As promised, this month we’re continuing our discussion of play, focusing on how to use healthy play as an effective training tool. For the October Behavior of the Month, we reviewed how to recognize common characteristics of healthy play and how to use those observations to determine if an interaction is healthy and playful or uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. The common pro-social behaviors that we outlined included play bows (these are especially common with unfamiliar playmates); pauses; exaggerated and lateral movements; open mouths (part of what is often called play face); low loose tails; and self-handicapping (toning down the intensity and style of play).
Now that you’ve had a chance to observe these behaviors in your own dogs, we want to describe how to use appropriate play as a training tool. During Doggy Business play groups we use play as reinforcement in several ways. The first is to teach dogs successful ways of interacting with members of their own species. Proper socialization provides dogs with outlets to interact with other dogs in ways that reinforce appropriate species-specific behaviors (including greetings and pro-social interactions), gives dogs an opportunity for physical exercise and mental stimulation, and decreases stress. The end result is a healthier, happier dog that can greet and interact with other dogs without causing undue stress, anxiety, or aggression.
We also use continued access to social interaction and play as reinforcement for basic skills such as coming when called. Often when we use play and social interaction as reinforcement for basic manners we are exploiting the Premack Principle. This principle is discussed in detail by Leslie McDevitt in her book, Control Unleashed. According to McDevitt, this principle states that, “what the dog wants to do, can be used to reinforce what you want the dog to do.” A common example for humans is – eat your veggies and then you can have your desert! For the dogs in our play groups, we often interrupt play by calling the dog to us, having them sit, and then saying “go play.” They get to run back into the group and continue play.
This routine results in two great consequences. First, encouraging a dog to return to play after coming to you will reinforce the recall (coming to us), therefore making the recall even more likely to happen the next time we call the dog. Second, interrupting play to get a dog’s attention and then allowing the dog to return to play reinforces the behaviors the dog was engaging in before the interruption occurred. In other words, interrupting polite play between two dogs and then letting the dogs return to play reinforces their polite play behaviors, as well as reinforcing the orientation and attention to the trainer. Awesome! It is an amazingly effective technique to teach dogs that tuning into us actually results in getting to do the things they want to do more often.
For the next two months we’re going to discuss play – what healthy dog play looks like and how to use play as an effective training tool. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows that dogs love to play. Dogs love to run, dig holes, chase balls, play tug-a-war, fetch tennis balls, run agility courses, and romp with their furry friends! Recently, many dog trainers and researchers have been focusing on why dogs and other animals play and what behaviors are common to healthy dog play. According to canid and wolf researcher Marc Beckoff, an important function of play is to provide an opportunity to rehearse adult behaviors like hunting (predation) and mating. This may explain why dogs perform particular behaviors – like running, chasing, biting and mounting – so often during play.
In a seminar entitled Dog Play: Understanding Play Between Dogs and Between Dogs and People, Dr. Patricia McConnell outlines common play behaviors and focuses on what dogs actually do when they play.
Behaviors Common to Healthy Dog Play
From Dr. Patricia McConnell’s video, Dog Play (2009)
- Play Bows (look like the “downward dog” yoga pose with the head low over the extended front legs and bottom raised – these are especially common with unfamiliar playmates)
- Exaggerated & Lateral Movements
- Open Mouths (part of what is often called play face)
- Low, Loose Tails
- Self-handicapping (toning down the intensity and style of play)
- Bite Inhibition
All of the behaviors listed above can be described as pro-social because they involve friendly interactions between dogs. They can also be thought of as behaviors that function to keep play going. Play bows signal to other dogs that what follows is playful, not to be taken seriously. They function to let other dogs know that if, after a play bow, I grab you by the neck, I’m just playing. During play, gates are exaggerated and we see much more lateral movement in our dogs. Dogs will also self-handicap, or tone themselves down, and inhibit their bites in an effort to keep the play going. Younger dogs for example, will play with an older dog with less intensity to adjust the play so that it is comfortable for the older dog.
