Ask Ashley: Distractions, Barking, Clickers and More

Ashley kneels on a lawn, smiling, with her arms around a yellow lab wearing a Leader Dog harness. The dog is sitting next to her and looking at the camera

By Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Ashley Nunnelly

My first advice column! This is going to be fun. Join me, Dear Reader, on a journey of thinking as dogs think as well as learning tips and tricks for how to change their initial doggy response!

Rebecca writes:

My [Future Leader Dog] puppy has problems with dog distractions. What are your suggestions for helping him learn to ignore other dogs that are walking by on the sidewalk or small animals that are scurrying across a yard? Offering a high value treat will focus his attention (mostly) on the treat but has not been effective in helping him to learn to ignore the distraction. 

Rebecca,

Thank you for reaching out! This is such a common one. Most dogs typically choose to do the “fun, natural doggy instinct” over “mature, calm dog” behavior.

Our goal will be to convince your puppy that keeping their attention on you is more fun and rewarding than all the other awesome stuff in the environment.

I always put it in the perspective of where is your last point of success? Typically, the variables that determine that are 1) the distance between your puppy and the distraction and 2) the intensity of the distraction. A dog leaping and barking is a totally different level of distraction difficulty than a dog sitting nicely at a person’s side.

The more successful repetitions that you can create, the more practice your puppy will get with appropriate and calm behavior. My advice: be prepared with tasty treats like you are now. If this behavior is hard for your puppy, then the “pay” (reward) must equal the level of work they are putting in. This is time-and-a-half holiday pay.

It helps if you can enlist some friends (or other puppy raisers) with dogs. When you actively work on scenarios with a group, you can communicate with them to help control the factors that are distracting your puppy and set your puppy up for success.

Start at whatever distance from the distraction where your puppy is successful (quiet and attentive to you). If it’s six feet—great! If it’s 20 feet—no problem! Wherever works will be your starting point. Heavily reward your puppy for keeping their attention on you. If your puppy is struggling, increase your distance as well as increasing your rate of reinforcement. Sometimes they need a treat every two seconds at first. They’re just babies learning a new challenging skill and that is totally normal.

Choose what success for your puppy looks like. Maybe it is “remain seated while another dog approaches.” Or maybe it’s “maintain a loose leash while walking past a distraction dog.” Just stay consistent! Each time your “success” behavior occurs, mark (say), “Yes!” And give a reward!

Once your puppy is acing your first level of distance or intensity, it’s time to make it just slightly more challenging. You want to push the difficulty a bit but not so much that your puppy can’t be successful. If you make a mistake and push too far too soon or you encounter a surprise while on a walk, just increase your distance from the distraction as soon as possible! You and your puppy just retreat while you’re talking to the puppy excitedly until you get to a place where your puppy is successful, then you can try approaching again if you want.

It takes time and patience for sure! But with plenty of practice sessions, the next time a surprise dog on a walk flirts with your puppy, your puppy will know that you have something better for them than the other dog.

After lots and lots of practice where you are certain that your puppy knows what to do, you can start to slightly delay your reinforcement. Example: eventually, instead of getting five treats back to back for looking at you and walking with a loose leash while passing another dog, now you give one treat after you are past the other dog. Your puppy is going to be the one that tells you what they’re ready for! Your job as their teacher is to listen and gently push their boundaries so that they increase their success!

This process is the same for small, distracting animals, though it’s harder to get small animals to participate in training sessions. I’ll let you know when I have all the downtown Rochester squirrels clicker trained 😉

Lynn writes:

Can you tell me if/how using a clicker is superior to using the marker “yes”?  It seems to me you always have a “yes” available, whereas you may not have a clicker in hand. 

Thanks!

Hey Lynn!

You are not alone in your curiosity about using speech versus clickers!

In Karen Pryor’s book Reaching the Animal Mind, she has a great section on this.

“The human voice is designed to convey many messages at once. Even a single word—hello, on the telephone, for example—identifies the speaker’s sex, approximate age, identity, and something about his or her current mood. You use the voice for good things and you use it for bad things. … you can never really clean out that subtext; and, at the very least, it much distracts the animal by always posing a question. What does this ‘yes’ actually mean this time?”

People use the word “yes” SO many times throughout the day in many different contexts, and the dog isn’t always rewarded afterward. Plus, it’s hard to make it “sterile” and sound exactly the same each time we say it. This makes “yes” less effective as a marker for the dog since it doesn’t always predict “treat is coming.”

