What is the Premack Principle and how can it help me?

The Premack Principle is one that all dog trainers are generally familiar with, and that some very savvy dog owner’s also know. So, what is it and how can it help you?

The Premack Principle was discussed in a study by David Premack who discussed the principle in a paper of a study on Cebus Monkeys. The Premack Principle states that a less desirable behaviour can be reinforced by providing access to a highly desirable behaviour.

We often utilize the Premack Principle without even knowing. We will tell kids “if you eat your veggies, you’ll get dessert”, or tell ourselves “if I finish this report, I’ll let myself take a 15 minute break”. The less desirable behaviour in this case is eating vegetables and finishing the report, the desirable behaviour is eating dessert and taking a break. The desirable behaviours essentially become rewards for completing something the learner didn’t want to do as much.

The applications in dog training are immense and can even help us work with some challenging behaviours. We often employ the Premack Principle to teach an automatic stay at an open door. We utilize our dog’s high desire to be outside, as a reward for staying put at the open door. The dog then gets to out of the door on cue, and gets the highly desired behaviour.

We can even use it with working on challenging issues such unwanted chasing behaviour. We can do appropriate set ups where we work on having the dog engage with us, instead of chasing something, and (if safe), we can then reward the dog with a short chase (ideally a stuffed animal pulled on a string). Thus reinforcing the behaviour of focusing on us, with the actual problem behaviour! It may seem counter intuitive to utilize an undesired behaviour, but when we can set things up safely, this can be a powerful reinforcer for our dogs.

There concludes my mini lesson on the Premack Principle. I hope you’ve learned something and you consider the application with your dog and even the people in your life! I use this one on myself all of the time and it works very well.

Five common training mistakes that might make you think positive reinforcement doesn’t work for your dog

I’ve recently had many conversations on social media with dog guardians who believe that positive reinforcement doesn’t work for their dog. This made me realize that there are many common training mistakes that can lead to people thinking exactly that.

To be clear, positive reinforcement works, otherwise it’s not positive reinforcement. I don’t want to get into a discussion of all four quadrants of operant conditioning (how we teach to animals and people too). But all four can be used to teach anything. It’s just a matter of getting it right.

If positive reinforcement feels like it’s not working for you, here are some common and easy mistakes you might be making:

  1. Working in an environment that is too distracting. This is a common mistake that people make with positive reinforcement. They will achieve a recall easily indoors, but will then graduate to trying that outdoors in the middle of a dog park, and get frustrated that it doesn’t work. Just like you wouldn’t be expected to successful pilot a helicopter to the top of a mountain and back after one lesson, we can’t expect our dogs to work in a super distracting environment without working up to it. If your dog is failing at a skill in a new environment, then you have to make it simpler. Take them out into your yard before taking them to a park, then graduate to a quiet park, then practice recall with one calm dog friend, and work your way up to recall out of play.
  2. Using the wrong type of reinforcer. Positive reinforcement is all about what is reinforcing to YOUR dog. Some dogs will come for kibble. Others would like a medium rare steak. Some will prefer toys. You need to find what is reinforcing for your dog. If it increases the likelihood of the behaviour happening, then it’s reinforcing. Experiment, try working with cheese, hot dogs, homemade treats, wet dog food in squeeze tubes, etc.
  3. Trying to progress too quickly. If you are working on making a skill harder, and your dog fails twice in a row, you’ve made it too hard, too fast. Break things into tiny pieces so that your dog can easily progress and achieve the goals.
  4. Constantly making it harder. How motivated would you be if every single day you went to work and every single day, your job got harder. Without ANY easier days thrown in. Just a constant upward curve of difficulty. Sound exhausting? Would you lose motivation? You almost certainly would. Don’t just focus on making things harder all of the time. Give your dog some easy wins when progressing on a skill! That’s creating a history of reinforcement which still adds to the reliability of the skill. So it will work in your favour and it will keep your dog motivated.
  5. Increasing multiple variables at once. A great example of this is with the skill stay. We generally work to increase the stay duration, or get a stay with distance, or a stay with distractions. People often plateau on stay because they work more than one variable at once. Work only one variable at a time when making things more difficult. For example, don’t try to work on increasing your stay duration while also trying it in a new environment (distraction).

If you’ve struggled with positive reinforcement methods, I can’t recommend enough working on the five items in the list above. It’s easy to make these mistakes, and without someone to point them out, you can feel like it just doesn’t work for your dog. But that’s not the case. Positive reinforcement can work for any dog. It’s just science.