Play looks like play because we see these behaviors when it happens. When dog behavior begins to look less like play, we see a decrease in these behaviors, causing that icky feeling some of us get in the pit of our stomach while watching play turn bad.
Sometimes behaviors like vocalizations (barking or growling) can occur during play and can make the interactions more difficult to interpret. For example, if Bowzer barks while he’s doing a play bow or if two dogs are growling while chasing or wrestling, are the interactions still pro-social? In these examples, observing the specific behaviors that are occurring during the interaction (Is the dog’s tail still low and loose?; Are their movements still exaggerated and bouncy?; Is their mouth still open?) can help owners determine if the behaviors are playful, or if one or more of the dogs is becoming uncomfortable and trying to indicate that they want play to pause or stop.
When we’re working with dogs here at Doggy Business LLC, we are always are observing the behavior (what the dogs are actually doing) and then making interpretations about what we think is going on with the dogs. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when you hear growling or see certain types of behaviors, such as mounting, but taking the time to observe the actual behaviors can give you the tools to determine if the interaction is healthy and playful or uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.
We worked on targeting in February and July of 2013 and thought this skill would be a fun one to revisit in preparation for our Treibball Clinic coming up in the Fall (Thursday, October 2nd). In the sport of Treibball, dogs push balls with their nose across a field and into a goal. The first step in teaching a dog the “pushing” behavior is hand targeting. In the Doggy Business play groups, we’ll be teaching the dogs to touch our hand with their nose and also targeting objects (target sticks and targets on walls).
To teach your dog to TARGET your hand:
1. Start in a quiet place with no distractions with your dog in front of you.
2. Have your treats ready in one hand, and keep your other hand empty.
3. Ask your dog to sit and then give them one of the treats.
4. Now, bring your empty hand to the side of your dog’s muzzle about two inches from your dog’s nose.
5. Your dog will probably turn their head towards your hand to check your hand for food. As soon as their nose touches your hand, say “yes” to mark the behavior (the nose touch) and give your dog a treat from your opposite hand.
6. Move your hands back to your side or up to your waist and then repeat steps 4 and 5. Repeat often.
If your dog doesn’t touch your hand on the first try, pull your hand back by your side and then put it by their muzzle again. If that doesn’t work, try putting a few treats in your hand, make a fist, and put your closed fist by your dog’s muzzle. Once you have your dog touching your hand regularly you can build on this new foundation behavior!
This month we’d like to get back to the basics and work on teaching Sit, Down, and Stand on a verbal cue. We work on these skills regularly in play groups, but wanted to make a special effort this month to make sure all the dogs are grounded in these basics, especially dogs that are new to our play groups.
As we discussed back in April of 2013, teaching a solid verbal cue for sit, down, and stand can be harder than it sounds, especially when you incorporate distractions – like a group of dogs running around and playing! For all three of these skills, when working on teaching a verbal cue (or proofing the cue around distractions) say the word “sit” or “down” with no other cue (no food in your hands or hand signal). If the dog sits or lies down, excellent! If not, try to make the exercise easier by cueing the behavior with a hand signal. To do this, say the word “sit” or “down”, wait 1-2 seconds, and if you don’t get the behavior use a hand signal. If the dog doesn’t respond to the hand signal, use a piece of food in your hand to lure the behavior. Repeat often and remember to say the word “sit” or “down” first, then use the hand signal if needed.
When you’re working on Sit, Down, and Stand there are actually 6 moves, or position changes, that you can practice: Stand, Sit, Down, Sit, Stand, Down, Stand.
Vary the routine! Dogs are very good at learning routines and changing the order of your training routine (sit, down, stand, down, sit, stand, etc.) helps to keep your dog’s attention. It also ensures that your dog will learn the correct cue for each position change.
