Generalizing good behavior

One of the things that trips people up in dog training is this concept of generalization. If I, as a human, learn that I should look at someone when they’re speaking, then I know that that rule is likely to be true whether I’m home, at the grocery store, at a park, with my friends, or in another state. The idea that I need to generalize knowledge doesn’t even enter our consciousness, because in many (if not most) cases we do it automatically.

Dogs, however, do not. If I teach my dog “sit” while we’re at home, he’s not going to also assume that “sit” means the same thing when we’re at the park, visiting friends, having guests over, etc. As far as dogs are concerned, the rules change every time the situation changes. If you want your dog to do the same thing in different situations, you have to practice in different situations. (This is why I’m always going on about, “Now practice recall out front, out back, at the park, down the street…”)

Take Cash. Over the last month I decided I was going to try out a new theory. This theory says that, according to research, dogs in the wild don’t behave like wolves.* One of the notable differences is that when they go hunting, the alpha dogs don’t walk in front: the social dogs do. So I thought, “Huh. I’ll try it out; I’ll let my dogs walk ahead of me and see if anything happens.” (I have a whole post in my head on theories and research about dog behavior, so I won’t get into the details now about walking ahead vs walking beside and why I think it makes such a difference, but it does.)

After a few weeks, when Cash had gotten pretty good at walking ahead of me and I decided I didn’t like it anymore, I had to reverse the problem I’d created. I also decided to try the sitting technique, and see if that taught him faster than other techniques I’ve tried.** Every time Cash started to pull ahead of me, I stopped walking. He would sit down, but he’d sit down a foot in front of me: when we started walking again, he was already ahead. So I modified it: every time he got ahead of me, I not only stopped walking but backed up, bringing him back with me and realigning him. I then gave him a verbal cue. (Since I’d told him he didn’t have to listen to my body language by allowing him to walk ahead, I now needed something more obvious. Also, I kind of like the thought that I can SOMETIMES let him wander ahead on-leash, but that means I need verbal cues.) I said, “Heel.”

At first, I was stopping every few feet. Because Cash already knows how to walk beside me, though, it didn’t take him long to realize that we were back to that old thing. Within about three days, our walks looked like this:

We’d leave the house. I’d make him sit. I’d say, “Heel,” and he would. I’d have to stop 2-4 times, depending on how distracted he was, by the third house we passed. After that he got in the groove. I might have to stop another 1-2 times to remind him over the span of a 20 minute walk if I wanted him to be perfectly head to hip (and not drift a few inches here or there).***

I was happy with that.

Yesterday, we went to run some errands. First, we dropped the car off at the mechanic for a tune-up. From there, we walked to the bank, the clothing store, the pet store, and finally Starbucks. I was telling Cash to stop and sit every few feet for three blocks before he started to get it.**** Why? Generalizing.

He’d learned that at home in our neighborhood, he had to walk nicely beside me. That doesn’t, in his mind, mean he has to do that when we’re downtown. On top of that, he has motivation to ignore me downtown: people petting him, new things to sniff, cars, dogs, pedestrians, lights, shops, blasts of A/C from shop doors, the caw of crows, alleyways, trash cans, benches, a LOT of other dog pee — overload! It took me far longer to get him to focus than it does in our neighborhood because there was SO MUCH going on. Once he did focus, he got it faster than he did at home because we were doing something he knew. So, let’s look at timing:

At home, it took me the first five minutes of our walk to get him to focus when he was first learning this. After that he still messed up — a lot — but he was at least paying attention.

Downtown, it took twenty minutes to get him to focus and even think about paying attention, even though he wasn’t learning anything new.

At home, it took several walks before he really understood what I wanted, and got it right most of the time with just a few reminders when we started out.

Downtown, once he started focusing, he understood right away, and still needed a few reminders (distractions!) but was really very good.

The frustrating thing is that first twenty minutes of him being completely unfocused and brain dead. Even though I know what’s going on, it’s still frustrating. The thing to remember is that once they do get it, they get it fast: they’re not learning something new, they’re learning that what they already know applies here, as well!

For the record, even I lost my patience. I’d back up and say, “What is the MATTER with you?” even though I knew what was the matter with him. Then I’d take a breath, remind myself he wasn’t doing it on purpose or trying to be bad, and start again. (It’s always easier to be completely calm with other peoples’ dogs than with your own!)

So the next time you have friends over and you want to show them your dog’s awesome trick… remember that you might have to re-train the trick first, because your dog probably hasn’t generalized to “guests!”



*Insomuch as we have any idea of how wolves behave. That’s a much murkier topic than you’d think, given the way people talk about it.