Reaching the Animal Mind also details a study performed where dogs were timed on how long it took to learn new behaviors. Half the dogs were marked with “yes” and half were marked with a click. The dogs that were marked with a click learned the behavior significantly faster. The click is unique and sterile, and every time it is heard the dog gets a treat. This keeps the meaning for the dog incredibly clear.

All my personal dogs know both the “yes” marker and the click because you’re right, I don’t always have a clicker in my hand. My Leader Dogs in training all know both as well because Future Leader Dog puppies are raised using a “yes” marker.

Of course, you can successfully train a dog without using a clicker and simply use your voice, but the distinct and sterile sound made by the clicker will help your dog put two and two together more quickly and with less confusion.

If you’re a Leader Dog puppy raiser, then your “yes!” is the marker! It is your “click.” If you are interested in using a clicker instead, you must reach out to the puppy development team for permission. But until then, mark away with that “yes!” on the exact split second your puppy does that wonderful behavior and then reward.

Beverly writes:

Would love to have some steps for teaching adult dogs to place their head through vest opening.

Future Leader Dogs wear vests in part to help prepare them for wearing a harness when they become Leader Dogs. However, the behavior they learn that makes the dog an active part of “getting dressed” (cued by the phrase “head in,” as in “put your head through this opening”) can be useful for more situations than just wearing a service dog vest.

I LOVE teaching “head in.” It’s a fantastic way to ensure that dogs are actually comfortable and willing to have objects put on them, whether it is a Leader Dog harness or puppy jacket, a silly Halloween costume like I use in the video below, or a “cone of shame” after a veterinary procedure.

It is fun and it relieves a lot of stress for your dog because they are able to give their consent! And you’ve made it fun! No more wrestling a Gentle Leader on to an unwilling and wiggly puppy!

It’s also fantastic when Leader Dogs dress themselves—it saves a client having to find where their dog’s head is to avoid accidentally hitting the dog in the face with the harness. It’s quicker, easier and makes for happy dogs and clients!

Steps for head in:

Final (goal) behavior: Dog puts head through the object willingly when I cue “head in.”

You can use a clicker to help train this behavior (you can learn more about how and why to use clicker training from my previous post) or mark (say) “yes” with treats/rewards for each step.

  • Click or mark “yes” for nose to jacket.
  • Click or mark “yes” for nose through head opening.
  • Click or mark “yes” for head and neck through head opening.
  • Click or mark “yes” for standing still while jacket is fastened.

A few tricks that I have found helpful through the years:

  • Use your treat to your advantage. At first, after I click I put the treat at the jacket for the dog to come eat it. That helps to reinforce them when they’re in the position for step 1 of “nose to jacket.”
  • When I’m at the “nose through head opening” step, I use the treat to reinforce the dog while their head is through the opening. That starts to build up the length of time that their head remains there, which helps to prevent the game that some dogs like to play where they poke their heads in and out at lightning speeds!
  • You’ll notice in the video that I change the angle of my presentation of the jacket almost every time I ask for “head in” it at first. This helps the dog generalize the behavior instead of only recognizing what you’re asking them to do when you approach from one specific angle. My goal for Leader Dogs in training is always to have the dog shove their nose through the harness no matter what direction I’m holding it, because eventually they will be going to someone who is blind who probably won’t present the harness at the perfect angle each time!
  • As you can see in the video, I often have an end goal for myself to have the dog sit/stay and then RUN to the harness when I cue “head in.” This is not required, but hey, I like the pizazz factor!

Becky writes:

I have a 15-month-old [Future Leader Dog] who does very well at [loose leash walking] and obedience skills in most environments, except in grass. In unfamiliar grassy areas like parks, yards and fields she buries her nose onto the ground and is so absorbed in the smell she does not respond to voice, touches, leash cues or even treat lures. Are there some exercises you can recommend for “shaping” her in back into heeling and [loose leash walking] in these situations?

Hello Becky!

She’s got her super sniffer on, eh?

Two things: if the sniffing is more important than the food to her, then you can actually USE letting her sniff as a reinforcer! So, say she sits on cue or loose leash walks on grass for 10 steps successfully—GREAT! Good girl! Take off her vest, make a long leash and let her do a “sniffy walk” for a few minutes.

