The Development of Fear

Fear and anxiety underly many of the behavior issues in dogs. Understanding the subtleties of how fear works can help us prevent and address it more effectively.

First, it's important to understand how fear develops in the first place. Certain things are innately frightening for animals. This is controlled by genetics (by definition, innate refers to behavior that is not learned). MacLean et al. 2019 found evidence for heritability in a number of traits in dogs including fear. Exactly what individuals are innately fearful of will vary from species to species. The sensitivity to stimuli and intensity of fear will vary from individual to individual. 

As we know, dogs also learn to become frightened based on their experience. Dogs that have higher levels of innate fear will be more susceptible to learned fear as well because there are more things that are frightening to them in the first place.

The development of conditioned fear occurs through the process of classical conditioning where the dog learns to associate a previously neutral stimulus (such as a white lab coat) with an innately frightening stimulus (such as restraint and pain at the veterinary clinic). If we want to get technical, the lab coat becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS) for the unconditioned stimulus (US) of pain and restraint. Eventually, the CS of the lab coat comes to produce conditioned fear, which is the conditioned response (CR). The context that the US occurs in can also come to produce the conditioned response. In this example, the veterinary clinic itself can trigger fear, since that is where the pain and restraint are occurring.

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Introducing a Cat to a Dog: With A Step by Step Training Plan

A few weeks ago, I did something bonkers. I decided to get a cat. That might not seem so strange until you realize that I live with a dog who kills things. Breezy is a 9 yr. old husky x border collie. He has killed birds, rodents and rabbits. He would have LOVED to add 'cat' to that list.

Historically, Breezy has been totally unable to function cognitively with a cat in the vicinity: lights on, no-one home. He couldn't eat, take treats or respond to his name. When we have stayed with friends who have cats it has taken at least 24 hrs before he could be distracted from trying to access them. Even when he could be distracted he went right back to hunting as soon as he could. With a couple of near misses out and about, cats were BIG on his radar!

So why the dickens did I want a cat? Well, I wanted to train another species. So, in a fit of impulsiveness, Speck, the 12-week- old kitten, arrived. I'm pleased and relieved to be able to say it has been a total success.

Here's how I did it... 

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The Science of Multiple Markers (and the concepts associated with them)

Why use multiple markers?

For our dog to select the appropriate behavior for a given cue or context, their brain needs to have established associations among sensory stimuli, selected behaviors, and rewards. In training scenarios, typically the rewards are treats, toys, personal play, or a behavior the dog enjoys, and we associate these with the specific behavior/s we desire.

One part of the brain plays an important role in learning such stimulus-action-reward (antecedent-behavior-consequence) associations. However, another part of the brain is focused on reward-prediction error.

So, what is reward prediction error (RPE)?

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Location-specific reward markers: What they are and how (+ why!) to use them

Most of us use reward markers to tell our dogs when they are right. Some people use clickers, others use verbal markers. When the dog is rewarded for something, he will be more likely to repeat that behavior. Location-specific reward markers take that a step farther by affecting how the dog might perform the behavior in future repetitions.

A location-specific reward marker is much like it sounds — it's a marker that tells the dog not only that he or she is right, but also provides information on where the reward will be delivered. By being strategic about reward placement, we can affect the tendencies of the dog over time.

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Getting started in dog sports: Why seemingly "unlikely" pet owners may actually be *perfect* for dog sports

"My dog loves jumping on the furniture and running across the back of the sofa. He would be great at agility!"

To my dog training friends… professional and hobbyist:

How many of you rolled your eyes?

Be honest! I know I have!

The idea that a "pet person" could think that because their dog liked jumping on the furniture – likely "out of control" – they could compete in agility?

How many of us have disparaged the thought, deemed that owner ignorant of what is involved in training for agility, and becoming competitive in the sport?

Or in freestyle (my dog loves to walk on his hind legs!), or flyball (my dog loves tennis balls!), or obedience (my dog has a great stay!). Pick your sport.

We were all there once.

Few of us entered the world of training and dog sports knowing what we know today, nor does what we know today mean we won't learn more tomorrow. We were once one of "those pet owners."

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The Many Faces of Focus

A past discussion with my fellow FDSA instructors led me to explore the topic of focus for this week's blog post (thanks Shade for bringing up this topic). And thanks to all the instructors who joined the discussion. I've written about focus quite a bit, but somehow I always find more to say. Focus is a multi-faceted concept and the more I explore it the more I find to explore even further. This particular discussion had to do with defining focus and distinguishing focus from engagement. Denise Fenzi and I wrote about this in our last book "Dog Sport Skills: Focus & Engage!" It's a common question and I have some thoughts on all of this. Of course I do!

