Threshold: What it is, and how to train with it.

Generally considered, a threshold is a point where one place becomes another: the point where one steps through a door and is considered in a different room or location.  We can use thresholds to describe emotional states as well: “I was on the threshold of an unholy rage.”

Your dog experiences thresholds as well.  The point at which your dog is intent on a stimulus, but is not reacting to it, is considered to be their threshold.  This is important to note, because when we are working with dogs on maintaining their emotional state of cool and calm, our goal is for that dog to never get ABOVE their threshold.  They should always stay below.

Usually, for that to happen, it’s important to stay a farther distance from the exciting stimulus, until you have helped the dog to relax and prepare themselves to move closer. This is why SATS can be so outstanding and helpful! We teach the dogs to remain calm as we push their threshold experience, but we always bring them back out again to a point where they will not react.  When you do that, it gives the dog a chance to experience some emotional tension, but have an opportunity to relax once more.

An example from this week is helping my friend Franklin to stay calm and focused around other dogs.  He does well at 50 feet, completely ignoring the other dog.  He does alright at 20 feet, showing calm interest in the other dog.  At 15 feet, his interest is intense, and is difficult to break through.  At 10 feet, he is shivering with anticipation and will lunge and bark at the slightest provocation (or just because he’s too massively excited).  20 feet is a good threshold for Franklin.

As you consider your own dog, and where to begin working with them on distraction training, consider the use of the threshold principal and how it may help you shoot to always help your dog be successful before intensifying their training experience!

Tips and Tricks: Crate Training

Whether you have just brought home a new puppy for the holidays (a well thought out family decision, I hope!), you have decided to adopt a pup in need, or you have a dog who has been with you for awhile, crate training can be an invaluable asset to keep the sanity for both you and your dog in your home.

Though some people may claim that crate training is inhumane, when done properly, dogs enjoy their crates just as we enjoy spending time in our own beds.  They give dogs a safe space to be alone and decompress.  They offer dogs a spot to call their own, to eat in peace, and to have a spot to go when they cannot be under their person’s feet.  Here are three simple steps to get you started on the right path to crate training!

 1. Get the right size crate!

This is an extremely important point.  If you have a large dog, it is unfair to ask them to spend several hours in a cramped, tight space.  Similarly, if you have a small dog, giving them too large a space does not encourage the relaxed, cave-like atmosphere that a crate can create.

As a rule of thumb, your dog should be able to stand in his crate without ducking his head, should be able to turn around comfortably, and should be able to lie down without being cramped.  Many pet stores will let you bring your dog to try out crate sizes, but if that’s not possible, measure your dog from nose to the base of his tail, and from the top of his head to the floor.  That way you will know to add several inches in each direction for your dog’s comfort.  Provide plenty of blankets and beds for your dog to snuggle in, but be careful if you have a breed that is prone to ingest things they shouldn’t.

2. Use food!

When I start my puppies out in their crates, that is where they are fed.  I carry their food bowl to the crate, and they have to go in before they get their breakfast and dinner.  If your dog is reluctant to step inside, consider putting their food at the back of their crate so they have to go in to reach it, or toss a treat in for them to follow, and then give them their dish.

When it is not feeding time, send your dog to his crate periodically by showing him a treat, and tossing it to the back with your command.  I use, “Go kennel,” but others will use things like “Go to your room,” “Go to bed,” or “Crate time.”  Choose what works best for you.

3. Use it wisely!

Consider your dog’s crate to be similar to a child’s room.  It is a place they can go when they need to be alone, and a safe space to be undisturbed.  It can also act as an appropriate Time Out space if your dog is being unmanageable or out of control in the house.  However, dogs were not made to spend the majority of their time in their crates.  Try to limit their crate time to times when they would usually be sleeping anyways.

This is how I do it at my house:

My dogs are crated when I am not at home.  This prevents any house-training accidents, counter surfing, and other behaviors that need to be corrected.

When I am at home, my dogs have plenty of outside play time.  When it is time to come inside, they are welcome to spend time loose in the house with me.  If they are acting wild (my young dog especially likes to try to wrestle in the living room), I will either send them back outside, or I will put them in the crate until they are calm again.

Before bed, I feed my dogs in their crates.  My young dogs who need supervision stay in their crates until morning.  My older dogs I let loose to spend the night loafing on dog beds around the house.

All About Puppies

Well, I suppose that is a misleading title.  All About Puppies could be an entire book.  An entire series of books.  There’s a lot to be said about puppies.  However, since I’m having the absolute joy of being able to help people with their new baby dogs, I thought I would put in a few words about puppies.

  1. Puppies are babies!

Sure, an 8 week old puppy is very different from an 8 week old human, but they are still babies, learning about the world, exploring, playing.  A puppy, even up to ages 6-8 months, cannot perform all of the tasks that an older dog can!  Not yet, anyway.  They are busy chasing leaves and playing tag.  It’s important to remember, while you are training your puppy, that they do not have a very long attention span at all (the attention span of a fruit fly on PCP, as a good friend likes to describe them).  Keep your training sessions short, sweet, and fun!  As soon as you see puppy’s attention begin to wander, set aside your training games and let him relax awhile.