Then, put her vest back on and do a little bit more obedience work. After she has played your game for a little while—same thing—surprise! You get a sniffy walk!

This is a simple version of the Premack Principle. In short—a more probable behavior can reinforce a less probable behavior. If given the choice, your puppy would bury her nose in delicious grass, so you can use that to your advantage by allowing her the opportunity to do her very favorite thing as a reward for doing the “boring” (to a dog) obedience work. Over time, obedience work will become super exciting because eventually she may get to sniff!

The second thing is lots and lots of practice. Luckily, it’s still nice enough outside to spend time in parks, yards and fields! Go armed with special yummy treats that will be payment valuable enough to pay attention to you.

Enjoy the opportunity to follow your puppy’s nose and see where it takes you both!

Carlisle writes:

My grand-dog is a beautiful golden retriever. As a puppy she was in the home with an elderly black Labrador retriever who had anxiety. Any outside noise or the doorbell resulted in barking, growling, etc. Unfortunately, this behavior was not corrected by his parents and more tragically, the puppy learned it as she lived with the older dog for nearly a year.

The older dog has since passed away but Rosie continues to growl and bark with that stimuli. She is now 2 years old. Is there a way to correct it? With the pandemic her parents are working from home, the children are home, and when she exhibits the behavior she is getting verbally reprimanded, which does nothing.

Hello Carlisle!

How to get dogs to stop barking is a question on many people’s minds! It is certainly a common doggy issue, much to our eardrums’ chagrin.

Let’s start by thinking about WHY the dog barks from their perspective.

Dogs are pack animals, which means that when Rosie’s pack mate barked at all of those stimuli, Rosie learned “ALEEEEERT ALEEEEERT! THE PACK IS CONCERNED! DANGER DANGER!” and now, if she is being verbally reprimanded when she barks, from her perspective her human packmates are just joining in the barking! She thinks she is such a good protector.

Another thing that often happens is that dogs hear the doorbell or the UPS truck and begin to bark. They don’t realize that the UPS person will always approach, drop a package and leave. What Rosie currently thinks is the doorbell rings → she barks → the UPS person leaves. Her barking was reinforced by the UPS man leaving (in her mind)! Often you see this with dogs barking in the windows at passersby. All of their ferocious barking has made the other dog on a leash with its owner leave their sidewalk! “Serves them right, get outta here! Scram, you!” Little do they know that the intruder dog was just continuing on its normal walk with its owner.

There are also definite breed-specific barking tendencies. Smaller dogs, especially terriers, will often have a predisposition to be a barker. Herd breeds, which often use their voices to communicate with their flock, loooooove to hear themselves talk.

My first advice for people is always to close blinds and block off visual access when they are not around to interrupt the behavior. That way the dog does not get the chance to practice “chasing off the mailman” when unsupervised. For a dog like Rosie that seems to be more keyed in to noises, I would leave her with some calming classical music to mask the sounds. There is even music specifically tailored to dogs’ tastes!

When your dog is already barking: Call Rosie to you, reward her for coming, then show her a more appropriate behavior to do. For example, in my house the sequence is “Ronnie, Come!” → reward → “Ronnie, down-stay.” That way she is away from being able to stare at the window and ferociously guard the house from the invading squirrel army, and she is also near me so that I can continue to give her treats every so often as she remains in the down position and not barking. I typically release her from that down-stay after a few minutes. My goal is for barking to be less reinforcing then her down-stay is. I do this by adding treats to the down-stay!

Another important thing to do is to practice this sequence when there isn’t actually a UPS person or visitor there. That way, when it’s game time and the UPS person is approaching, Rosie has already practiced what to do over and over and over again before the stakes were ever actually high.

The good news is that old dogs really can learn new tricks! It just takes a little longer because their habits are already well practiced. The important thing is to practice and stay very, very consistent! Inconsistency on the part of the trainer creates confusion on the part of the dog, so when learning a new skill consistency is necessary to achieve success.

Angela writes:

We have a Lab retriever, Georgie Jane, she is almost 4 months old. We recently enrolled her in training classes and they use a clicker, as well. However, these training sessions will address sit, leave it, red light, green light commands and not the current behavioral situation we are facing right now—biting. Her biting is becoming a bit too aggressive and when we attempt to correct it using the methods that we have learned from various feedback, it does not work. Therefore, we have instituted a “time out” in her crate as a result to give her a “reset.” We do not yell at her or send her there for punishment, but something must be done to curtail the almost attack like biting which occurs more than once daily. What is your suggested method to assist with this behavior while she is young? Please note, the giving of a toy in place of our hand or body is not working; oftentimes we are away from a toy while in the yard and she approaches seeming ready for a pet or to play—we acknowledge but soon after it turns into lack of interest in the toy or playing and more with the biting. Please help!!!  

