6 Steps to Solving Behavioral Problems In Dogs Without Losing Your Mind.



As a member of several online forums there are often questions asked about solving behavioral problems. The questions about solving behavioral problems are usually phrased like this, “How to I get my dog to stop [insert problem behavior here]?” This is a very normal way for humans to see problems. However, when you’re talking about decreasing a behavior the solution is most often done by using punishment. Punishment sometimes works, but it can have nasty side effects that don’t justify their use when a risk-benefit analysis is done. The real problem is how do you solve behavior problems using positive reinforcement? Positive reinforcement has many more benefits than risks than it’s counterpart. Using positive reinforcement requires taking a step back and allowing your brain to be creative.

1) What do you want? Be specific.

Problem Behavior: The dog chases after horses.
Desired Behavior: The dog lays at the gate for up to 15 minutes while owner feeds horses. Dog can be called away from horses or sent to a mat away from horses.

2) Management

Ever hear the saying “Practice make Perfect”? I prefer Kelly Starrett’s phrase “Practice makes Permanent”. Why? If you aren’t practicing behaviors/movements correctly you’ll simply get better at doing it INCORRECTLY! So management helps prevent dogs from practicing unwanted behaviors while you teach them what you want them to do. Keep in mind that management alone is one way to deal with problem behaviors. Management can break down. When management is used without training, behaviors should not be expected to change. Training that focuses on what you want to see is imperative if you want to see long term benefits without side effects.
Possible Management Solutions: Dog remains on a leash or in a crate around horses if he can stay calm. If not, the dog needs to be absent from horses altogether until new behaviors are learned and can then be introduced to the presence of horses.

3) Start with a behavior that you’re already seeing

You cannot build a behavior out of nothing so start with a baby step that has to do with the behavior you’re looking for.
Possible starting points: Dog lays down in house. Dog comes when called for dinner. Dog looks at a towel placed on the floor in front of him.
None of these starting points appears to have anything to do with the end desired behavior but can be built upon gradually and morphed into the final behavior.

4) Break it down!

Breaking behaviors down (or splitting) sounds tedious, yes, but oh sooooo worth it! I would also venture to guess that splitting actually speeds up the learning process because it makes learning fun and limits mistakes and setbacks. Splitting also helps to reduce stress for you. If you write down all the steps, you can easily see and track your progress. Look at your notes once every few days, it’ll be like looking at a diary entry from when you were 7 years old and thinking, “wow, I’ve come soooo far!”
Example split: A) Look at mat B) One paw on mat C) Two paws on mat D) Three paws on mat E) Four paws on mat F) Sit on mat G) Down on mat H) Down on mat with trainer standing 3 feet away from mat I) Down on mat with trainer walking around J) Down on mat in different room K) Down on mat outside L) Down on mat at a distance from horses but horses visible

5) Allow your dog to lead

Make sure your dog has a lot of success at the current step before making it harder for him. If you move too fast you run the risk of discouraging him. Using the above example, move from step A to step B when step B is offered occasionally and drop criteria if 20-30 seconds passes without success. Bonus, sometimes dogs will skip several steps! This is why it’s important to have all of the steps written out so you’ll be prepared for jumping ahead quickly.

6) Reinforce, Reinforce, Reinforce!!!

Okay, this is a tricky one. You DON’T decide what your dog likes, your DOG DOES. Figure out what would be motivating and use it, liberally! Especially when you’re battling an unwanted behavior it’s important to be generous while rewarding what you do want!

Example reinforcers: Dog – Pea sized pieces of hot dog, cheese and bacon.

Using positive reinforcement to change problem behaviors is possible. Yes, it takes some time but quick fixes will also quickly be broken. Invest in your dog’s future behaviors and you won’t be disappointed.

Dogs and Kids: Part 3

Looks like I forgot to post this a while back…

So things have been quite crazy around the Creaven household. After much difficulty and thought, we have decided that it’s time to travel for a bit. I know what your thinking, traveling with an infant almost toddler, what are they thinking? Truthfully, I don’t really know either. I think ultimately we are just trying to hit the reset button on our lives. Shed a few things that we’ve had since college, have some experiences that we haven’t been able to have before Amelia will need to be in school, and figure out what we want to do to make a living. So to get started we will be moving to New England.

After dropping that bomb, I’d love to give a few updates on what we’ve been doing to help our dog and child get along.

Amelia is now 8.5 months old. She doesn’t want to crawl yet and that’s fine by me. However, she is pulling herself up and couch walking when she has the opportunity. We’ve introduced her to lots of different kinds of food, mostly fruits and veggies though. The fruits and veggies are softened but not pureed so that she has the opportunity to pick up the food, mash it, taste it, throw it, really just to play. Her primary source of nutrition is still breast milk, so I’m not worried that she isn’t eating enough. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way for another 3-4 months.

