading away) shows me how he feels about the camera by leaving during a recall.  Normally, he has the fastest recall of the crew.  Once I had figured out that it was the camera, I put it away until I could train him.

Mischa is a sled dog who recently became scared of having his picture taken.  This could be a really easy fix, you might be saying.  Just put the camera away when he's around. Presto chango.  And you'd be right - locking away my camera forevermore would have kept him feeling safe.  But he is (like everyone's dog, I would argue) a perfect-looking creature who deserves to be the subject of numerous poorly-executed photographical attempts.  In sum: I really wanted to take his picture.  So I trained him to love the camera using the power of Pavlovian conditioning. 

How did you change a scared dog's mind?

You might remember Pavlov from any introduction to psychology in school. He was the scientist who found out that you could train a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell by consistently following the bell with food.  We're co-opting Pavlov's approach, but instead of the bell we'll aim to make Mischa salivate - in other words, anticipate hopefully - when he sees the camera.

First, I separated the camera into its constituent parts: lens cap, lens, and body. (Later, I would even separate out the sound of the shutter release).  I put the lens cap into my pocket along with a baggie of really good dog treats.  Then, I went into stealth mode. When Mischa was least expecting it, I showed him the lens cap, let him sniff for two or three seconds, and then rained down ten or twenty treats, one at a time. 

  • Important Part One: Mischa did not know it was coming.
  • Important Part Two: Mischa saw the camera lens first, for 2-3 seconds. I stood as still as a statue during this part.
  • Important Part Three: After he'd seen the camera lens, I then gave him food. Lots of food. Lots.
  • Important Part Four: He never saw the camera without then getting food.  No pictures, period.

To make sure I got Important Part One right (Mischa did not know it was coming), I also showed him random non-camera items in the same way - approaching, putting my hand in my pocket, and pulling it out.  I showed him a small metal owl statue.  I showed him a tape measure.  I showed him a spoon.  None of those resulted in treats.  I wanted it to be really clear in his mind:  the lens cap?  THAT meant treats.  Everything else, like me walking up to him with my hand in my pocket?  That was meaningless.

I think I can do this.  When do I move to the next step?

Once it was perfectly, patently obvious that Mischa loved the lens cap (he saw it and jumped up, wagging, drooling, searching for his food, eyes jumping from my face to my pocket), I moved on to the lens.  He caught on, and came to love the lens.  Then I tried the fully assembled camera itself.  This took much longer than I had expected - weeks of few-times-per-week training.  You can almost certainly guess why. Mischa had seen a camera before, and it worried him.  So we carried on slowly, and I was careful to never raise the camera to my eye or take a picture, not yet.  I just showed him the camera, let him sniff and investigate, then fed him.

How much do I feed him when I show him the item?

Lots.  Or as they say in Manitoba: Really Lots.

Note: Trying to move quickly when dealing with a fearful dog is never productive - two brash steps forward, five fearful steps back.  Going at the dog's pace, however tortoiselike, is paradoxically faster. A couple of times I tried to rabbit ahead, and Mischa told me so by turning tail and leaving.  I knew to drop back immediately to an easier step.

OK.  He loves the camera. What next?

Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Early pictures were not about focus,  framing or composition (to be frank, later shots weren't either.  I'm just better at Pavlovian conditioning).  They were about putting everything together - camera, pose, sound - for just a brief moment, and then giving Mischa food right afterwards.  His smiling, soft face indicates clearly that he's enjoying this process immensely. I'm not moving too fast here.

Next came the sound of the shutter release.  When he was least expecting it, I pressed the shutter release on the camera, hidden artfully away from his sight.  I waited the requisite two seconds, and then poured out the food. I did this when I was working away at my desk, or chopping onions, or reading a book. The element of surprise is vital here.  Mischa needed to know the sound of the camera, and nothing else, predicted that food was coming. 

The sound of the shutter release? Why?

When we are helping dogs to overcome fears, it's wise to separate the scary thing into chunks the dog can handle - think lens cap, lens, camera body.  It's even better if the chunks can tickle only one sense at a time: the smell of a stranger.  The sight of a hot-air balloon.  The sound of a shutter release. Since I had found Mischa to be more fearful than I had originally guessed, I also separated out, and trained him to love, me crouching into the photographer's pose by following it with a snack.  I also pretended to take a picture, with no camera present. This predicted snacks, too.

Final step: Do the math

Once I had him loving everything separately, I started doing some math.  Add the camera pose to the camera.  Add the camera to the sound of the shutter release.  We stayed on each step until Mischa was obviously in love: looking from my face to my pockets, drooling with anticipation. Each step took days or weeks. 