Puppies and recall

I’ve been thinking about recall a lot. This may be due to the fact that I’m working on a recall focused class. Either way, this is one of the top skills that clients ask me for advice on.

Recall is a potentially life saving skill. Having a reliable (or bomber as I like to call it) recall can save your dog from running into a street, disappearing in the woods as they chase wildlife or even calling them off a dog that they are headed for that will not be friendly. Suffice it to say, recall is important.

So what’s the deal with recall and puppies? Well, when most of my clients come to me with puppies, they identify recall as a skill they want to work on, but then I inevitably hear a version of “but my puppy is already pretty good at recall”. True enough, your under 6 months old puppy probably does have a good recall. They tend to want to stay close and if you put in just a bit of work on recall, you see HUGE returns. All of the sudden, you’re thinking “my puppy is a recall super star! This is going to be awesome!” and you go on fantasizing about off leash adventures you’ll be able to do because your dog will always listen to you. Then you usually stop training recall, or train it only every now and then.

If you’re a dog trainer, you’re probably chuckling as you read this. Because we know what’s coming. After 6 months of age, your puppy is going to become a teenager. I know we say that dog’s are not people and we shouldn’t treat them like people. That still stands. But an adolescent dog is going to start pushing boundaries, not dissimilar to human teenagers.

It likely won’t happen right at 6 months. Probably closer to 8-9. But one day, you’ll go to recall that puppy and they will not come back like they used to. Or worse, they will have wondered off much further away. In adolescence, dogs will be gaining confidence and will literally push the boundary of how far to wonder from you (when off leash). They are also full or hormones and their perception of the world is evolving as they are. Somethings may become more distracting than they were as a puppy. These are all things that will work against you for recall. Unless, you’ve prepared.

How do you prepare your puppy for a life-long solid/bomber/reliable recall?

  1. Train recall regularly. Recall training will take a bit more effort than skills such as sit/down. You have to go outside (after you’ve worked up to this) and practice regularly.
  2. Use insanely high value food rewards for recall training. Your dog should think that your recall cue = the most delicious thing ever. When you know you’re going to have your dog off leash, have this food with you.
  3. Reward ALL check ins that your puppy offers. This is a skill you WANT to build. Your puppy should think that choosing to come check in with you will always pay out. This will raise your puppy with the concept that they should stay near you and should check in regularly, unprompted.
  4. Never ever ever ever ever recall your puppy to something bad. This is great way to ruin your recall.
  5. Make recall training a part of your puppy’s training journey. Work with a trainer to get the skills you need so that you can learn how to train your puppy to eventually recall off of wildlife and even out of play.

So you want an adventure dog: Part 3

We’ve been discussing adventure dogs and how they don’t just magically form out of thin air. We have to build their recalls until they are absolutely bomber, and we have to put in time to build value in engaging with us when we’re outdoors. But what else do we need to consider if we want the ultimate adventure k9? The answer is: fitness.

Just like us, our dogs have varying levels of fitness. Many of us will take six hours to hike up a trail that others will take two hours to run up and down. Everyone and every dog has a base level of fitness that is unique to that dog based on their age, breed and genetics. We all know that some dogs can run a 20km trail and others can’t.

So what is critical to know in adventure dog fitness?

Athletes need to train. You can’t expect your dog to start with a 15km hike when all they’ve done are city walks. Work up to a bigger objective by training it in the same way that you would train yourself. You want to build endurance and it can’t be done instantly.

Cross-training is important. Just like us, our dogs should be cross-training to ensure they are training all muscle groups and not just the ones they use on adventures. That means working on balance training, stabilizer muscle training and building proprioception. Hind-leg awareness is hugely important for k9 athletes. Our dogs tend to keep a lot of their weight on their front legs. We can encourage them to carry that weight more equally by improving their hind-leg awareness and their confidence in their rear-ends. A great way to get some good training exercises is to visit a canine physiotherapist before you have an issue.

Puppies aren’t adventure ready. I hate bursting the bubble for puppy owners, but puppies are not good adventure buddies. Sure, they can come on short hikes. But their growth plates are still forming in all of their limbs. Increasing their fitness beyond a level that is appropriate could lead to life-long injuries. If you want to adventure with your puppy, I recommend speaking to your vet first to get an estimate of when their growth plates will close (size and breed impacts the timelines). Or alternatively, be prepared to carry them in a backpack. Let them see the environment you want to adventure with them in, but don’t expect them to keep up. They don’t know their own limits and they will go harder than they should.