To start, let me provide a working definition of focus. Merriam Webster's definition, which I really like, defines focus as "a point of concentration". When we think about a dog's focus the question should be "focus on what?" I have identified four major subtypes of focus and will briefly expand on each.

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Nosework for Puppies: Puppy Superstars, Nosework Style!

You don't have to be raising the next Nosework Star to get massive benefit from a little Puppy Nosework. In fact, you don't need to be interested in searching at all! However, if you play some of these Nosework games with your puppy, your puppy will really reap the rewards!

We all want puppies who are comfortable in the environment and eager and focused on their task, right? And what about empowerment and problem solving? Or perhaps a puppy who is comfortable interacting with the environment and enthusiastic for our food rewards? Does all of this sound good? Of course it does!

Let's explore some of those benefits! And then let's talk about how you can get your puppy started TODAY!

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How to Get Perfect Position Changes

Position changes are super important in both obedience and rally! Your dog needs to do position changes both in heel position (without going wide) and in front of you (without creeping in). Platforms can help teach your dog both of those concepts!

The position changes are sit, down, and stand. Your dog should be able to do these in any order — in other words a sit to down, down to sit, stand to down, stand to sit, sit to stand, and down to stand.

You'll need a platform large enough for your dog to stand and lay down on. It doesn't need to be as narrow as a sit platform, since some dogs like to stand with their rear legs a bit wider than the front legs. It can even be something like an agility table, as long as your dog can lay down on it.

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Using Restrained Release to Teach a "Go To Target" Behavior

I love shaping as much as the next trainer — but I occasionally come across a dog who does better with luring and prompting (including my own young dog, Levi). So I combined a few concepts I've seen elsewhere and used what I'm calling "Restrained Release" to teach him a targeting behavior.

What concepts? 

Well, I'm making use of opposition reflex here in much the same way we often do when teaching a restrained recall — holding the dog back and encouraging them to pull forward leads to a naturally dynamic and enthusiastic behavior. I'm also using a location specific marker ("Get it" means food out on the floor) and combining those things with the visual prompt of the food being consistently delivered on the target. 

This is the method I typically use when starting a new dog in Treibball, since it's quick and it builds an interest in searching out the target that can then carry over nicely to going out and around a ball to find their target even when they can't see it.

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Play with Dogs: Play for Everyone!

I think playing with dogs is a really good idea.

When people play with their dogs, they like them better. They smile more. Their dogs start to look towards them more easily and frequently.

In short – it's just nice. It's nice for people and it's nice for dogs.

So. How does one play with a dog?

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Trainer Persistence and Problem Solving: Training Dogs to Enter the House Politely!

One of my dogs has a rather unfortunate habit. Lyra comes into the house from the yard like a demented bat out of hell, with both of my other dogs after her in hot pursuit.

The results are an impressive combination of screaming, careening into walls and a generic cacophony of noise and energy that is rivaled by few. The mayhem lasts for about a minute or two, at which point the edge is off, and we go back to a more normal situation – only to be repeated the next time the dogs come in from the yard.

I have put up with this behavior for some time now. Not because I like it, but because it usually happens when I'm most vested in my work and I don't want to stop to train dogs. Since I have not addressed this issue and you get what you give, I get…bedlam.

Recently I decided I'd had enough, so I decided to solve the problem. 

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Socialization: A Positive Parent’s Guide to Raising and Training Dogs and Puppies

I am often asked how we should socialize our dogs so that they will grow up as well adjusted as possible.I think the answer is both simple and intuitive: The same way you socialize your small children.

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Play for Everyone!

I think playing with dogs is a really good idea.

When people play with their dogs, they like them better. They smile more. Their dogs start to look towards them more easily and frequently.

In short – it's just nice. It's nice for people and it's nice for dogs.

So. How does one play with a dog?

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Fluency on Cue!

 Let's talk fluency. It's something we all strive for in our behaviors. Behaviors that are fluent are consistent, dependable and reliable. They have been generalized to various location and contexts. In short, the dog has the skill and confidence in the behavior, and we can count on the dog executing it to a high degree.

We not only need to have fluent behaviors; we also need fluent cues.

Whaaat!? There's a difference?

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Disconnection is a Two Way Street: Why Dogs Disconnect From Training (And What to Do About It)

A student is taking a private agility lesson at my facility. She finishes a particularly challenging sequence and turns toward me to talk about it. Meanwhile, her dog runs off and starts exploring the agility area on her own. While we chat, the dog circles the area, running through random tunnels or searching for treats. The handler finally calls her dog, but the dog is busy having fun.