Finally, I was able to start taking photographs - at first, just one every couple of days, then more often.  I continued, and continue to this day, to give him a treat every time. Cost: a small treat. Benefit: inoculation against the fear cropping up again.

I'm now free to snap as many pictures as I want. And with a face like that, well, that's Really Lots.

Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.

Hopeful smile and perky ears tell you everything you need to know: Camera Guy.

The way to your dog's heart
Extra eggs can be used to make perfect dog treats.

Extra eggs can be used to make perfect dog treats.

Eggs, oyster, and Parmesan come together into a gourmet treat many dogs love.

Eggs, oyster, and Parmesan come together into a gourmet treat many dogs love.

It is helpful if treats hold their shape when cut into bite-sized pieces. 

It is helpful if treats hold their shape when cut into bite-sized pieces. 

If your dog is fussy, pull out the recipe cards and find something she loves.

If your dog is fussy, pull out the recipe cards and find something she loves.

Everyone who wants to change a dog's behaviour needs to motivate that dog.  This is indisputable. 

  • Basic obedience? Yes.
  • Tricks? Here too.
  • Reducing unwanted behaviours like jumping up? You guessed it: yes. 

Even dogs who are behaving aggressively because they're scared must be motivated.  Luckily, it is usually easy to motivate a dog. 

We can use food. 

Food is an ideal choice for dog training, because it is simple, fast, we have to give it to our dogs anyway, and all dogs are motivated by food.  Last but not least, training with food has positive side-effects: food-trained dogs tend to love the trainer (you!), they love training, they love people who they meet when they're being trained, and so on.

Quality matters.

"But my dog does not care about treats."

Quality does matter, and it matters more to some dogs.  Some dogs are like indiscriminate teens, eating and loving everything in sight.  Some dogs are like fussy gourmands - nothing but the best, and on the best china if you please. 

If commercial treats are too pricey or not working with your dog, consider do-it-yourself: head to the kitchen and make a batch of treats for your dog.  It's fun, you can control the ingredients, and it is less expensive than buying commercial treats. 

See our recipes page for some great recipes for delicious dog treats - tuna fudge and liver brownies are both old standbys and favoured by dog trainers.  We just updated this page to add "Egg and Oyster Delight."  This easy-to-make recipe hits all the right notes: it's fast to whip up a batch, it cuts into small pieces that don't fall apart, and dogs love it. 

How much is that doggie in the rescue?

Rescue work with dogs makes me grateful every minute of every day.

I'm lucky to meet these resilient and audacious dogs.

I'm lucky enough to have the means and space to run a small sled dog rescue with my partner.  We have enjoyed countless hours on a dog sled, the thrill of which is unparalleled, in my view.  As a way of paying this love forward we obtain, train, and place dogs from racing kennels into pet homes. 

I'm also lucky enough to be connected to people who work in shelters, pounds, and rescues around the continent.  These colleagues are hard-working (generally overworked), underpaid, under-appreciated, and absolutely essential to the quality of life of hundreds and hundreds of dogs.  There are no thank-you cards big enough. 

I am fiercely grateful for our adopters, even those who ended up returning a dog.  They have brought a sled dog into the circle of their family.  They are loving, they are caring, they ask questions, they go for long walks.  And they send pictures. 

And finally, I'm grateful for each and every person who inquires about our dogs.  Most do not end up adopting a sled dog, because they are just not a good fit.  Many of our dogs are not good with cats, they love hard exercise just as much as they love snuggling time, they tend to be a bit 'skittish' or anxious, and they almost always roam, given the chance (oh those sled dog genes... the answer to "should I head north or south" is usually both lots now.)  Some people want another dog for their recreational sled dog kennel, and we only place in pet homes.  Some are sure we have mislabeled the dogs as Huskies and they want our Border Collie cross or Saluki cross.  Some have toy dogs in the home, or cats.  Some want an intact dog to have puppies. 

But each time an email comes in, it is the start of a conversation where they open themselves up just a tiny bit - a small, breathtaking vulnerability exposed.  "I want that dog."

The initial email almost always reads "How much is that dog? When can I pick them up?", but as we get further into our conversation, I come to realize they are saying "my last dog passed away.  I'm ready."  Or maybe "my husband has been gone five years.  I'm ready."  Or "I jog by myself at night.  I'm ready."  Or "I'm 25 now.  I'm ready."  Often, it's a version of "I'm drawn to the mystique of sled dogs, and I have room in my house and my heart. I'm a bit unsure about the reality."  Each email is an opening for me to shine a light on the parts of their lives that make them a good choice for a sled dog home, or not.  I am the dog professional in the equation, after all.  I do this (I hope) by being the most respectful, gentle, and thoughtful person I can be, no matter their approach.  Before I hit send I review my wording with a critical eye.  The interaction is inherently unequal because I have the dog and the decision-making power.  Any response to an adopter can be read as judgmental despite my intentions.  Judging another human is not in my job description, nor is it generally my right.  My job is to educate and empathize, just as much as it is to place these sled dogs in the homes that are the best fit for all parties.