**I can’t say that it worked faster, but it did so with him staying calm instead of getting stressed. He has a low stress threshold when it comes to training, so I already knew that would be the case! He does best with positive reinforcement… but I never remember his treats.

***Hello, my name is Jenna, and I’m a perfectionist. I have to remind myself that just because he’s drifted a few inches doesn’t mean I need to consider it “wrong.” It’s a few inches. Get a grip, Jenna. On the other hand, I consider it progress that I can at least recognize that. I also recognize that if I saw another dog walking as well as Cash walks, I would think, “Wow, they did their work. Nicely done!” In turn, that reminds me that those few inches are not the end of the world. Once I realize that, I can usually apply it to myself and Cash. Being a recovering perfectionist is seriously hard work!

****I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped for several seconds every time you take 3-4 steps, but it makes things verrrrrry slow going and kind of annoying.


PS the holidays are coming! Now might be a good time to check out how to prepare your dog for the holidays by clicking on the holiday training posts!


Dogs and distraction (aka: my house-trained dog keeps peeing in my mom’s house!)

Hi, all!

Well, I packed up Cash, Lily, and Tango and we drove 8 hours to Southern California to visit with my family. We’re having a great time!

Every time we come to SoCal, though, I have this issue with Cash: he pees in my mom’s house. There are only two houses  he pees in — this one, and my friend K’s house. K’s dog had marked all over, and my mom’s dog was unspayed for several years and took some time to housebreak. In both cases, there are GREAT dog scents to replace with his own!

The hardest thing about your dog doing something that you know they know not to do is believing they did it. Did that make sense? Probably not. Let me give an example.

Mom: …I think Cash peed up here.
Me: What? No. He’s housebroken. Are you sure it wasn’t Sheba?
Mom: Sheba lives here and hasn’t peed in the house in a year.
Me: But she used to. Maybe the stress has brought it out?
Mom: That’s more pee than she has.
Me: But Cash is house trained.

Do you see what’s going on here? First, I’m having a hard time believing that Cash did something he knows he’s not supposed to. But even more importantly, what’s going on here is that whether or not it’s Cash, I’m not taking steps to find out or deal with the problem. So. I swallowed my dog-trainer pride several visits ago (it took several visits, I’m embarrassed to admit), and I realized I had a problem.

Now I had a bigger problem: since I hadn’t swallowed my pride earlier, this had become a habit. To fix it, I needed to first assess the situation.

1. He always pees upstairs, on the carpet.
2. He pees both when we’re home and when we’re gone, at night and during the day. There is no specific spot nor a specific time.

Now I can figure out what to do. Ready? Here we go:

First, I started sleeping downstairs. This gives him NO REASON WHATSOEVER to go upstairs. (I can’t sleep downstairs at Christmas, so we’ll have to change things then, but it’s a start.) Next, I chased him downstairs any time I caught him upstairs. I made a big production out of it, hissing my heart out and making him think he was going to die. As soon as his feet hit the downstairs, I stopped. That is his safe zone. I want him to stop going upstairs, because that’s the only common thread: it’s always upstairs. Therefore, he needs to stay downstairs.

The first few days I spend a lot of time either following Cash around (best, so I can catch him and scold him) or keeping him near me (worst, because he’s not learning; I’m just managing). Which I do depends on how much energy I have. Everyone needs breaks, and I know my own limits! Sometimes I even put him outside to play, so I don’t have to think about it.

At night, he stays in the bedroom with me so he can’t sneak off and pee somewhere. This means I don’t get much sleep, and I need some extra decaf coffee in the morning. (The sugar matters. *grins*)

I know after a few days of this, we’re probably in the clear. Regardless, I go check upstairs daily because I need to know if it’s working! If he sneaks off, I go follow him as quietly as possible.

When I’m tired and cranky and I want to throttle him, I take a deep breath and I remember: there will be setbacks. We are dealing with this. It’s not a personal shame that my dog has accidents. Now, take a look at the title of this blog post: Dogs and distractions. An unneutered, male dog in a new place, with new scents, and new dogs and new people, left to his own devices, might just get swept up in a really cool scent and want to tell the OTHER dogs, “Hey, I was here too!” In that moment, he might be too excited to remember what he’s supposed to do human-wise, and instead follow what his instincts say he’s supposed to do. Which is, leave his calling card — urine.

This is my job: remember that my dog is distracted. My dog, like all other dogs, is imperfect. If I can acknowledge that this is just him, being a dog and managing a human world as best he can — with occasional slip-ups — then I remember that I just need to guide him through it when he forgets. I also need to remember that he’s most likely to forget when he’s distracted. Doesn’t that sound compassionate and happy? It involves a lot of deep breaths and grinding of teeth!

