Impulse Control — Watch

There are a number of exercises you can practice and behaviors you can train to help lower your dog’s arousal level and strengthen their abilities for self-control. The “watch” behavior is an excellent example. It is relatively easy to teach, however, watch needs to be practiced and reinforced a great deal, initially with no or low distractions, in order for it to be successful out in the world when you need it most. In this post I will outline how to teach watch, practice it, and apply it to everyday life.

Using the “watch” behavior can be very useful, especially if you are dealing an adolescent or reactive dog. When a dog learns to look at his handler (directly) on cue it means the dog is no longer looking at another object (stimulus) that might cause him to get aroused. By using an incompatible behavior, watching you, your dog cannot also be staring at something he’s prone to react to.

In a non-distracting environment, no other dogs or activities going on take a very yummy treat and hold it right up to your dog’s nose. Before he grabs for it raise the treat up to your nose and pause for a moment or two. As long as your dog looks toward your face mark the behavior (with a click or “yes”) and give the treat to your dog. Note: you should not move your hand until after you have marked the behavior! You can use verbal praise as you deliver the treat.

You will not be adding the word “watch” yet, because your dog doesn’t understand the behavior, so the word would not have meaning or context.

If you are wondering why you would mark the behavior of looking at your face vs. looking in your eyes it’s because some dogs are not comfortable offering direct eye contact. This is because direct eye contact can be confrontational, especially in dog-to-dog interactions. You will want to pace your training based on your dog’s confidence and comfort level with the exercise.

As your dog gets more comfortable looking directly at you, gradually extend the amount of time your dog holds your gaze before you mark the behavior i.e. count to three and then mark the behavior and give the treat. If your dog looks away before the full count to three just say “oops” and restart the behavior. Now that your dog is looking in your eyes you can add the verbal cue “watch”. To introduce the word you will say it just before you present the treat in front of your dog’s nose.

Once your dog is consistently looking at you when you raise the treat to your nose, you can make the exercise harder by using both hands. Have a treat in each hand, place both hands/treats at your dog’s nose, then raise both hands to your nose, and now separate your hands to the left and right. Your dog may look from left to right (or vice versa), the moment your dog looks in your eyes, even for a nanosecond, mark the behavior and give the treat. This will help him understand that it’s eye contact you are looking for.

Practice this for several days in a non-distracting environment and reinforce generously every time your dog looks at you when you say “watch”. Try to make it into a fun game. When your dog’s just hanging out and not paying any attention to you say “Dog’s name watch” and mark the moment he turns his head toward you and shower him with treats, praise and/or have an unexpected play session.

Now that your dog understands how rewarding it is to look at you when you say “watch” it’s time to start using it in the real world. For our example we’ll assume the dog’s issue is a desire to chase cars as they drive by. You will want to pick a training location that is close enough to periodic traffic that you will have a chance to train but not so close or with so much traffic that your dog gets over stimulated/threshold*.

Preparations for training:
• You’ve selected a training area perhaps at a local park or near an intersection in your neighborhood where you can safely be away from the traffic as you gradually refine your new skill.
• Your dog has been well exercised.
• Your dog is hungry.
• You have lots of tasty treats.

As you approach the training location with your dog keep an eye out for traffic. The moment you see a car approaching you will ask your dog to watch, do not wait until the car is near you, that will be too late. Position your body so that when your dog looks at you he is also looking AWAY from the oncoming vehicle. As your dog turns to look at you mark the behavior and give several treats. Continue feeding your dog as the car passes by. If your dog was successful, stop feeding once the car has passed you and ask your dog for another behavior like a sit or down and reward that calm behavior. If your dog was not successful it’s likely you were too close to the road and the vehicle. Next time try to be at least an additional 10 feet away, continue to add distance until your dog is able to be successful.

Continue working in this same location until your dog is giving you a quick watch at least 8 out of 10 times you ask for it, and is able to be calm throughout the training session. Once you have achieved this level of success in the initial training location you can try a new setting. If your dog regresses in the new setting don’t be discouraged. Dogs do not generalize well and your dog may just need you to take it more slowly. Add more distance between you and the traffic and continue the training as you did in your original location.

Good luck 🙂

* Threshold — The point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced. Merriam-Webster.


Yes, it was noisy!

Petite Pooch class last night was noisy, as expected. It started with a few over excited pups waiting in the lobby for our training room to open up (there was a class finishing up in there). There was alarm barking at every movement! My immediate suggestion was for each owner to provide their dog with some tasty treats, to distract them. Additionally I suggested that they try to turn their dog away from the doorway so that they wouldn’t see EVERY dog coming & going. The lobby area is always a challenge as we turn over classes.

