Sunday, February 26, 2017

Puppy Snooze Button

A quiet Dakota peers at me from beneath the blanket

Dakota is an alarm clock. As soon as it hits 7 a.m., she sits up in her crate next to my side of the bed and looks at me. And then she whines.

When she was a young puppy, I would take her outside as soon as I heard her start to fuss because that was her way of telling me she needed to go outside. Unfortunately, it quickly became a habit, and now she starts whining at 7 a.m. every weekend. Dog is 8 months old now. She doesn't need to go out immediately anymore.

It’s my own fault she whines. I created the pattern: Dog wakes up, dog whines, human gets up, human lets dog outside. Even though I would wait until she stopped whining, I didn’t wait long enough for her to disassociate her whining with the opening of the crate door. In her mind, she whined and a few minutes later, the create door opened. Magic!

Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m a morning person. In the winter, I like to be up and out of bed by 7 a.m. on weekends. In the summer, it’s even earlier. It was just natural for me to take the dogs outside soon after I woke up. But in doing so, I created a whining monster puppy.

Something needed to change.

I knew she was capable of staying quiet when I got out of bed. During the week, I get up at 4:30 a.m. so I can be at the gym by 5:30. Little dog doesn’t even crack her eyes open anymore. When I first got her as a tiny puppy, she’d whine while I got up to get ready for the gym, but since it was so ridiculously early, I just ignored her. After 2-3 weeks of whining, she stopped and kept right on sleeping.

Why I never applied the same rules to her 7 a.m. whining on weekends baffles me. I should know better. It was time for some tough love, because as a service dog, Dakota needs to be silent in her crate. She’ll be spending time crated in advanced training, and her future partner will undoubtedly need to crate her sometimes. Besides, her future partner might not be a morning person. Even if Kota’s not crated, she can’t be waking up her future partner at 7 a.m. every morning.

So after assuring my fiancĂ© (who likes to sleep in on weekends) that Kota’s whining would soon go away if we completely ignored her, I began Operation Puppy Snooze Button.

When the clock hit 7 a.m., I got out of bed like I wanted to. But instead of just waiting for Dakota to be quiet for a few minutes before letting her out of her crate, I ignored her completely. I got a cup of coffee and my book, and curled up on the couch to read.

Well, Dakota wasn’t happy with this turn of events, and she whined. She’d stop for a few minutes, and then whine again. Sorry, pup, I can’t hear you!

Half an hour and two cups of coffee later, she was still alternating between a few minutes of silence and awful, high-pitched whines. Since my fiancé was still trying to sleep, I decided I needed to do something.

Dog was staying her crate, though. No way was I rewarding her for whining for 30 minutes. So I covered her crate with a blanket and went back to my book. The blanket seemed to do the trick. She whined once or twice, and then I heard a grumbly “Hrmphf!” as she flopped down.

And then nothing. Absolute silence for 35 glorious minutes.

When I came to a good stopping spot in my book, I let her out and we continued with our morning.

Dakota’s a quick study, so I’m hoping that after a few more weekends, she’ll stop her 7 a.m. alarm clock whining and simply wait quietly until I let her out of her crate.

In other news, I can now feed Kotes and Fire in the same room! Instead of morphing into a mindless food monster as soon as I fill her food dish, Kota continues to remain a thinking dog. She eats at a normal pace, even though Fire’s only halfway across the room, and when she finishes, she licks her bowl completely clean. When every last drop of flavor is gone, she looks at me instead of trying to dive into Fire’s bowl. Little puppy waits for me to tell her “okay” before she tries to lick Fire’s bowl clean. Puppy’s come a long way! Someday, I should be able to feed them right next to each other, just like she’ll one day be fed in advanced training.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Power of a Click

"Hi, human! Look at me walking here! Just checking in to get a treat!"

The clicker is a powerful thing.

For those of you who are new to my blog, Susquehanna Service Dogs uses clicker training to train all their dogs. It’s based on positive reinforcement. Every time the dog does something you want, you click and give the dog a treat. What dog wouldn’t love that? The clicker is also a very precise way to communicate with your dog. It marks a specific behavior or moment in time.

And it’s powerful. Let’s take loose leash walking. Well-timed clicks can transform a dog from one who pulls on the end of the leash into one who walks right next to you on a loose leash.

Of course, poorly timed clicks can turn your dog, who used to walk perfectly on a loose leash, into a dog who continually pulls to the end of her leash.

Now let’s take Dakota. When Dakota was a puppy, she used to walk beautifully on a loose leash. She’d stay right next to me, and the leash would be in a perfect, loose J shape. I was pretty proud of how nicely she walked. As she grew older, however, her perfect loose leash walking started to fall apart. She’d take a few steps right next to me, and I'd click and treat, but then she’d trot quickly ahead until she was at the end of her leash. And after that initial click, she'd keep pulling to the end of her leash.

SSD teaches puppy raisers to use penalty yards when dogs pull on the leash. Basically, when the dog starts getting too far ahead, you simply walk backward—the penalty yards—until the dog is back by your side. Then you walk forward again, clicking and treating after a few steps.

Well, penalty yards weren’t working with Dakota. Oh, she’d come back and stay right beside me for a few steps, but as soon as I clicked and treated her, she’s trot ahead again. We’d do more penalty yards, she’d take a few perfect loose-leash steps, I’d click, and she’s zip ahead again. More penalty yards, and well, you get the picture. We were getting nowhere. In fact, we were literally moving backward.

I chalked up her poor loose leash walking to being a teenager. When dogs hit those teenage years, at least half of what they learned goes flying out of their head. I figured little teenage Dakota thought the world was too interesting, so I tried what I did with teenage Doppler—I clicked and treated much more often. As soon as I gave ‘Kota a treat, I’d click again while she was still walking next to me.

Her loose leash walking got WORSE the more I clicked. So frustrating, because I thought I was doing everything right! I was doing the penalty yards. I was clicking while she was next to me. Why wasn’t it working?

That’s when I realized the problem wasn’t a teenage Dakota. The problem was ME. I was inadvertently clicking Dakota for walking quickly to the end of her leash.

See, I discovered that immediately after ‘Kota got her treat, she’d take 3-4 really fast steps. When I clicked right after giving her a treat, I was actually clicking her for walking really fast. Because the clicker marks an exact behavior, Dakota thought I was clicking her for walking fast. Of course, she kept walking fast which quickly put her at the end of her leash. After all, she’d been trained all her life to continue doing the thing she’d been clicked for. Walking fast became the behavior instead of loose leash walking.

Once I figured that out, I took a moment with her to simply click and treat for attention. I wanted to give both of us a chance to reset and focus. When we started walking again, I began delaying my clicks. Instead of clicking immediately after giving her a treat, I let her take those 3-4 fast “yay, I got a treat!” steps while I kept a steady pace. And what do you know, after her four fast steps, she slowed down, looked at me, and readjusted her pace to mine.

After a few nice steps—click, treat! I kept walking at a steady pace and waited for her to finish her fast “yay, treat!” steps and again, she readjusted her pace to mine and checked in with me. Once she had walked a few steps nicely with me, I clicked again.

Within five clicks, she stopped going anywhere near the end of her leash. She still took a few fast steps but she never went farther than a head and shoulders ahead of me before she re-matched her pace with mine. And she continually checked in with me instead of focusing only on the environment around her.

My loose leash walking puppy was back, thanks to the power of the clicker!

There are still times when Dakota sees the most interesting thing in the world and goes to the end of her leash. When that happens, I still give her penalty yards until she comes back to me. But now I know that when we start walking forward again, I need to be very precise with my click.