So, next time your dog does the unexpected… remember that it’s not a reflection on you. Take a deep breath. Stop grinding your teeth. Accept that it happened, and take steps to solve it! It, or something like it, will happen again when your dog is distracted. Life is better when I’m not a perfectionist. *grins*


Fault and responsibilty

There are two things I hear most often when I go to someone’s house to help with their dog. They are:

“I know it’s my fault.”


“It’s just because that other dog provoked my dog.”

As with so many other things, moderation is key.

“I know it’s my fault.”

Until recently, this blog had a look that was slightly difficult to read and navigate. That was my fault. Should I feel guilty about that? Did I slop it together and say, “I don’t care if it’s user friendly! Pah!”? Of course not. I put together a blog that was as good as my abilities could make it. When I then had time, I did a little more research and figured out how to make it better.

So, let’s look at this phrase again: “It’s my fault.” Yes… and no. Like me with my blog, when a dog’s owner sees their dog start to have problems, they do the best they can with their knowledge and experience. Owners who realize they’re out of their league and have the time and/or money to do research are then able to add to their knowledge, with better outcomes.

Whenever someone says to me, “My dog jumps on people, and I know it’s my fault,” I respond with, “You did the best you could with the information you had. Now you will have more information!” No one should be castigated for not having ALL the information. In this day and age, no one can have all the information on everything! You do the best you can with the information you have. If that isn’t good enough, hopefully you’re able to get help via books, blogs, or experts. Feeling guilty because you couldn’t solve the problem yourself isn’t helpful for anyone. You did the best you could with the information you had. Now it’s time to get more information or help.

“It’s just because that other dog provoked my dog.”

The flip side of taking all the blame is, of course, the denial of responsibility. “My dog attacked this dog, but this dog provoked it.” This isn’t helping anyone, either. If you shift responsibility, you can’t solve the problem. We can’t control other peoples’ dogs (much as I would like to, sometimes!). All we can do is ask our dogs to be AWESOME.

Lily was doing zoomies around a ranch (when your dog seems to lose their mind and RUNS AS FAST AS THEY CAN IN GREAT BIG LOOPS OHMYGODZOOOOOM!). The akita who lived on that ranch didn’t appreciate it. The akita came running over and lunged at Lily. I yelled, “Lily! DROP!” Thank goodness she did. The akita stopped attacking at her submission, and though the akita stayed there in a very aggressive posture, ready to attack again, it gave me time to run over and pull the akita away.

In this scenario, I would say the akita was at fault. A dog doing zoomies shouldn’t trigger an aggressive response in another dog. However, I can’t stop the akita’s behavior: I can only control Lily’s behavior. In the future at that ranch, I told Lily she couldn’t do zoomies. Is that fair? No, but it was safe.

There was another possible outcome, too. Lily could have not dropped when I told her to, which would be “normal” dog behavior. She could have defended herself. This would have been reasonable behavior in the face of being attacked, but it is not ideal behavior. If Lily had defended herself, there would have been a dog fight. In that case, who is at fault? Well, the akita started it. I could abdicate all responsibility and say, “It was the akita’s fault. Lily was just defending herself.” That would be true. It would be leaving out a key part, though: Lily and I could have stopped it. If Lily chooses to fight back, then she carries some fault as well. Since I can’t control the akita, I have to teach Lily what the correct choice is — in this case, not to fight back.

Most of the time, the provocation is less than this. Most of the time, the provocation is one dog standing over another while the other chews a toy. This is provocation and should be stopped. BUT, the dog chewing the toy should also learn to ignore that looming behavior, or walk away. Both parties have some fault in a dog fight.

“That dog was barking at my dog, so of course my dog barked back.” That dog was provoking your dog, no doubt. But your dog has a choice: to bark back, or to ignore the behavior. It’s up to you to teach which choice is correct.

So, let’s look at these phrases again:

“I know it’s my fault.” Did you do the best you could with the information you had? Are you now looking for more information? Then give yourself credit for that, and keep working on it. Don’t feel guilty just because you don’t know how to make it better. Simply continue trying to make it better.

“My dog reacted, but they were provoked. It was that other dogs’ fault.” Did your dog walk away? Did you put in the time and effort to try and teach them to walk away? Did you subtly, maybe unconsciously, encourage the behavior by not doing anything about it, or joining your dog in going after the other dog verbally, emotionally, or physically? Your dog has a choice. It’s up to us to teach them the right one.

In short, don’t blame yourself if you’ve done the best you can and things aren’t perfect, but don’t abdicate responsibility if something goes wrong or seems hard, either. Dog training is a tightrope, and the way through is through moderation!