Okay, so why is it so important to talk about what Amelia is eating? Well because in the process of eating new foods she is also tossing that food onto the floor. Guess who is on the floor? EVEY! and she gets to clean up. So the foods that I’m choosing for Amelia to eat also happen to be Evey favorites as well sweet potatoes, blue berries, bannana, carrots, pumpkin, strawberries, raspberries, apples, cheese, and yogurt. If it hits the floor, it’s Evey’s.

A quick play-by-play explaination: Evey is brave enough to lick yogurt out of a bottle lid Amelia is holding until Amelia squeals with delight. The video then pans to see Evey sniffing the floor. It looks like she’s looking for more food – she is not. Evey has licked that floor clean multiples times and there is no food on the floor for her to eat. She is sniffing the floor out of stress, or discomfort at hearing Amelia squeal and seeing her arms wave.

You’re probably thinking two things:

  1. Aren’t you teaching Amelia that it’s okay to throw food? Maybe, but in my mind dropping food is simply a developmental stage that will pass eventually. Afterall, someday she’ll actually want to eat her food.
  2. Won’t Evey start begging. Sure, but it’s easier to fix a begging problem than it is to fix a dog that hates a child. It’s a trade I’m willing to make a dog that loves the baby for some begging. Down the road I can teach her to go to mat instead of beg.

So far it sounds like I’ve been using a lot of treats for Evey paired with Amelia and I have but I’ve also been using other things too. Evey likes more than just food, she likes walks, she likes to play, and she LOVES fetch.

When you take your dog for a walk what is his reaction to seeing the leash? Usually, your dog is pretty excited. So I get Amelia ready to go for a walk and then I grab Evey’s leash. Low and behold, Evey now gets excited when I get Amelia ready to go out. This helps Evey to learn that Amelia equals access to explore the world.

Evey also likes to play tug in the house. So when Amelia and I play together and Evey gets excited I cue her to find her toy. She then brings me her toy and we tug for a few seconds before I ask her to drop the toy and then throw it for her to fetch. Which brings me to our next game… Fetch. Noah loves to play fetch with Evey in the backyard. So when I need a break and Evey needs some exercise he scoops up Amelia and heads to the backyard. This hits home two fold, Amelia is entertained by Evey chasing the ball and having fun and Evey pairs the presence of Amelia with playing her favorite game.

It’s an ever evolving process as Amelia continues to grow and change and new opportunities continue to change. I hope that you’ve taken some good ideas from this and I’ll continue to keep you updated on how things evolve.

Dogs and Babies: Part 2

This is something that is very hard for me to write about because I’m so invested in it emotionally. However, I’ve decided that it’s more important that I share what I’m going thru and perhaps help someone else out than to be slightly embarrassed as a trainer and Mom.

Things with dog and baby are not going as well as I’d hoped. The last few weeks have been stressful for Miss Evey. We’ve had several other dogs in the house (whom even if she likes them she worries), and we’ve also had several visitors, some of whom were toddlers. I may have mentioned this in my previous post but Evey has never been a huge fan of children but she’s always made good choices. These choices have included retreating, coming to me, and taking treats from me or the toddler.

However, with Baby Amelia, Evey’s choices are limited. Amelia sleeps in our bedroom, so does Evey. Their beds are on opposite sides of our bed but it’s not really a safe zone for Evey any more. I’m usually holding Amelia so when Evey comes to me Amelia is there, again foiled in her attempt to seek comfort. Amelia isn’t eating a lot of people food yet, so she’s not dropping yummies for Evey yet so Evey doesn’t realize what a jackpot Amelia is yet.

So what has me so concerned? Well, Evey hasn’t growled, snapped, or bitten Amelia. Her signs are much more subtle. Her mouth is closed, her forehead is wrinkled, her tail is tucked, and she often puts herself in between Amelia and myself (especially when it gets noisy). You might argue, “she hasn’t done anything” or “she’ll just get used to it”. To be honest, there are two reasons I don’t agree with those statements: 1) Evey has snapped and scratched children who got in her face twice so I know she will “go there” and 2) I don’t want anyone in my family (including my dog) to have to feel stressed out while living at home.

What are my options? Because I’m so close to the situation and it’s so emotional for me I did seek professional counsil from two trainers I really trust and respect: Lindsay Wood, ACAAB (animal behaviorist) and Aimee Bonnain, KPA-CTP.

