“It’s Just a Stupid Trick”- Or is it??

We are often asked the purpose behind particular exercises we teach in our classes or consults, especially those exercises that have essentially been branded as tricks for one reason or another. This is always a great question but not always so quick and easy to answer!

Targeting is an exercise that we commonly teach- a simple skill where the dog touches an owners hand or other object with their nose (Targeting can take many forms but this is the one we teach most often). It’s a skill that dogs tend to pick up within a session and owners find fairly straightforward and fun.

So you would think that the question “What’s the point of this?” would be just as straightforward to answer.

What makes it difficult however (and also quite fantastic!) is that the answer can be varied and the benefits numerous! This seemingly simple exercise can be used in such a variety of applications. Have a look at the short video below- this was taken in one of our recent puppy school classes and gives a great example of where targeting can be added to improve engagement, fun and focus in your dogs training.

Next time you start thinking of targeting as being “just a trick”, remember the following benefits-

Fun- Never underestimate the importance of fun in training. What’s the difference between targeting and teaching your dog to sit? The main difference is that targeting allows movement and most dogs simply love to move. In fact, the more boisterous, bouncy, active or even naughty your dog is the more they are likely to want to MOVE! Targeting allows us to allow them to MOVE- but in a controlled and directed way. Movement is fun!
If you have more fun with your dog, particularly in situations where they might normally be distracted you are guaranteed to improve both engagement and focus from your dog. Whilst obedience exercises of sit and drop are important as well, they are part of teaching your dog self control and inhibition. Your dogs focus in these exercises is completely dependent on how motivated they are for your food reward, pat or praise as the exercise ITSELF is not naturally fun. This means that for dogs that are less motivated, a total focus on obedience exercises can be challenging. By adding exercises like targeting, you DOUBLE the reward available as they enjoy the exercise AND get their reward from you.
Position your dog- Having trouble with loose lead walking or getting your dog to go to a bed and stay there? Targeting is a great way to position your dog to where you want them by simply moving the target item!
Build the dogs confidence- Targeting teaches the dog to deal with mild conflict as they need to move away from the food reward in order to get it. The difficulty of the exercise can then be increased and the dog becomes more confident and persistent over time.
Teach the dog to approach the human hand with a closed mouth- this is particularly important for puppies and young dogs who often approach a hand with an open mouth or become ver excited and nip or mouth.
Physical exercise- By placing targets down the other end of a hallway or cricket pitch targeting is a great way to exercise your dog- work the brain and the body at the same time!!
Use targeting to teach other exercises- whether it be going to a bed or mat, agility exercises or the foundation of other tricks (remember, some of the above applies to other tricks too so teaching tricks is not pointless or stupid!!!) targeting can speed up the learning of other skills.
Help children interact with your dog safely. Using target sticks or simple hand targets can be a great way to control interactions between dogs and children your dog may be meeting for the first time. As an added bonus, kids LOVE IT.
What do you and your dogs love about targeting???

The Power of the Thrown Food Reward

Daisy the Dog

Meet Daisy. She did her first training walk today and really highlighted to me one of the biggest changes in my dog training processes over the last 10 years.

When i first started training i remember being told about the dangers and issues associated with dropping or delivering food on the ground. “The dog will get distracted”. “You’ll never get his nose off the ground “. “The dog will think the reward comes from the ground, not from you”. As a result, for some time i was careful not to drop food- either deliberately or accidentally- when training.

The more important the training skill was, the more careful i was with how i delivered the food to the dog. So it was when free shaping a somewhat meaningless, unimportant trick one day that i decided to see what would happen when i threw the food rewards instead of delivering by hand. The initial reason was two fold- to try to set the dog up for the next repetition more efficiently and without the dog knowing AND to stop my hands getting covered with slobber..

What was interesting was the immediate improvement in the dogs level of motivation – the more movement i created in the dog by throwing the food to them or to the ground, the keener the dog became to train. This became a fundamental of my free shaping training. It also meant i could be still and relaxed while the dog bounced around and was excited- there was no need to try to “settle the dog down” and there was no struggle between me and the dog- they could be as excited about the reward as they liked without then having to moderate HOW they took the reward from me. Ultimately sessions were more fun- for me AND the dog.

