Two Tips to Undo Pushy Tricks You Wish You Had Not Taught

My dog Karma has a fun trick.  If I hold out my hands and say, “Hup!” she jumps up into my arms and I catch her.  After demonstrating this trick, I often do another variation.  I extend my arms and say, “I caught a fish this big.”

My gestures are the same, but my words are different.  Karma does not jump.  People quickly see that her trick necessitates control.  I do not want her leaping into some poor unsuspecting person’s face as they gesticulate wildly.

Most families aren’t teaching their dogs to jump up into their arms.  Most do teach obnoxious tricks such as speak and shake a paw.  Cute in a young puppy, they become irritating when not controlled.  When dogs use their paws like battering rams, it’s a trick people regret.  It’s all fun and games until Grandma is bleeding.

Few people know how to finish behaviour – to place them under stimulus control.  This means that the dog should do behaviour ONLY if asked.

If you have already created a monster, it’s not too late to fix it.

Begin by reviewing the trick in question.  In the video below, I have used shake a paw as our example.  I personally do not like being accosted by a dog’s paw.  Karma needs to offer her right paw, and she needs to do so gently.  Fix these types of problems at this stage of the training.

Next, add the command.  In training, we often say cue instead of command because the word command can come across as bit too “dictator”.  Essentially, we are talking one and the same.  Think very carefully, about what your cue should be.  For Karma’s paw shake, I want her to respond to the word, “right.”

Finally, start drilling for stimulus control.  Present a random selection of cues to the dog that are similar to the one you have chosen.  Mix these with the actual cue.  In the example, sometimes I offer Karma my hand, but fail to say the word, “right.”

Here is big trick number one.  The dog has TWO opportunities to earn reinforcement.  It is a lot like red and green light.

Stimulus Control red light green light
“Right” = shake a paw.
No “right” cue = no paw.

Both of these are correct.  Reinforce both.  If we fail to acknowledge, mark and pay the self-control, the “red light”, there is no incentive for the dog to hold back.  Cookies are eventually earned as long as the dog keeps swatting their paw.

If we do reinforce the dog for holding back, they can earn double the number of cookies.  That is some serious incentive and motivation.  Pay all right responses.

As for the second big tip – extinction sucks.  Extinction is when we stop giving treats for a behaviour with a history of being paid.  This results in a frustrated dog.  The problem typically becomes worse before it gets better.  That is called an extinction burst.  The dog, frustrated at the lack of reinforcement tries harder.

Extinction bursts are not a pleasant way for dogs to learn.  Families with pets can also become frustrated at the escalation of problem behaviour.  Standing still, holding out your arm for pummeling is not pleasant for anyone.

Reduce extinction bursts by phasing in the red light portion of the exercise.  Do not offer your arm directly to the dog.  Try holding it off to the side at first.  The dog may not recognize it as a sign for shake a paw.  This means they might ignore it.  You can get in some quick and dirty reinforcements for ignoring your outstretched hand.

Gradually, bring your hand closer.  There will likely be a few incorrect responses.  With a strong reinforcement history on both red light and green light scenarios, extinction bursts become extinction hiccoughs.

The following video details Karma’s progression through the steps.  You’ll see her pausing and sorting out the “rules” of the game.

As silly as a trick may be, finishing one little trick to completion builds dog training skills.  If you can build stimulus control for shake a paw, you can apply this skill toward many behaviours your dog ought to know.

Which sort of skills might benefit from stimulus control?  You decide.

Do you love me for the treats?

One day, something magical happened with Kip.  I share his story because I find that it gives people hope.

Helping a challenging dog is more than mechanics.  It is an emotional rollercoaster.  As a trainer, I might have the experience to know this is true.  Someone forgot to tell my heart.
rehab is a rollercoast
One problem in particular hurt.  Kip would not sleep on the bed at night.  Perhaps that seems insignificant.  Maybe some people might welcome that problem.  Think about what it says when a dog moves off the bed each time you arrive and only when you arrive.  It says, “I am aversive to my dog,” meaning that my dog wants to avoid me.

Sleep, in my opinion, is a vulnerable time.  Living in the wild, it makes perfect sense to hunker down in a hole.  Predators are less likely to find you.  In a human house, there should be no need to hide.  I took it upon myself to change his mind.

The plan was not particularly difficult.  Kip felt uncomfortable when I got into bed.  To address this, I brought treats with me.  I would feed him treats.  Eventually I started feeding him while I scratched his ear.

Kip only stayed as long as the treats were present.  Shortly after the last morsel disappeared, he would scamper to his safe corner on the floor.

Do not let anyone tell you that doesn’t have the potential to hurt.  Who wants to entertain the idea that your dog will only stay next to you if you have food?  Gutted is the feeling that washes over you the moment you realized that your dog only wants the treat and not you.

Flipping the proverbial coin, I wondered how Kip felt.  How does it feel living life avoiding people and other things that are safe?  Avoidance might be a life saving option for a feral dog that is living in the wild.  So long as we avoid conflict, we can avoid fighting and aggression.  The absence of blustering does not mean that the dog enjoys the presence of others, nor does it mean that the dog feels safe.

Much of the first part of our life together, I suppose Kip and I were much like the couple who cohabitate through successful avoidance.  So long as we were busy doing things, life was good.  We interacted through tricks and training.  In the quiet moments, his subtle avoidance that stood out as an indication that the trust between us was not where it needed to be.

Despite the hurt, each night I’d grab a handful of treats.

Pet – treat.  Belly scratch – treat.

After months of doing so, I resigned myself to the fact that perhaps life would always be like this with him.  It hurt.  There is something comforting about the idea that not all dogs are social butterflies.  Which I suppose is a thinly veiled way of saying, “It’s not me.”  It truly was not me.  He was born that way, touch sensitive and high anxiety.  It still hurt.

Then one night, it happened.  I went to bed, treats in hand.  As he finished the last crumb, I realized that he stayed.  I continued to scratch behind his ear.  He leaned into me.  His paws went up over his muzzle, rubbing his face in that way that means, “I am happy.”  He wanted to stay.  He momentarily placed his head on my knee.

I want to stay.

I want to stay.

Somewhere along the way, it stopped being about the treats.  In behaviour modification terms, he developed a positive conditioned emotional response.  The positive interactions we had with the treats transferred to our relationship.  Ear scratches and belly rubs became positive in their own right.  Kip felt safe enough to stay on the bed, open to the approach of others.

I did not need to have Kip on the bed.  To me it was a significant reflection of how Kip felt about his people and his personal space.  Certainly, many dogs prefer to sleep on the floor for other reasons.

We do not always do rehab because a problem needs fixing.  Failing to address fears means that the dog misses the joy that social interaction can bring.  We miss out on living a life where we can interact with our dogs without worrying that we are aversive to them. We create positive emotional responses so we can thrive rather than survive.

At the end of the day, we cannot force a dog to like us.  We can only invest our time and energy into giving all of our heart, hoping that we create trust.

Faith – not blind faith – but scientific faith gets us there.  If the means and method are sound, the results will follow.

If we do that, we might be surprised to find that one day it happens.  One day, it stops being all about the treats.