Don’t create an athlete you can’t keep up with. This is a common saying in the dog training world. If you’re a runner who runs from the spring to the fall and runs a lot, and you want your dog to run with you, that’s okay. But what are you going to replace the running with in the winter? Humans are super adapted to slowing down quickly. We can run a marathon then turn into a couch potato for the winter without a problem. Our dogs are not programmed that way. If you suddenly change your dog’s physical regimen, you can expect that extra energy to come out in other ways. Often with chewing, hyperactivity, barking, and general restlessness. Factor this into your decision making when you’re considering how much you want your dog to join you on adventures.

As we’ve seen, adventure dogs are created through work on core skills, engagement and fitness. If you want the ultimate adventure dog, you need to approach it with some planning and forethought to make sure that you get it right.

Be the rad team that adventures in a way that is sustainable, respectful to others and that has the most fun!

So you want an adventure dog: Part 2

Buffy enjoys an off leash adventure of backcountry skiing

A lot of us are outdoor adventurers and we want our dogs to join us in that endeavour. It’s normal, our dogs typically love the outdoors like us and so we want to bring them along. But adventure dogs don’t just happen, adventure dogs are created through a strong relationships and lots of work on foundation skills.

In the last post, we discussed how important a bomber recall is and the keys to achieving that recall. This week, we’ll go into another adventure dog foundational skill: engaging with us outside.

Do you feel like you don’t exist once you’re outside hiking with your dog? Is your dog more interested in sniffing everything than checking in with you and sticking close by? Compared to the outdoors, we’re typically pretty boring to our dogs. We aren’t full of critters, new smells, textures and wild animal scat. Therefore, we’ve got to work to get engagement from our dogs when we’re outside adventuring.

Critical steps to build engagement outdoors:

  1. Start with on leash engagement building. Yep, you read that right. You’ve got to start on leash. If you’ve got an adventure dog right now that doesn’t pay attention to you at all, it’s going to be tough to build that engagement on off-leash hikes. In fact, you’re setting yourself up for failure, so instead, work on leash for a while so that you can be near your dog and make the engagement easier for your dog.
  2. Use your highest value goodies for outdoor engagement rewards. If you want your dog to ignore all of the amazing things around them to explore, sniff, taste, you need to make it worth their while. You’re going to use those super high value goodies while on leash at first, but that doesn’t mean we can cheap out. The outdoors is exciting and stimulating, you need to battle with the wonderment of the world for your dog’s attention, so pack the best stuff you’ve got, think: boiled chicken, tripe in a squeeze tube, etc.
  3. Reward your dog for any offered check-ins. If your dog so much as looks in your direction, say “Yes!” and reward them with those super high value goodies! This is how we start to build the check-in. We teach our dogs that checking-in is worth it!
  4. Pick your moments carefully when asking for a check-in. When you are actively trying to get a check-in, start with the easy ones. That means your dog isn’t sniffing the most interesting pile of scat in the world but instead they are taking in the sights of the hike and near you. At the beginning, stop when you ask for a check in, so that they aren’t constantly getting new smells to tempt them. Say their name and give them a few seconds. If they don’t check in after 5-10 seconds, then start to make noise. DO NOT REPEAT THEIR NAME. This sets up your dog to start ignoring their name and instead respond on the 3-10th time we say it. Instead, make sounds such as kissing sounds, clicking (but not your clicker), etc. Once they check-in with you, say “Yes!” and give them those high value goodies.
  5. Practice outdoor engagement on regular walks as well. Practising this on your usual in-town walks will help you increase the likelihood of engagement in the outdoors. So bring some high value treats (not as high value as outdoors adventuring treats, but close) and reward check-ins and practice check-ins on walks. Bonus: it’ll help get you more loose leash walking too.

We’ve now covered two big foundation skills for the adventure dog: bomber recall and engagement outside. Next week, we’ll discuss another critical foundation for adventure dogs: k9 fitness.

So you want an adventure dog: Part 1

Buffy takes a look off a large rock during an off leash hike.

I live in Revelstoke, British Columbia. This is one of the top towns for outdoor adventure. In the winter it’s a ski/snowboard/sledding mecca, in the summer it’s a mountain biking/climbing/hiking/trail running paradise. People here get out and they play hard in the mountains. So it’s not unexpected that when they get a new dog, they want that dog to become an adventure dog who can come along for big days.