So a big thank-you to everyone who asks How Much Is That Doggie In The Rescue.  Our interaction might only be a single email, but I welcome the view you give me into your life, however small.  It's special and I treasure it.  And even if you do not end up with a sled dog, or any dog for that matter, I hope we are both improved by knowing each other. 

Happy trails!


How to forge a Poke-A-Bot

Or, Pestering Prospers when Paid

Cream is now a playful and active 11-year-old retired racing sled dog.  She came to us when she was two years old, right out of a competitive racing kennel.  She was, in sled dog terms, 'skittish.'  She didn't like interacting with us, she didn't like approaching us.  She pranced away, ducked her head, flew upstairs if we looked at her - all the hallmarks of an anxious dog.

As Cream aged, she got a variety of nicknames, including CreamBot.  When she was four or five, she started poking us with her slender nose, and the Poke-A-Bot was born.  Having an anxious dog initiate contact is such a big deal that we would immediately lavish her with praise, and pet her in the way she likes - a good scratch on her chest and neck.  We noticed, much to our delight, that she would poke us more and more.

And more and more.

And then she started to poke our guests.  Our shocked amazement that she poked a guest would always prompt them to shower her with affection.  It felt special, having an anxious dog with such a colourful history poke you so determinedly.  As a bonus, she seemed to get the most enjoyment from poking parts that were, in human terms, a mite irreverent.

Poke-A-Bot is a perfect example of how humans foster a dog's behaviour, intended or not.  We trained Cream to poke us by reinforcing it - "paying" her - with something she likes.  We inadvertently followed all the rules of reinforcement - we waited until she performed the behaviour of poking, then immediately afterwards we coughed up reinforcement.  And true to the laws of animal learning, nose touches increased.  As time went on, the poking was easier to ignore, so we only paid attention to the firmer prods.  You guessed it:  the firmer prods soon replaced the tentative bops. 

 

If You Pay A Pestering Poke-A-Bot, Pestering Proliferates.

The moral of the story is, if your dog is pestering you, you are likely paying it somehow.  Teach your dog to do something else to get that reward instead.  If you're stumped, call a pro.  We are here to help.

Of course I'm in the kitchen. I am dog.

Kitchendog

Most dog owners are familiar with this scenario.  Doing dishes or wiping the counter is lonely, lonely work, but as soon as the vegetables hit the cutting board, a close friend appears: dog.  It doesn't seem to matter how much the chef begs or pleads, or if the dog ever, ever, snags some of that delicious human food. 

So, what's up with that?

If you have ever seen dogs who find their dinner as scavengers from a dumpsite, you have seen part of the answer.  If your dog's great-great-great-great-great-grandpa was not an efficient and capable scavenger, he may not have left behind any puppies to carry on his line.  Polite, discerning dogs who stayed away from the scrap heap were not successful in the romance department.  Your dog inherited this - "if there is food nearby, act and act quickly, KitchenDog!  You may never get another chance."  Many dogs simply do not need the payoff of occasional table scraps to keep up their eternal and hopeful kitchen vigilance.  Although of course that helps.

Another part of the answer might be right in front of your dog's face: his nose.  Are there scents you love?  Freshly baked cinnamon buns, smoke from a campfire, a particular flower?  If you would detour out of your way and take a few minutes to just enjoy a scent, you can imagine how your dog, with his powerful nose, would do the same.  It is payoff enough to be close to those delicious smells.

That's all well and good, but I want him out of the kitchen!

There are a couple of ways to handle this issue.  The easiest is to just shut your dog out of the kitchen.  Bonus points if you can toss his evening meal all around the backyard for him to find or feed him in a stuff-able toy, which will scratch his scavenging itch. 

You can also train him to stay outside of the kitchen while you cook.  Call on a pro dog trainer or take an obedience class for this one, although you will get some mileage from just "catching" him being good.  If he does eventually give up his hopeful quest and go lay down outside the kitchen, zip over with some of what you're cooking and give it to him.  This seems counter-intuitive, and will likely result in him immediately returning to the kitchen.  Be zen about it and wait.  You'll see a trend of his hopeful behaviour becoming oriented more and more often to the spot where he gets fed.  Then just stretch the amount of time he must stay out of the kitchen by a second or two each day. 

Photo: Janlee © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images