Let’s train more dog tricks! We worked on tricks a couple of times in 2013 and thought it would be fun to get back to it. Why train tricks? It’s super fun to show off your dog’s cool skills, but tricks also develop foundation behaviors. In July, we’re going to use a lure to teach the play group dogs to circle us on cue (“around”). The final behavior looks impressive and it also works on your dog’s ability to follow a lure, learn new hand signals, and be comfortable working around you without needing eye contact.
Around is an easy trick to teach with a lure and here’s how we teach it during our play groups:
1. Start in a quiet place with no distractions and your dog standing or sitting in front of you.
2. Put a treat in both your hands. Put your right hand directly in front of your dog’s nose, and then begin to slowly move the treat to lure your dog clockwise around your body. You may need to adjust the speed at which you move your hand and where you are placing the lure (ideally directly in front of your dog’s nose, not too far above or below it).
3. Once your dog is moving around you to your back give them the treat from your right hand. At the same time, drop your left hand behind your back, put it directly in front of your dog’s nose to get their attention and continue to lure your dog all the way around you into a stand or sit in front of you.
4. After your dog completes the circle and returns to standing or sitting directly in front of you, feed them the treat and return your hand to your side.
5. For medium-sized or larger dogs, try to keep your body posture upright and keep your hands between your knees and waist. For smaller dogs, you can start the behavior by trying it on your knees.
6. Repeat several times and try both clockwise and counter-clockwise.
Dog trainer and veterinarian Ian Dunbar has always been a big proponent of teaching all dogs an emergency sit, and it’s an invaluable skill for owners and dogs. Essentially, it’s asking your dog to sit no matter where they are, where you are, or what’s going on around them, and it’s trickier for most dogs than it sounds!
For many dogs, the cue “sit,” means to come and sit directly in front of their owner, and that’s a great start. The goal for an emergency sit is for your dog to learn that “sit” means that no matter where they are or what they’re doing, when we say “sit” they put their bottom on the ground immediately.
It’s an impressive and useful skill to have so that your dog can be safe no matter where they are, on or off-leash. Before you start teaching your dog this behavior, your dog needs to have a solid “sit” on verbal cue. That means that when you say sit in your house, out on a walk, or in any other context, your dog will put their bottom on the ground 90% of the time, without any other cue or lure.
There are a lot of ways to teach an emergency sit, and here’s the technique we’ll use in play group.
1- Call the dog to us from several feet away.
2- As they move towards us, we’ll say the word “sit” while giving an exaggerated hand signal that’s a sweeping upward movement of our arm with the palm upward.
3- When the dog sits (ideally a foot or two away from us), we quickly go to the dog and give them a treat.
4- Once the dog will reliably sit two to three feet away from us we can introduce more distance by calling them when they are farther away from us, and repeating the process.
Once you teach an emergency sit, it’s important to practice it regularly and always reinforce it with whatever your dog likes best, whether it’s a piece of yummy hot dog, a rousing game of tug, or return to play with other dogs.
The April Behavior of the Month is a Recall game that we call the Rolling Recall. It’s a fun way to start a play group, to burn off some energy and also get all the dogs ready to pay attention to the play group staff while they’re having fun with their furry friends. To play the game we call all the dogs to come to each staff member and we ask them to come to us three times in a row.
1.For the first round, we call each dog and ask them to sit. We treat the sit and then say “Go play”, so they know they can go back to the group.
2.For the second round, we call each dog and ask them to sit and then do a down. We treat the down and then, “Go play.”
3.For the final round, we call each dog and ask them to either sit or do a down. Then we ask the dog to stay and either do a bungee stay (September, 2013 Behavior of the Month) or a circle stay (October, 2013 Behavior of the Month) and then, “Go play.”
This game works on the basic skill of coming when called and other behaviors – sit, down, and stay – to help make sure those behaviors are nice and solid in a variety of contexts. The game incorporates all the distractions of other dogs romping around or coming to sit by the dog that’s doing the exercise, and each round asks for a more complex set of behaviors – making it an extra tough game!