  1. This thought did cross my mind and it brought me to tears: Rehome Evey. Lets be honest, this really isn’t an option for me! I love my dog, and I would feel like a failure as a Mom, trainer, and dog guardian.
  2. Continue doing what I’ve been doing, supervising and cuing Evey to go to mat, which has become harder to do as Amelia gets more mobile and Evey gets more anxious, and hope that a bite does not occur. Again this is not working, so while I will keep it as a tool in my box,  I’m not going to continue that as a primary strategy.
  3. Classical Counter Conditioning: Pairing something Evey wants with something that worries her. For the last 3 days Evey has not received a single piece of kibble from a bowl! I’ve mixed her kibble with some hot dogs (to increase the value) and when Amelia is out and around I am constantly dropping “treats”. This was working well. I feel better and Evey is starting to realize that Amelia brings her good things.
  4. Number 3 was working well until this morning (a grand total of 3 days). For whatever reason Evey stopped eating the treats I dropped and started putting herself closer to Amelia again. This makes me really uncomfortable and nervous and I start to lose my patience. I start to cue Evey to leave and when she hesitates my cue escalates and she gets more nervous and I get more nervous – you can see the vicious cycle can’t you? So I’m implementing barriers! I have an exercise pen and a baby gate both of which Evey respects as long as I’m home. So I have now made a huge room where I can feel safe that Amelia can get important floor time while Evey can’t get near her.
The baby gate at the top of the stairs. We will also have to add something to keep Amelia's head out of the rails but that's around the corner.
The baby gate at the top of the stairs. We will also have to add something to keep Amelia’s head out of the rails but that’s around the corner.
The exercise pen set up around Amelia's bouncer.
The exercise pen set up around Amelia’s bouncer.

So in all honesty, right now, I’ve implemented option 2, 3, & 4! And I’ll keep doing it until Evey and Amelia can respect each other happily. Eventually, the exercise pen will probably need to be changed to something sturdier as Amelia starts to pull up on things and walk but for now it’s serving it’s purpose; keep Evey out and Amelia SAFE.

Back On the Agility Course

Evey and I have been training in canine agility since 2009. We began to trial in 2011 or at least that’s what my NADAC card says. Since our agility trialing debut we’ve been to a handful of trials earning an occasional Q (Qualifying score that goes towards earning a title) but always having fun together. In the fall of 2012 our agility trialing days got put on hold as we found out that we would be expecting a new family member the following summer.

After a 6 month hiatus from all agility Evey and I competed in our first trial in 18 months! She was AH-MAZE-ING! I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. Not only did she earn a Q in 3 of the 6 classes we entered but she did so with style and grace also getting our first blue ribbon! This was a big accomplishment given (what some would consider) her disadvantages. I’ll let you in on a secret… Evey is not a herding breed dog, she’s a husky mix.

In addition to doing well on course, Evey also excelled on the sidelines. On Saturday, the first day we were there, Evey’s 6 month old human sister also joined us which meant that I was unable to give Evey all of the attention she used to demand at such events. This also meant that I had to juggle all of Evey’s equipment (crate, treats, water bowls, exercise pen, toys and leashes) with all of Amelia’s equipment (diaper bag, stroller, car seat, toys, feeding routine, and changing routines). I’ll admit, I had some help. I happen to have amazing agility that are approaching their own agility debuts who came along to see what a trial is all about. Thank you Becky and Aimee! Your turn next time :-)

I wanted to share with you a few videos from that weekend!

Jumpers 2 Video – Evey did really well but knocked a bar down just before reaching the final sequence so didn’t earn a Q

Tunnelers 1 Video – We had a hiccup at the 3rd tunnel because I got lost between the space between 2 and 3 causing Evey to pop out of the tunnel but her time was still fast enough and the run clean enough to earn a Q and 2nd place.

Tunnelers 2 Video – This was our last run and by far our best! We had a clean run and not only earned a Q but also a 1st place!

A huge thank you to everyone who came out to the trial to support us in one way or another. I can’t wait to keep going this year!

Dogs and Babies

It’s been awhile since my last post. I guess I’m just recovering from all of the non-stop blog writing. It could also be the fact that having a 5 month old keeps you on your toes. Or that the holidays are extremely taxing on your ability to get anything done. Oh, okay, it’s probably all of the above. Apologies aside… I want to share my experiences and plans for keeping my dog happy and my child safe as she grows up.

I hope everyone has had a wonderful Christmas. I know our little family did. Evey enjoyed something special (a pigs ear). It was Amelia’s first she’s almost 6 months old now! Noah and I just enjoyed watching our girls play and be happy.