How do you turn your new furry friend into an adventure dog? Well first, you might not be able to, at least not in the way you think. When we bring a new dog into our life, we already have an idea of what we want our relationship to look like and what adventures we want them to join us on. But dogs are individual sentient beings with their own personalities. There is always a chance that what you want your dog to be, is not what they are. It doesn’t mean you can’t lay the foundation for adventure, it just means that we have to factor our dogs as individuals into the equation.

The most important skill that people want in their adventure dogs is a bomber recall. A bomber recall is a recall that is good enough even with high distractions such as squirrels and deer. Bomber recalls don’t just happen. Some breeds will be predisposed to wanting to stay close to their people and frankly to please their people, so building that bomber recall may come easier for dogs of those breeds, but most dogs also have a drive to explore, to scavenge, to chase critters, which can all influence how easy it is to get a bomber recall. What I’m trying to outline here is that bomber recalls don’t just happen, the work needs to be put in to make it happen. It is categorically unacceptable to expect our dogs to have a skill like a bomber recall without putting in the necessary work and it is equally unacceptable to take the route of using a shock collar to achieve it, without even trying to build it in a more humane and less harmful way. Shock collars are commonly used for this but come with a lot of negative outcomes. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out a blog post I wrote about the impact of shock collars here.

What is the secret to a bomber recall? Build a foundation. If you need recall to be one of your strongest skills then you have to build a strong foundation. Foundations are built on reward history. That means you need to ensure that you:

  1. Set up your dog for success when recalling. If your dog is set up for success, then your dog will get the reward and that reward will go to building the foundation.
  2. Ensure your recall outcome is ALWAYS positive. Even if your dog did a lousy recall and took their time, you have to reward them. If you skip the reward, then you are essentially adding poor building material into your foundation and making sure that it’s less strong. If your dog has a lousy recall, try to do an easier set up next time to ensure it’s successful.
  3. Use extremely high value food as a reward. You do not want to cheap out on your rewards for recall. The more motivated your learner is to earn that reward, the stronger of a foundation you are building. Never cheap out on recall rewards and always reward.
  4. Work with distractions. Work to systemically increase the difficult of your recall through either increasing distractions OR distance (never increase both at the same time).
  5. Never repeat your dog’s name and recall cue. Once you’ve called your dog, don’t repeat the cue and their name. Instead, be a cheerleader and make lots of excited noises to motivate them. If you start repeating their name and cue, you are in fact teaching your dog that the first one doesn’t matter.

If you’re someone who wants to adventure with your dog off leash and want that dog who chases you on your mountain bike through fun trails, or sticks close while you hike off leash, start building your foundations now. If you’re not sure how to progress with this or you’re struggling, reach out to a certified science-based trainer for help.

Next week, I’ll continue this series by talking about another crucial skill for adventure dogs: engaging with you while outside.

How to Socialize Pandemic Puppies

On Tuesday December 15th, 2020 I hosted and presented a webinar called Pandemic Puppies (you can watch the webinar here). The purpose of this webinar was to provide some information for prospective and new puppy owners, on how they could raise a happy, confident and well socialized puppy during a pandemic.

In order to register for the webinar, I asked participants to identify issues that they were struggling with currently. Over half of respondents indicated that they are dealing with fear issues. As a trainer, this was heartbreaking.

Working on typical puppy problems such as nipping, jumping, barking, and potty training is typically easy and straightforward. Working with fear can be complex, lengthy and frustrating for owners.

Truthfully, I should not have been surprised. Dog trainers have been talking about the looming pandemic puppy bubble that will burst. Puppies are in such high demand that poor breeding choices are being made en-masse and families are adopting puppies without realizing that their dog journey is about to look very different from what they pictured. This is due to everything from poor genetics, poor breeding, to puppies with no active socialization prior to the time they go home. Add in the reality that socializing a puppy during a pandemic takes significantly more effort than normal, and it’s a recipe for a lot of fearful puppies that are unfortunately being set up struggle.

So what can new puppy owners do?

Socialize! Socialize! Socialize! Your puppy needs to be socialized with other puppies, people, surfaces, noises and objects! It’s a lot, but let’s break down how to do this during a pandemic.