It wasn’t too long before this way of delivering food bled into other types of training – from obedience to puppy training to serious behaviour modification with dogs who were anxious or aggressive with super benefits for all. So before you do your next training session consider the following super benefits to throwing your food rewards-

Eliminates grabbing, snatching and slippery, slobbery hands!
Throwing food allows dogs to move, to be excited, playful, animated etc. Therefore in situations where the dog clearly has an inability to be still, throwing food is a great way to “move behaviour in the right direction” whilst we simultaneously teach better impulse control. For example- Daisy today was super excited upon seeing another dog. There was no chance of a successful sit stay or heel as the other dog walked by- those skills and impulse control will take time to teach and build. So what to do in the meantime? By throwing the food rewards where i wanted Daisy to be, she moved into that space and bounced and played as the dog went by. Most importantly she bounced and played with me- a moment of focus followed by the cue “Get it” and a thrown food reward. The moment her nose came off the ground after getting the reward- “Get it” and a food throw in the other direction. This method not only allowed Daisy to have a great time but also means that over time, the presence of another dog (or any distraction) becomes a trigger for games with the handler rather than a cue for pulling on lead, jumping, lunging etc.
Any handler can learn to throw food rewards to good effect- you don’t need to be strong, experienced or tough!
Throwing food moves the dog, meaning we get the added benefits of increased physical exercise!
Need a higher level of motivation from your dog? Throwing food makes the reward more exciting- no more boring food!
Higher rates of reward are easy using thrown food AND throwing food allows you to position the dog wherever you like. Have a dog that tends to lag behind? Throw the food in front to create a forward way of thinking. Dog surging and forging ahead? Drop the food behind them to encourage them to drop back.
Throwing food encourages dogs to use their nose- dogs who use their nose discover more about their environment AND stay more relaxed- that’s why this type of reward is so perfect for reactive or anxious dogs. Dogs react with their eyes, it’s time to switch their nose on!!
Dogs are clever enough to know that the food reward is still coming from you AND that it’s still contingent on their behaviour – I promise you they won’t get more interested in the ground if you use the power of the thrown food reward to your advantage!

It’s time to throw your food rewards away!!

Going Urban and How to Keep Man’s Best Friend in the Process.

The Australian backyard. Big enough to kick the football. Room for a barbeque and a game of cricket. Or so there used to be. As the average Australian backyard shrinks beyond recognition, families get used to less outside space. But have we forgotten someone in the process? Mans best friend, the dog, needs to adjust- as we have- to highly urbanised living.

With the majority of the Australian population living as close as possible to our state capitals and large towns, high density developments are becoming more common place. Gone are the days where the family dog could wander the quiet street, play with the children in the afternoon and trot home for dinner as the sun fell. And yet, Australia’s dog population sits at over 4 million. Australians have more dogs than ever before and many of these dogs will be found in our inner city areas- contained to small backyards, courtyards balconies or apartments. It is naive to think that this change in the way that we live does not impact our dogs. While we know dogs can live happily in apartments and townhouses, urban dog owners can help their four legged friends to ensure their lives are as enriched as their backyard dwelling companions of yesteryear.

Dog selection is the first and likely to be the most critical step in ensuring an urban dog is a happy one. Many people mistakenly believe that smaller is always better and this simply isn’t the case. Active dogs come in all shapes and sizes and some dogs are simply not suited to such highly urban living. There is a key additional question- does the potential owner of the urban dog also work full time, away from the home? Those who work longer hours should choose a breed noted to be independent rather than those requiring more constant companionship. Breeds suited to urban living depending on other key factors (grooming, companionship requirements etc) may include- Greyhounds, Whippets, Toy poodles, Havanese, Maltese, French Bulldogs, Tibetan Spaniels, Cavaliers, British Bulldogs, Bichon Frise, and Shar Peis. Where should you find your perfect urban dog? A Canine council registered breeder can assist your choice to go urban- predictable temperament, coat and size are key reasons for selecting a breeder with care.