Hi Angela,

First off, Georgie Jane is the most stinkin’ adorable name that I have ever heard in my life.

Second, the puppy piranha stage is no fun! You are absolutely on the right track with using a “time out.” If I use the crate as a “time out/take a break” spot, then I typically put them in there with a tasty chew toy of some sort as well. This keeps the crate from turning into a punishment as well as giving them something to focus all that excess energy onto so that she will be more relaxed when she gets out.

What puppies are looking for when they are biting is attention—they are playing with us the same way that they play with their littermates. What we want to make sure is that they learn that not only is that NOT the way to ask for our attention, but also that “using teeth makes the humans go away.”

For biting and mouthing, consistency and patience are key!

  1. Try to redirect to a toy. If that works, praise!
  2. If toy doesn’t work, stand up, look away, remove your hands and count to 10. All attention is removed and playtime is put on “pause.” After you get to 10, try to reengage with a toy.
  3. If you have tried to “pause” a few times but the biting continues, just quickly stand up and leave the room. Count to 10, then come back in and attempt to reengage with a toy.
  4. If she’s in a puppy way-too-wound-up state, put her in the crate, give her a treat and a long-lasting tasty chew of some sort (like a KONG stuffed with peanut butter). Let her self-soothe and calm down in there for about 10‒15 minutes and then let her attempt to rejoin the family when she is not so wound up.

The thing to remember is that puppies are infants. They truly are not developed enough yet to have full regulation of their emotions. Just like human toddlers who lose it and wail like you’ve broken their hearts over the tiniest silly thing, puppies are the same. And they do get that overtired “BUT I’M NOT SLEEPY YET” crankiness too. Those are definitely the times to jump to #4—“time out.” It’s absolutely a time to give her something else appropriate to chew on while she self-soothes. That will help to encourage only calm interactions with you and your family.

If she comes up to you with a toy—great! Make sure you play with her actively with tug or fetch or another game she likes instead of just giving her the toy for her to walk away with and entertain herself. We want to make sure to acknowledge, “YES, Georgie Jane girl, THIS is how we play!”

It sounds like she is getting plenty of exercise, which is great! I would give her a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day plus 15‒30 min of training a day. Training makes puppies very mentally tired! That little brain is being put to work. I also recommend puzzle feeders. Why waste food in a bowl when you can make it work for you to entertain your puppy for 30 minutes? There are all sorts of puzzle toys you can find online. My dogs’ favorites are the snuffle mat, the KONG Wobbler, and the Outward Hound Spinner toy.

The final thing that many people forget is that puppies NEED sleep. Usually a lot more sleep than we allow them. I read an article recently that stated that puppies should actually be getting between 18‒20 hours of sleep a day (less as they get older of course)! Growing and learning takes a lot of energy that needs to be replenished with good, uninterrupted sleep. Often when they are sleepy, they are more cuddly and docile, so we naturally bother them and wake them up. This leads to a grouchy, sleep-deprived puppy that may get frustrated a little easier than normal. Which usually leads to them using their teeth.

So! Big takeaways:

  • More sleep
  • Good exercise
  • Mental engagement with training and puzzles
  • Teeth make the humans go away

Good luck and have fun! I promise she will grow out of this—right about the time her adult teeth start coming in and they don’t hurt as much anyway!

Herb writes:

Here’s a good question. With limited vision it is hard to find the dog’s waste after it has gone [to the bathroom]. Is there a way to train the dog to stay so that we can just follow the back to the tail and know that the waste will be right there? Maybe the clicker method could be used?

Hi Herb!

Ahh, the walking pooper. The dog that makes every guide dog instructor’s hair go early grey! For context: when a Leader Dog is relieving itself, we advise clients to locate the “deposit” by trailing their hand down the leash to the dog, then down to the dog’s tail. That should give a pretty good idea of where to aim the doggy bag. However, if the dog moved during the process, the search can be more challenging.