Socializing your puppy with other puppies is easy when you have group puppy classes to attend. But right now, a lot of these classes are online or not happening at all. So how can you socialize them with puppies? Most communities will have online Facebook groups for either dog owners, or the general community. Post there and see who else has a puppy! Try to target puppies that are close to the age of your puppy (1-2 months) and set up an outdoor meet up. You can always drop the leashes (as long as they are attached to a harness) and let them play together. Dropped leashes help with safety if it’s not a fenced in area. Ideally you should have 3 puppy playdates a week, but do the best you can! Remember that playtime should be fun, so if your puppy or another puppy is showing signs of fear, you might need to interrupt the play often to give them breaks, or find a different partner.

Your puppy should meet 100 people by 12 weeks of age. Yep, you read that right. How can you do that during a pandemic? Firstly, even if you cannot gather with people to socialize your puppy, you can still go outside! So head outside with your puppy, a treat pouch full of high value treats, and go somewhere you know where you will see people. Once you see someone, stop and let your puppy look. As soon as they see the person, give them a treat. If people want to come up to your puppy and they can pet your puppy (this is up to you and the current restrictions in your area), drop treats on the ground when they interact with the person or even just have the person talk to your puppy while you drop treats. We want our puppies to think that new people = delicious things. You also want to try and find people on bikes, skateboards, rollerblades, etc. You can definitely get to 100 people by 12 weeks even during a pandemic. You’ve just got to be creative!

To socialize your puppy with new surfaces and objects, capitalize on your time spent outside finding people and check out the environment for socialization opportunities. Empty playgrounds are a great source of surfaces and objects to introduce your puppy. When you are introducing a new surface or object, start slow and work at your puppy’s pace. That means you never force your puppy to interact, they decide if they are ready. Pair the surfaces and objects with treats by putting some treats on or near them. This helps to create that positive mental association.

Sounds are important to socialize your puppy with. Especially sounds like thunder and fireworks. Youtube is a fantastic source of sounds for socialization that you don’t have readily in your community. Make sure to work slowly with sounds. If you are playing them on speakers, start low and as the sound plays, give your puppy treats. Slowly work to increasing sound.

A special note on agency: Your puppy needs to have a choice during socialization. Socialization can backfire when we force a fearful puppy to interact with things that they are scared of. Your puppy will not just “get over it” and forcing them to interact with their fears typically increases their fear. So if your puppy isn’t running up to people and looks hesitant, work with that. Reward them at a distance where they will take treats and make them realize they have some control. This means it’s important to know what fear looks like. There are great resources out there to help you learn including Sophia Yin’s Signs of Fear and Anxiety, and Lili Chin’s Doggie Language book.

Finally, if your puppy is fearful and this isn’t improving, it’s time to reach out to a certified science-based trainer. Fear is not something that will typically just resolve itself nor is it something with a quick fix. But the sooner you get professional help for your puppy, the sooner you’ll be on your way to increasing your puppy’s confidence. Please reach out to me if you need some direction. We can either work together, or I can help you find someone to work with. But know you’re not alone and there is something you can do to work on this.

Does your dog ignore you?

A common complaint I hear from clients is: My dog just ignores me. I ask him to come, or tell him to stay, and he totally ignores me!

Do you also get frustrated with your dog not listening to you? If so, the good news is that your dog is not purposely ignoring you. Instead, the most likely thing happening is a failure in communication.

Common issues that lead to our dogs “ignoring us” are all communication based. That being said, we shouldn’t ever expect our dogs to listen to us 100% of the time. I’m not saying you can’t expect to have a well trained dog if you put the effort in, but instead that dogs are not robots. They’re going to have bad days, they’re going to have good days, and they’re going to have moments where they just can’t focus on what you are asking them right then. But if you feel like your dog is ignoring you most of the time, you’ve got a problem with communication.

What can you do to improve communications with your dog?