Stand is a useful behavior that we teach in our Puppy Kindergarten and Basic Manners classes. We teach it when we’re working on sit or down as a third position change.
Adding the stand position along with sit and down is a great way to vary your training routine. Dogs are very good at learning routines and changing the order your training routine (sit, down, stand, down, sit, stand, etc) can make sure that you keep your dog’s attention, and that they actually understand the cues for the position changes. Stand is also used in many canine sports, including Treibball. For Treibball, a herding game, dogs need to move behind exercise balls and stand until they are cued to push the ball towards a goal.
To teach your dog to STAND from a sit:
1. Start in a quiet place with no distractions, and have your treats easily accessible. Grab your clicker if you have one.
2. Ask your dog to sit and treat the sit.
3. With a treat in your hand, put the hand in front of your dog’s nose (within an inch) and slowly move it straight back towards you, away from your dog. Move your hand slowly enough that your dog follows it and keep your hand parallel to the floor, palm facing the dog.
4. Click and treat as soon as your dog is in the stand position.
Repeat the sequence to teach your dog to STAND from a down. Cue your dog to down, and treat the down. With a treat in your hand, put the hand in front of your dog’s nose (within an inch) and slowly move it back towards you and up towards your knees.
Check out our video of dogs learning “Stand” to see how to get this behavior started.
In 2013 we worked on teaching hand targeting (“touch”) and targeting an object like a target stick or plastic lid in our play groups. This month we’re going to expand on those skills and work on targeting a specific place, in this case the landings by the back doors. The end result will be dogs that will run to the landing and sit when we give them the cue (“Go!”). You can use the same techniques at home to teach your dog to go to their bed, crate, or a specific place in your house.
To teach your dog to TARGET their bed:
1- Start in a quiet place with no distractions.
2- Have your treats easily accessible and grab your clicker if you have one.
3- Stand by your dog’s bed with your dog sitting or standing in front of or beside you. Lure your dog onto the bed with a piece of food in your hand and lure a sit or down, click and treat. Repeat this several times from several different spots around your dog’s bed.
4- Use the same motion that you used in step #3 to lure your dog onto the bed, but this time do it without any food in your hand. Repeat this several times from several different spots around your dog’s bed.
5- Take a break, and then repeat steps 3 and 4 several more times.
6- Once your dog will consistently go to their bed without a treat in your hand change your motion into an obvious hand signal (like pointing to their bed), and repeat this several times from different spots around your dog’s bed.
7- At this point, you can start adding distance to the behavior by taking 1 step back from where you were working near the bed and repeating step #6.
Check out our video of dog’s learning “Go” on our YouTube page to see how to get this behavior started.
Why train tricks? Tricks can be fun to teach and show off to friends, but they also can develop foundation behaviors for basic manners as well as specific skills needed for canine sports (agility, freestyle, treibball, and more!).
Many dogs enjoy learning tricks for a variety of reasons – they’re learning new skills (often offering behaviors they already do and getting rewarded for them) and working with their trainers (that’s you!) in new ways.Training tricks can help dogs develop more confidence about offering new behaviors and trying new things.
For dog owners, teaching tricks is often a more relaxed way to train your dog and develop more-detailed training plans. Training tricks will improve a trainer’s observation skills, timing, and comfort level with a variety of training techniques (luring, capturing, and shaping). Trick training also provides new strategies for getting and keeping your dog’s attention when you need it.
Back in March of 2013 we worked on teaching “spin” as our trick behavior of the month. This month, we’ll use similar training techniques (luring and capturing) to teach a variety of tricks that may include “circle me” (dog circles around owner, starting by standing in front of them and ending back in front in a stand or sit); “sit up” (dog sits up on its back legs in “begging” position); “back up”; “shake”; or “weave through legs” (dog targets your hand through your legs and slowly learns to move through them as you walk).
Let us know if there are some other fun tricks you’d like us to work on during the month of December!