Unfortunately, this is a difficult situation to offer advice for because it often depends on the individual personality of the dog.

There are many dogs that are “private poopers,” if you will. If you interfere with them to try to get them to remain stationary, they will just stop pooping until afforded a little more privacy. This can lead to issues with the dog relieving itself on route (while out walking in harness with an instructor or client).

I have seen SOME success with gently holding the dog in place with a short leash or by the collar. I have also seen some success with moving myself to stand in front of the dog and using my body as a block to prevent the dog from walking forward.

I don’t use a clicker with this because I can’t get a high enough rate of repetition for the dog to ever really have the chance to deduce what exactly I’m clicking for. Nature only calls every so often, and after several hours pass the dog has forgotten what they were doing at the time of the earlier click.

My best advice is to choose a well-lit area (depending on your level of residual vision) or enlist a friend to do a spot check after the fact to make sure that each mess is fully gathered. And keep your feet still while locating the “deposit!” There is nothing worse than a poop shoe in the morning!

Wendy writes:

My dog comes out of his crate barking and jumping every time. I got this dog from a breeder when he was 1 year 4 months. I believe this was allowed or tolerated by the breeder. What can I do to change this behavior? He has had some positive reinforcement training… and does respond. Just need some steps to do to stop the excessive barking and jumping when he is excited and leaving his crate. 

Hi Wendy!

It seems like he has gotten a LOT of practice being way over-excited when a person comes in to get him. Now, he can’t stop himself from overreacting to his feelings while being in the crate when you let him out: he’s been all alone! He’s been waiting for you, Mom! He’s missed you and thought about you the whooole entttiiiiire tiiiiiiime!

Your goal will be to teach him a calm behavior when exiting the crate and greeting you upon your return. When you come in from being out of the house, ignore him. Ignore him until out of the corner of your eye, you notice that he has laid down in his crate and is doing something “calm.” Then walk over to him and casually toss a treat. If he gets too excited, just walk away again. Your voice and your body needs to be very, very calm and slow. Your dog is going to be watching you, so everything that you’re giving off needs to be relaxed.

Repeat your approach until your dog is relaxed enough to hold a down-stay or a sit-stay while the door is opened. Let him out and head straight outside the room or the house without any interactions until he has calmed down enough not to jump on you and bark.

I would also start teaching your dog the cues “wait” and “OK!” You can practice some patience with the “wait” cue by cueing it at doors to outside, while you’re putting the food bowl down, or before your dog is allowed out of the car at the park, etc. Cue “wait” and reward your dog for staying put. Then allow them to go forward to get what they want on the cue “OK!”

Consistency is definitely key here. If he’s barking, he doesn’t get let out of the crate. You are working to instill patience and calm before he is allowed out. We want your approach to the crate to be no big deal to your dog. We want your dog to think, “If I lie down and stay calm, Mom actually comes to get me sooner.” It’s going to take a little longer to get him out than you’re used to for a little while, but stay consistent and the payoff will be worth it! Good luck!

Gretchen writes:

It is my understanding the puppy raisers are not supposed to use the clickeris that correct? I am a breeding mom host. If my understanding that puppy raisers do not use a clicker [is correct], can I assume that my [Leader Dog Mom] has not been trained with a clicker since I believe she was not at [Leader Dog’s campus] very long before she was selected for breeding? I am trying to figure out if I wanted to do clicker training with her if I would be starting from scratch or not. Also, just curious… I assume that the [Leader Dog] client will not use a clicker. How do you transition the dog away from the clicker? 

Gretchen,

You are correct! The majority of puppy raisers use a verbal marker of “yes!” and then reward. Your Leader Dog Mom (LDM) will probably be very excited if you say “yes” in a perky tone.

If you want to start using a clicker with your LDM, I assure you it does not take long for them to build the association with click=reward. Some people “load the clicker” to begin by using the clicker for something like 10 clicks in a row and giving the subsequent treats for “free” (not asking the dog to do anything to earn the click).

I prefer to start with cueing familiar, simple behaviors like “sit,” “touch,” etc. and use the click as a marker for the second that “rear-end touches ground” or “nose touches hand.” I find that the dogs catch on pretty quickly!

The clicker is also only used when you’re working on something new! Once your training goal has been met for a certain behavior, you can retire that clicker and only reward with food, praise, toy play, etc. Even though the specific marker of the clicker has faded, the positive reinforcement should not!

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