  1. Stop repeating their name all of the time. We humans LOVE to repeat names. We do it to get attention from other people all of the time (any parent will know this). But when we do this to our dogs, they just learn to ignore it. If you say your dog’s name and they don’t respond to you, wait. You can try to make some noises (other than their name) to get their attention such as kissing sounds, clicks, etc. But DO NOT repeat their name until it’s been at least 10 seconds.
  2. Stop setting up your dog for failure. I know you do not mean to do this. But we all end up with high expectations for what our dogs can accomplish and this leads to setting them up for failure. When we practice something like our recall, in a dog park full of dogs, while our dog is mid-play and having a blast, we are setting up for failure unless we have been systematically and slowly practising up to get up to this moment. If you think there is a good chance your dog won’t respond right away, then don’t ask them for that skill in that moment. Instead, as in the park recall example, go get your dog when it’s time to go. When we keep practising skills when our dogs are not set up to succeed, we are teaching them to ignore us. It’s not on purpose, but that’s what they are learning.
  3. Stop repeating the cue. Just like their names, when we keep repeating the cue non-stop, we are teaching our dogs that we don’t actually expect them to respond on the first go. So instead, if you’ve asked your dog for a skill that you KNOW they can perform in that situation, just wait. Don’t even make noises here, just wait and give them time. Some days, just like us, our dogs take a bit longer to process information. If after 10 seconds they haven’t done the skill or they disengage, then it’s time to move to something easier and try again later.
  4. Don’t fade out treats too quickly. Food is the best way for our dogs to learn, and it makes the learning fun and safe. But we always get to a point where we are maybe tired of dishing a cookie out for every single sit. That’s fair and after our dogs have mastered their skills, we can start to fade out food rewards, but if we do it too quickly, before our dogs really get it, then we risk them failing in the future. So when should you fade out food? You can safely fade out food once your dog has (1) generalized a cue for the skill. That means, you can give them the cue in all the rooms of your house, outside, on the sidewalk, in a park, etc. Your dog should also be (2) responding quickly to the cue – within a couple of seconds – and should be performing the skill properly. Finally, your dog should be (3) able to perform the skill when the cue is given from someone else.
  5. Don’t have food in your hand when you are training. Unfortunately, sometimes we end up teaching our dogs that we are going to ask for a particular cue, when we have food in our hands. This is a common issue for new dog owners. You’re all juggling a new dog, learning how to speak dog, learning how to teach and trying to deliver rewards effectively. It’s a LOT. So if you’re bad for this, don’t worry. Instead, just start to put the food away and only grab it once the dog has done their skill. That means, keep your hands out of your treat pouch or pocket. Instead, reach for the treat AFTER they performed the skill. It’s important to note that you may still need food in your hands when you are still luring your dog to teach a new skill. This is okay, but as soon as we have that skill on a cue, or we are not luring anymore, we shouldn’t be holding food while we ask for that skill.

If you’re not a regular offender of the 5 items I listed above, they’re still good tips to have you improving your training in no time. If you’ve found yourself doing any of the five items above, rest assured you can fix things. Stick to the tips I’ve provided and you’ll see that your dog will stop ignoring you in no time. Because they really don’t mean to!

To sniff or not to sniff

Buffy enjoys some off leash sniffing.

To sniff or not to sniff, that is the question. In fact, dog trainers often get asked this question by clients. Is it bad to let their dogs sniff on walks so much instead of keeping them in a tight heel or perfect loose leash walk. Some dog trainers who come from a control based background would tell their clients that yes, you should always set the terms of the walk and you should not let your dog sniff unless it’s convenient for you. They might even say that sniffing can somehow get them too excited and make them unruly, or worse, dominant. 

The good news is, the dominance theory was debunked a long time ago, so your dog is never actually trying to dominate you. Let’s start at the basics instead. Why do dogs like to sniff so much?

Dogs are designed to be super sniffers. In general, a dog’s nose is 100,000 to 1,000,000 times more sensitive than a human’s nose. In fact, the space in their brains allocated to processing smells is seven times larger than that of a human. Dogs are genetically designed to be super sniffers and to see the world through their noses. If you didn’t know, their eyesight isn’t as good as ours and they don’t see nearly as many colours. Truly, their most powerful sense is their sense of smell. 

So why should you let your dog sniff on walks? 

  1. They are practising a natural behaviour

Enrichment got its start in the zoo world. It began as a way to create an environment and activities that would allow the captive animals to practice natural behaviours. Today, enrichment is defined in a more holistic approach that considers all of the needs of an animal and seeks to provide opportunities for those needs to be met. With dogs, that involves a variety of needs, but for the topic of sniffing, it involves the need to practice natural behaviours, specifically sensory stimulation, the strongest sense for a dog, is their sense of smell. 

  1. A citizen science study has demonstrated that when dogs are sniffing, their pulse lowers, indicating that sniffing helps our dogs to relax. 