So now, we have our urban dog. The occasional roll of toilet paper is strewn from end to end of the apartment, the neighbours make comment on your new dog (who they can hear like a jackhammer in their living room) and you just know the dog has had an accident somewhere and yet- you can’t quite find it! But is our urban dog happy? Urban dogs may miss out on some outside space, but provide the following and you can ensure your urban dog is truly happy to be one.

Sensory stimulation is key for any canine, in any environment. So how do we provide work for the dogs’ senses, in an area unlikely to catch the summer breeze or have a view to the outside world? In a home with no outside space, dogs should be walked twice daily outside the home. Dogs living with a small outside space require one walk every day. These are minimum requirements for most urban dogs. Puppies without their vaccinations complete should be carried at least twice daily to see the outside world that they are about to join. Can’t meet these requirements? Dog Day care and dog walking services are available in most areas to compensate for busier lifestyles- you don’t have to do it alone! And while it may be true that the dogs you had when you were a kid didn’t need day care or a dog walker- the dogs of yesteryear generally had more space and companionship than what we are capable of providing today. Times change- how we provide for man’s best friend needs to change too.

The outside exercise you provide should comprise of exciting and novel experiences- different streets, parks and distractions are a great opportunity to train and socialise the urban dog. Urban dogs should be permitted the opportunity to scent and smell for at least part of their outside time- dogs look with their nose first so to restrict scenting opportunities completely can be detrimental Olfactory stimulation is not limited to walks- scent detection games can take place in the smallest possible inside space. Don’t understand how the dogs’ nose works and how to harness it? Find a dog trainer to help you or read the Underdog article- Scent work Secrets- harnessing the dogs most powerful sense**.

Is your dog home alone? In between some long naps (it is a dogs life after all!) your urban dog will be looking for things to do. Given running around a large backyard is not an option, what can you do to provide for your dog and ensure you don’t arrive home to a redecorated space or irate neighbour? The rotation of interactive toys is one of the best ways to reduce boredom and work your dogs’ brain! Interactive toys are not the tennis ball that li
es on the ground, waiting for someone to throw it. Interactive toys are games and puzzles that often dispense food as the dog plays- some dispense food regularly, others require the dog to work harder for the reward. Feeding your urban dogs’ morning meal from a bowl? Stop!! Feeding a morning meal from a bowl instead of a food dispensing toy is a wasted opportunity. There is a wide range of interactive toys available- buy 3 and rotate them every 2-3 days. With the novelty value of the toys remaining high- your dog will feel like its Christmas- every few days! Don’t want to give raw bones for the dog to chew on inside? Nylabones and smoked bones can be a great alternative.

Urban environments present unique distractions- high density housing also means high density humans and amenities. So what will your urban dog do when they see hundreds of people? The rush of trams and beeping of horns during peak hour? The Sunday morning pack of cyclists racing down the street? How will they respond to food on the foot path? Picnickers who share the multi use park with their spread of roast chicken and salad- right next to the off lead area you frequent? Train and socialise your dog- the better your dogs behaviour, the easier it will be to integrate them into your normal life. Take your puppy to puppy pre school. Take your adult dog to some practical dog training. The benefits? A confident, well adjusted, calm and well behaved dog in the face of daily urban challenges.

The well behaved dog is welcomed by many and included in a busy lifestyle- a walk to school to pick up the kids, an alfresco coffee, a stroll around an open air market. So where does that leave the poorly behaved dog? At home. Becoming more tightly wound- as the urban dog cannot run off steam in the same way that the dogs of yesterday could. The urban dog depends on its owner more than ever. To provide sensory stimulation, physical exercise, training, socialisation and environmental enrichment. The dog cannot fill their own treat ball. The dog cannot connect their lead for walkies or recall to the invisible person. The dog cannot fill time when you are absent with scent games- without your help. Mans best friend and an urban lifestyle can combine- they don’t have to be at the expense of each other. But adaptable urban dogs are not born, they are created- by the humans who choose and love their urban lifestyle.