2.  Puppies have energy!

It seems obvious, but nearly every puppy I’ve met wants to run, jump, romp and play!  If there is more than one dog in the house, more than likely your puppy will benefit greatly from having some playtime with the older dogs.  Not only will he exercise, he will also learn some valuable social skills (more on this in a minute).  If you don’t have another dog to help you exercise your baby with, be sure to have many play sessions throughout the day with fun, stimulating toys!  A cube that the puppy can roll around which spits out pieces of kibble is a fun way to tire them out.  A kong filled with hot dogs and then frozen for awhile is a great little busy toy.  Even a soda bottle with their kibble inside can be a fun puzzle for them.  You’re looking for games that will tire them out physically and mentally at once!  You need both pieces in order to have a content puppy.

3. Puppies need manners!

When I’m training puppies, my older dogs are my greatest allies in this.  Many of the play behaviors that we find so obnoxious (biting our hands, body slamming, pawing at us, jumping around like a fool, etc.) my older dogs will put a complete stop to in a matter of seconds.  A well timed lip curl and a stiff body posture almost always sends a puppy into a frenzy of “I’m so sorry!”  However, if you wait too long to let an older dog discipline your puppy, you’re going to see some back talk. The older a dog gets, the more time it has to practice these ad behaviors.  The more practice he has, the more entrenched he is in his ways.  Better to find a friendly older dog to help your puppy learn appropriate dog manners even before you start working on human manners.

4. It’s okay to tell your puppy “No!”

It’s not just okay.  It’s often necessary.  I am sure to teach my dogs that “No” is more than just a word.  It carries with it a whole bag full of disapproval and and undernote of “step out of line again, and we’ll be fighting.”  My No is serious, and my dogs understand that from puppies.  Positive training methods do not dictate that you are always upbeat and happy, even when your dog is tearing your home apart.

There you go, a few words about puppies.  I’m sure I’ll have many more words in the coming weeks as I continue to work with them!

Advocacy. That is all.

If you never listen to another thing I have to say, listen to this.  It applies to you directly.  Yes, every single person who reads this, this applies to.  Don’t let things happen to your dog that you KNOW are  bad for them.  Just don’t do it.  Just stand up and say “No.”

Here’s a story for you.  The other day, I took Maggie, the baby, out to the barn to feed the horses.  She was in a super mega fussy mood, and she was crying her little heart out.  There were a few people there who were also taking care of their horses, and one man, Dan, had brought his dog Rascal with him.  Rascal is a little Rat Terrier, about 10 years old.  Great little dog.

So we’re standing around, talking, remarking upon the sadness of Maggie’s life, and Rascal is sitting by my feet, giving me that semi-accusatory stare that I often get from dogs while the baby is crying.  As if they are saying, “If you were any sort of mother, you would be able to HELP that child.”  Dan sees his dog looking at me and the baby, and he scoops Rascal up.

“What’s that baby doing?” he coos to his dog, and proceeds to try to hold Rascal up so that he can sniff and lick my screaming infant’s face.

Advocacy in action.  Listen and learn.

“Nope,” I say, and immediately, before the dog is within a foot of Maggie, turn my back to them.

Rascal’s wide eyes and leaning away from the baby told me that I made the right choice.  Dan huffed quite a bit about how mean Sarah wouldn’t let Rascal see the baby, but I could see the dog visibly relax when I moved her away.  By doing that and putting up with a little huffing, I saved us all from a potentially dangerous and tragic situation.  Things could have been fine.  Or, Rascal could have bitten my child in the face, causing a hospital trip for us and potentially death for him through no fault of his own.

Advocacy is important.  I advocated for Maggie here, as well as a dog who was not mine to advocate for, really.  Your dog is your responsibility, and you know him better than anyone else, even your friendly neighborhood dog trainer.  If someone is trying to do something to or with your dog that you know, or even just feel queasily, that will not go well, tell the person, “No.”

You can make up a story.  Tell the small child trying to pet your dog that he is sick and needs some rest.  Tell the people trying to let their dog sniff yours that he has mange.  Tell the trainer attempting to examine your dog, ignoring all of your dog’s body language, that you’re using an alternative method and you’d prefer not to work on this exercise yet.  It’s okay to tell people NO.

Please tell people NO.

If you never do anything else for your dog, please tell people NO.  Your dog can’t tell them No.  The only thing your dog can do is run away, growl, or bite.  Let’s make it easier on everyone involved.


Essential Training Tools: Bridges

Many great trainers have come to the same conclusion over time:  Training is Communication.  Whether we are communicating what is the correct thing to do, or what is the incorrect thing to do, we must find a way to span the gap between ourselves, the trainers, and the animals in question.  We have a formalized language system that we can use to describe actions, behaviors, and their relative appropriateness.  Animals have language as well, but unfortunately it is different from our own.  Therefore, we must find a way to explain to them, in a clear and concise manner, exactly what we want, and how they can get there.