Every day Amelia does something new. She grabs things like toys and wrapping paper. She unwrapped all of her toys this year, although she had a lot of help :-). Amelia is also experimenting with new noises, squeals and grunts. Soon she’ll learn to roll over and crawl shortly followed by walking. Jeeze, I really can’t believe it! As I watch Amelia grow and learn new things everyday it reminds me how careful I need to be with her around Evey.

Evey is tolerant of children but she doesn’t love them, at any age. When Amelia first came home Evey showed a healthy interest in her new baby sister. I also notice that when I play with Amelia and Evey thinks I’m getting too rough she displays a natural “splitting” behavior. This means that she places herself between me and Amelia in an attempt to calm us both. Splitting is common between dogs when two dogs are getting too excited the third will put herself in the middle.

The dangerous part about splitting between me and Amelia will happen when Amelia begins to grab and hold herself up on things. Amelia will eventually grab Evey out of necessity and interest. I am quite confident that Evey will not appreciate this. For now as prevention, when Evey splits, I give her permission and assurance she can leave by asking her to go to her mat. Go to mat is a behavior Evey has known and practiced for years. She has a very strong reinforcement history with it.

When Amelia starts to cry Evey quietly leaves the room and finds her happy place. This is something I appreciate and reinforce as well. I make sure that leaving is always an option for Evey not just with my own child but with visitors as well. My reasoning behind this is that, once leaving no longer relieves Evey’s worry about children she will escalate her behavior to snarling, growling, snapping and then biting. Unfortunately, this theory was proven when I was in the hospital delivering Amelia. The good news: 1) she showed great bite inhibition 2) she had an excellent warning chain (she snarled first, snapped second, and then bit without breaking skin) 3) since this incident, Evey she has been able to tolerate the same children she snapped at and bit as long as she has the option to leave.

Don’t get me wrong, Evey is a great dog, but I’m not disillusioned that she is trustworthy around them despite her reinforcement history with children. Evey’s volunteered and done well at a children’s camp. At camp she showed campers how to run an agility course and then she did a trick for each of the campers. This was not a free for all. I have also always been cognizant that when children get past me and hug Evey (a never behavior with dogs IMO), she always gets lots of high valued treats and the child is taught a better way to interact with Evey.

Back to Amelia: Right now Amelia is learning a lot of things but one thing she does not know is how to follow directions or even understand them. For me that means STRICT management until she can follow directions, which will probably be a few years, longer if we decide to have a second child. What will my management look like:

  • Decrease Magnetization
    I don’t ask Amelia, “Is that your doggie? Do you want to hug/kiss the doggie?” I tell her, “that’s Evey, your sister. We don’t hug/kiss/touch doggies.” This is so that as Amelia grows up she doesn’t feel like Evey is something to chase around. Not only will this make her safe with Evey but it will teach her good dog manners and keep her safe should she go to a friends house that also has a dog that doesn’t love children.
  • Strict Supervision
    Evey and Amelia (and any other child) will never be left alone together. This means that when they are allowed together I or someone else (who can and is willing to intervene) is watching. Should Evey start to show signs of discomfort I (or the other person) can tell Evey to go somewhere else. This is why I’ve trained go to mat with multiple locations and different cues. Since I’m watching, should Amelia corner Evey I can also go and pick Amelia up and redirect her interest to something more appropriate.
  • Separation
    When I cannot be watching them both they will be separated by a physical barrier. Amelia isn’t quite here yet but I’ll be getting plenty of baby gates and playpens to keep her separated from Evey. I’ll also have to do some training with Evey so she is comfortable being separated from me as well. I will most likely make is a really good thing to be on the other side of the gate by giving her a food puzzle to do (KONGs, and the sort). For now Amelia has her Exersaucer and she is usually entertained and restrained.
Amelia restrained in her Exer-saucer!
Amelia restrained in her Exer-saucer!
  • Time with Mommy
    Amelia gets a lot of one on one time with Mommy. However, Evey has been a bit neglected in this aspect. This means that I have to make sure that I am making time for Evey. This might be in the form of an enrichment walk, training, a run, food puzzles, throwing a ball, or agility practice. Evey may be 7 years old but she certainly still has a lot of energy physically and mentally that needs to be burned or she’s going to regress in her training.
This is Amelia seeing Evey for the first time at about 3 months old. Evey is actually trying to get my attention by putting her chin on the crib. Evey does chin targeting as a known behavior and she’s just trying to get my attention. I guess it was time for a walk!

If you find yourself with a dog and pregnant, the best time to prepare for baby is now, before baby is here. Picture what your family will look like. What is your house layout like? How will you keep the dog and baby separated and safe? What does your dog need to learn before baby comes; go to mat, door greetings (there will be a lot of guests coming over)? If you need help please contact me, I am happy to help!