Eventually, she collects her dog and puts her on leash, frustrated.

I am watching an online training video from one of my classes. The dog finishes a sequence of behaviors, and the handler hands him a treat and turns away, walking back to the area where she started. The dog eats the treat, looks at the handler, and seeing no connection, starts sniffing the ground. After a few seconds of this, the handler notices that her dog is not with her and scolds the dog, saying "get over here!"

As an instructor of both online and in-person classes, I regularly see my students disengage from their dogs while training. This disengagement does not usually occur while training the behaviors, but rather during the resets in between repetitions. I work very hard to maintain connection with my dog throughout our entire training session, and I don't want him to practice the cycle of disengaging and me having to get him back. I want my dog to be working with me the entire time that we are training, rather than possibly self-reinforcing by sniffing the ground or scavenging for treats, or building in other undesirable behaviors.

So how can we fix these all-too-common scenarios?

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Training Troubles? How to Avoid Potential Problems in Dog Training

Have you ever thought something your dog or puppy did was super funny and cute .. not realizing you have encouraged that behavior and now have something to fix later on?

It could even be that we unintentionally taught a bad habit, decided not to address it right that moment, or maybe we didn't encourage it but just ignored it. It happens - our dog training TO DO LIST is very long! We let some things go to focus on other skills and behaviors.

We want to spend more time developing desired behavior verses fixing unwanted behavior later on. 

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Clicker, Marker Word, or Cookie?!?

Which is best: a clicker, a marker word or just handing over a cookie when the dog does something which makes us proud?

Ask yourself what are the goals for the training session.

If you're working on simple classical conditioning (for example: You want the dog to feel good in a new building) then hand over free cookies. Since the dog's consciousness of their behavior is irrelevant, there's no reason to use a clicker or a marker word. You simply want your dog to enjoy the situation – classical conditioning at work.

If you're working on a trained behavior that has an element of duration, but the actual moment that you choose to hand over the cookie is not relevant, then there is also no need for a marker. Just release from the formal work, hand over free cookies with praise, and go from there.

For example, if you're working on loose leash walking and the dog has been walking for a full minute without pulling, then there really is no specific moment to mark. You're just happy with a "period of time." Since this exact second is not different than the one before, a marker can't mark anything.

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Hyper Greeters: Dealing with dogs who jump up (extreme edition)

A while ago I posted a blog about teaching dogs to keep their feet on the floor and off of people. That blog included an excellent video by Chirag Patel. In my opinion, his approach will work for a high percentage of dogs, especially puppies who are started correctly. 

But some dogs are a bit different. These dogs are not showing normal, thinking behavior patterns when they are in the presence of new people, because they are "hyper greeters." In the presence of new people, they go over threshold. 

"Over threshold" simply means that the dog is no longer able to make good (rational) decisions about their behavior. And since training assumes a rational participant who is maximizing good things and minimizing bad things, training often fails on dogs that are over threshold. Sad but true. The more time a dog spends over threshold, the more easily they end up in this bad place, which starts a nasty cycle.

A hyper greeter isn't a happy dog who simply loves everyone. 

A hyper greeter is a dog with an uncontrollable need to get to people, yet the dog recognizes that their behavior is not appreciated. That leads to conflict, and conflict is bad, because dogs in conflict go over threshold easily.

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Recall Training: The One Cue Every Dog Should Know

If I could teach a dog only one thing, what would it be?

To come when called. Few things are quite as frustrating as a dog that is oblivious to your futile attempts to call him back to you or worse, a dog that thrives on the game of "keep away."

A dog with a strong recall has freedom! You can take them places and get them back when you want to leave.

A dog with a strong recall has safety! You can let them off the leash without an unreasonable fear of having them run off or get hit by a car (though all decisions involve risk).

A strong recall makes you welcome with other people and dog owners!

If you have ever found yourself calling out "don't worry; my dog is friendly!" then please read the next paragraphs with great care.

Get ready because I'm going to be blunt here…. 

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Want a Relaxed Down Stay? Stop Rewarding It!

My young golden Excel was super quick to learn stay. He'd lay down on his station or on the ground at my feet and stay there – all while staring at me intensely. 

If I ignored him, he'd sigh loudly or flip onto his hip or put his chin on the ground. I remember how he would purposely look away from me, with his eyes rolled toward me to see if I was going to give him a treat. Or he'd look away and snap his head back toward me in anticipation of the reward. He was offering all the relaxation behaviors I spent months rewarding him for in an attempt to train a relaxed down stay. 

Instead of a calm dog I had a dog that was constantly working, offering behaviors, and seeking reinforcement. Not the picture I wanted.

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