Bird update:

Tango is 6 weeks old and looks something like this:

(Those bare spots on his neck and shoulder area are just where the feathers haven’t grown in. You see them in all baby greys!)


Having Perfect Dogs

People tell me my dogs are perfect. I’m here to tell you right now: NO dogs are perfect. Except seeing eye and police dogs, and those dogs retire around 6 or 7 typically because they burn out.

So, how do you have a perfect dog? Don’t expect perfection.

Not too long ago, I took my dogs to a rodeo school where a friend of mine was going to learn to ride bulls. My dogs have seen all sorts of livestock, but not bulls — and not bucking bulls! I didn’t expect them to be perfect. I am a perfectionist, and for a while I DID expect perfection of my dogs. Then I realized some things that were very important:

1. I’m not perfect, no matter how hard I try. If I can’t be perfect, and I’m supposed to be smarter than them, how can I expect them to be perfect in an exciting, sometimes scary, always confusing world?

2. Expecting perfection means that I am constantly disappointed. I love my dogs, and I want to make sure they know it!

So, I dropped perfection. Now I look for a few things: Are they being generally well behaved? The answer is usually yes! The other thing I look for is: Are they better this week than they were last month? Once more, the answer is usually yes! This one is especially important when I’m newly training a dog with lots of problems. The truth is, that dog isn’t going to be well behaved for a while — but he can still be better behaved than he was last month!

When I took my dogs to the rodeo, I didn’t expect perfection. I expected them to be dogs, to mess up, to listen as best they could, to be pretty well behaved, to need reminders, and to be their usual loving selves.

We took our place on the grandstands. I told them to go lay down, and I poured them a bowl of water, leaving it where they could get to it.  A few minutes later, someone walked by and said, “What nice dogs!” and reached to pet them.

Lily wagged, but stayed put. Cash leaped to his feet to help that hand get closer to his head. I had moved to the rail to get a better view, but I turned when I heard the person talking so I saw Cash stand up. I said, “Cash, lay down and then you can be petted.” (This is a sneaky trick, by the way: If I tell Cash he can lay down to get petted, then the person also realizes that Cash must lay down to get petted, and they wait! Otherwise, they reward him for standing up by petting him. If I tell them to wait until he lies down, they often tell me they don’t care if he jumps up, or they seem disgruntled. By correcting him, not them, the politics in the people world stay smooth!)

Cash didn’t lay down right away, but I just walked over, took his leash, and laid him down. Then I said, “Down,” told him he was good, and let the person pet him.

This happened several times, until the people walking past realized what was going on and actually started making him lay down before they petted him. If Lily didn’t get petted because she didn’t get up — better behaved dogs often get ignored, sadly! — then I made sure to pet her. Obviously, only when it’s a small group will people see what you’re doing and help enforce it, but regardless your dog will still learn!

After a while, Cash and Lily figured out they had to stay laying down. But twenty minutes passed and they got bored. Cash reached to sniff. I reminded him to stay put. Lily started skipping from sunshine to shade and back again. I reminded her to stay put (but released her after a while, so she could skip back and forth. By telling her to stay put, I reaffirmed that she had to stay. By releasing her to travel just a few feet in either direction, I was a nice person. Lily has been with me long enough to know the difference between, “Stay,” “Stay close,” and “You can be here or here [with pointing].”)

At lunch I gave them both bully sticks, which kept them occupied for another twenty minutes. In the late afternoon, when things — including them! — had calmed down, I released them and let them wander around the bleachers nearby. (Again, small group of people. Don’t do this in a crowd!) Occasionally they’d go too far and I’d call them, remind them of their boundaries. I always expected them to watch me, so that if I started to move they’d follow no matter what was going on. Twice I had to remind one of them by calling “Come on,” because they were distracted.

Were they perfect? No. But we had a great day, and the people around me were amazed at how good they were. Could I find a million and one flaws I’d like to see them be better about? Yes! But that would drive us all crazy.  There were a few things I needed them to be very good about: not barking. Lily didn’t care about the bulls, but as soon as Cash started staring I corrected him and made him look away. By keeping him from even staring, I was able to keep him from getting excited and barking. I was able to communicate to him that those bulls were part of our pack, and nothing to get excited about.

I also wanted my dogs to listen — and they did. They did admirably, in fact. They were there all day, and though they needed reminders of things, they did their best. They weren’t annoying, they didn’t become unmanageable, they listened, and they tried very hard. I couldn’t ask for more.

This is how you have perfect dogs:  don’t set unreasonable expectations, be proud of them for what they do well, and remember they have short attention spans. I would rather have an almost perfect dog who won’t burn out at 6 or 7 years than a perfect dog who needs to be retired young.

Perfect is overrated.