The first, and arguably the most important, tool in this process is called a Conditioned Reinforcer, a Success Signal, or (my favorite, short and sweet) the Bridge.  So called because it is a signal (usually a verbal signal, but in some cases a visual or tactile signal is used) that bridges the gap in time between when an animal is correct, and when an animal receives his reinforcement for the behavior.  If you are familiar with clicker training, a clicker is a bridge.  However, in SATS, we do not limit ourselves to just one little moment of correct behavior.  Oh no, we are more versatile than that.

The basic breakdown: there are two kinds of bridges.  Terminal, or Success Signal, and Intermediate, or Support Signal.  The Terminal Bridge signifies the animal’s SUCCESSFUL completion of the behavior!  That’s what a clicker does, so we can call that a Terminal Bridge.  In SATS, we generally use a verbal sound that is hard, sharp, and short to mark the moment of an animal’s success.

The Intermediate Bridge communicates the animal’s JOURNEY to success, and SUPPORTS them throughout by communicating how close they are to completing the behavior.  This can help the process become immensely more concise and help the animal to understand EXACTLY what it is that they are working toward.  We generally use a repetition of the sound used for the Terminal Bridge, but we can speed, slow, and modulate it as we choose.

We teach the significance of these signals by pairing them with a very valuable reward (food is usually a welcome one, but sometimes we use a toy, or another preferred activity).

While the timing is off in this video (while I was training, the Good was delivered at the moment Herbie took the treat), it is a good example of how we start dogs out with bridging.  From the beginning to about 25 seconds in is the teaching process.

The great thing about this is that once the bridges are taught, the animal knows them and we can immediately start training with them (I went on to teach Herbie a two finger and a station target in this video).  There is no “charging the bridge” like there is in clicker training.  It can immediately become a fluent means of communication.

At the beginning of this video, we hear Kayce using the Intermediate Bridge to get Sara’s (her horse’s) attention, and to call her to a target.  The sound Kayce is using is xxxxxxx, but other trainers may use ggggg, kikikiki, or some other variation.  As you can see in the video, the bridge is incredibly motivating to the horse, and she gladly comes charging to her trainer at top speed.

At the very end of the video, Kayce delivers the Terminal Bridge, just one sharp X, to tell Sara that she has completed the behavior successfully.

The Key Points:

  • Trainers need a way to communicate effectively with their animals.
  • Bridging tells the dog when he is correct.
  • Terminal Bridges indicate SUCCESS.
  • Intermediate Bridges indicate PROGRESS.
  • Bridges are paired with a high level reinforcer or reward to create significance.
  • Bridges can be used immediately to begin communicating with your dog.

Happy training, folks!

Benefits of Cognitive Training

Most of what dog trainers do is based on behavioral principals.  Starting with B.F. Skinner’s rats, as well as Pavlov’s dogs, we have crafted and focused our techniques based on these principles:

  1. Learning is achieved through consequences.
  2. Reflexive behaviors can be conditioned to happen in response to a stimulus.

This is why we provide treats, toys and praise when a dog does something we like (so they will repeat it!), and why we provide a correction, stern “No!” or removal of fun things when the dog does something we dislike (so they will NOT repeat it).  It’s true, this stuff works.  And it works really well!  Dogs learn a great deal of behaviors through these principles, and all dog trainers use them in some form or fashion.

However, what sets SATS apart from the pack is that we don’t just use behavioral principles.  We also use cognitive principles.  We don’t just want a dog to perform a behavior.  We want a dog to understand the behavior’s components, and how to achieve that on his own.  We want to give the dog ownership of his choices, and then reward (or correct, depending on his choice) that choice.  I feel like sometimes, we limit our dogs’ potential by sticking to behavioral work, and not exploring the understanding side of things.

Using the cognitive understanding of the behaviors I am trying to teach, I can train a dog to walk on a loose leash in a matter of minutes.  Jumping on or off of a person in three trials flat, and then simply generalizing to new situations.  Here is a session of a dog being taught the difference between the sidewalk, “Stoop,” and the street, “Straat,” using the SATS technique: Name and Explain.

In this video, there are so many great things happening.

  1. The teaching of opposing concepts (sidewalk vs. street).
  2. The handler is using the Intermediate Bridge (ggggggg sound) to let the dog know when he is correct, and when he has made a mistake.
  3. The dog is being given the opportunity to be correct, or incorrect.
  4. The dog is making a conscious connection between those words and the concepts of street and sidewalk, and it can be observed.

Dogs understand a whole lot more than we assume, or give them credit for.  We can observe this over and over again if we give them the chance.  As trainers, handlers, and owners, we can get outstanding and FAST results by using cognitive techniques AS WELL AS behavioral ones.

Happy training!