A study by a group of citizen scientists involved 61 dogs. In this study, dogs were walked on a standard leash, a long line, and off leash. The study found that when dogs were off leash, they spent the most time sniffing, and when they were on a standard 1.5 meter leash, they sniffed the least amount of time. It’s easy to draw a conclusion that dogs, when given the choice, prefer to spend more time sniffing. This study also measured the pulse of dogs and found that their pulse decreased an average of 12% while sniffing. In fact, the more intense they sniffed, the more their pulse dropped.  

  1. A recently published study by Horowitz and Duranton (2019) found that dogs who were encouraged to sniff actually improved their emotional well being and became more optimistic. 

In this study, the authors worked with two groups of dogs: the control group and the experimental group. All dogs were given a cognitive bias test. This test helps to determine the emotional state of the dogs, specifically, if they are likely to respond with optimism to a new situation, or not. The control group was then instructed to work on heeling. The experimental group was instructed to work on nosework. Following their assignments, the dogs were then given the cognitive test again. The authors found that the responses from the dogs during the final tests showed that those in the experimental group became more optimistic. Whereas the control group that worked on heeling had no change in their test results. This demonstrates that allowing dogs more time to practice their natural foraging behaviour, through sniffing, improved their welfare. 

When we deny our dogs the ability to practice their critical natural behaviours, we are in essence denying them their ability to be dogs. It’s that simple. This doesn’t mean that we have to let our dogs dictate every walk and sniff that bush for twenty minutes, but it means we owe it to our dogs to include opportunities into their daily life, for sniffing. 

Just like other behaviours which can be seen as a nuisance in our human lives, such as digging, barking, and chewing. We can find a way to integrate sniffing into their lives in a constructive way which allows our dogs to have their needs met. 

The next time you are walking and you’re not in a rush, let your dog dictate the pace. Let them use their nose to sniff out all of the smells in the snow, the leaves, the grass, etc. If your dog has gotten too used to not sniffing, you can encourage them to put their nose to the ground by taking some treats and sprinkling them into the grass. 

My last words of wisdom: if anyone ever tells you that your dog shouldn’t be allowed to sniff, or that sniffing is somehow bad for them, point them in the direction of the science and continue to let your dog live its best and most fulfilled life. 

The importance of clarity in methods and tools

I thought long and hard about what I wanted to post as the first blog post of my new training company’s website. I thought about posting something related to the common issues dog owners struggle with. Something about loose leash walking, teaching a solid ‘leave it’ cue, and the all important recall. But then I realized the most important thing I should post about first: what training methods and tools will dogs be exposed to at Stoked Dogs. Why do I think it’s important? I’ve seen dog trainers who have hidden their methods from owners before. I’ve seen them promote the use of ‘tools’ without ever stating what those tools are. Worse yet, I’ve seen trainers promote the use of tools and methods ‘humane’ when they are anything but. So I’m going to be upfront about what I use, which is something that every professional dog trainer should be doing.

What do I mean by “methods”? Methods, in dog training, can refer to procedures to accomplish a particular goal. We have lots of options for methods in dog training. With the four quadrants of operant conditioning, we have methods that utilize positive punishment, positive reinforcement, negative punishment and negative reinforcement. All of these methods can be applied with different tools. We also have classical conditioning options such as sensitization, and desensitization.

For tools, we’re talking about what we will use along with the methods. Tools can be food, toys, leashes, harnesses, kongs, shock collars, prong collars, even loud sounds and spray bottles.

So what methods will you see used at Stoked Dogs? The main method that we will use, is Positive Reinforcement. Positive Reinforcement training is often referred to as reward based training and science-backed training. Why? Because it utilizes rewards to teach your dog skills, which is the method that behavioural science studies have found to be at least as, if not more so, effective than punishment based training, and does not have the potential negative fallout of punishment based training (punishment based training methods involve typically the use of tools such as shock collars, prong collars, and techniques such as pinning and hanging the dog).

Buffy and Cody demonstrating some of the tools regularly used including: high value treats, toys, a long line, muzzle, enrichment toys and a dumbbell for obedience training.

The tools that will be utilized at Stoked Dogs include treats, management of the environment, praise, toys, enrichment plans and items, games, and play.

So, to be crystal clear, at Stoked Dogs, you will never be asked to use a shock collar, a prong collar, a choke chain, collar pops, alpha rolls, hanging, helicoptering, or yelling. Instead, you will be taught to use the most effective and humane methods by using rewards, management of the environment, education, and compassion.

The goal in training isn’t to control your dog. The goal is to understand your dog, meet its needs and find humane ways to alter or eliminate problem behaviours so that you can develop a life-long happy relationship built on trust.