Once all the little ones were in the training room they were still yappy. I think mostly because their adrenalin was so high from both being in the lobby and the new environment of the training facility — they just couldn’t help themselves. I continued to ask the handlers to feed their dogs, to help quiet them.

At the beginning of class I also ask that folks not hold their dogs on their laps (unless a dog is especially terrorized) because that doesn’t allow the dog to gain confidence on its own. I try to make sure that there’s ample distance between the dogs so that a neighbor can’t unexpectedly get into a dog’s immediate space — so they can feel safe.

With all the barking it gets to be a little difficult to hear/talk over the din, however, as soon as people start working on skills with their dogs i.e. the first behavior I train is developing their marker word “yes”, it’s amazing how quiet the room becomes! I am convinced that at least 95% of all dogs want to work. There’s no need to bark if you’re busy, and happy about it!

The class ended up wonderfully quiet with lots of wagging tails 🙂


Therapy Dogs International Testing Part 9


This test demonstrates that the dog is confident at all times when faced with common distracting situations, such as the dropping of a large book or a jogger running in front of the dog. The dog may express a natural interest and curiosity and/or appear slightly startled, but should not panic, try to run away, show aggressiveness, or bark.

The key to this test is your dog’s ability to recover if your he has an initial reaction to the stimuli (assuming it isn’t an aggressive reaction).

If you have a noise sensitive dog you want to very gradually desensitize him to a wide range of noises. For example, let’s say your dog hates the vacuum cleaner. He either is afraid of it or wants to attack it. The easiest way to desensitize him to it is to set up this scenario: 2 people — one with the vacuum in room A and one with the dog & some tasty treats in room B. Make sure that the dog starts out in a relaxed state.

Have the person in room A start the vacuum, immediately upon hearing the vacuum the person in room B should see if the dog will eat some tasty treats. If the dog will eat the treats and is not making a fuss about the vacuum you are on the way to desensitizing the dog to the noise of the vacuum. If the dog is still agitated or afraid, you will need to move the vacuum to a further location in the house. Assuming the dog was calm the handler continues to feed tasty treats until the vacuum is turned off. When the noise stops so does the feeding. Continue on at this distance for a day or two. Work up until the point where the vacuum is in the next room. If your dog can handle the noise this close you will then move your dog into the same room as the vacuum, with the vacuum off. As soon as the vacuum is turned on, feeding starts again. If the dog gets agitated or won’t eat, quickly take the dog back into the adjacent room and turn the vacuum off. You will have to work at a greater distance for a little longer.

Once your dog can handle being in the same room with the running vacuum you’ll see if you can walk your dog up toward the running vacuum (while feeding him tasty treats), being careful not to pull or force the issue. If the dog gets agitated you’ve moved too quickly, so add some more space.

These same methods can be used to desensitize your dog to almost any stimuli he has reactions to.

Good luck 🙂


Therapy Dogs International Testing Part 6


This test evaluates your dog’s training for sit, down and stay.

I am going to split this blog into two parts. Part one how to teach your dog to sit and down. Part 2 will be how to teach your dog to stay.

In TDI testing you can use more than one signal or cue, so do your dog a favor and make sure you give him as much information as he needs.

I suggest people start training most behaviors using a hand signal (vs. verbal cue) first because dogs are masters at reading body language. Once your dog understands that the hand signal means do a certain behavior you can then add the verbal cue by saying it just before you use your hand signal.

Let’s start at the beginning with teaching sit. You’ll start by taking a tasty treat and holding it just at your dog’s nose. As he starts to sniff the treat very gradually raise your hand, just enough to elevate your dog’s muzzle 90 degrees. As your dog’s nose rises in the air his butt should head to the floor (it’s physics). The moment his butt hits the floor use your marker and give him a treat and release him from the exercise. Repeat 5 times. Practice this a couple times a day for several days. At this point your dog should be pretty good at sitting this way. This is when you’ll add your verbal cue “sit” just before you bring the food to your dog’s nose. Practice this for a couple days. Your dog should be sitting very well by now, as long as you have food in your hand.

Now for the transition to having no food in your hand. NOTE: You MUST stop using food in your signal hand after the 1st week or two or your dog will become dependent on it! Here’s how you go about making this transition — initially put the food in your non-signal hand, pretend as if you have food in your signal hand use your hand signal and say the verbal “sit”. Your dog should sit. When he does give him a treat and release him from the exercise. Repeat 5x.

Up until this point you should be reinforcing (feeding) your dog for every sit you ask for. Once your dog can reliably give you a sit 80% of the time that you ask him to sit i.e. if you ask for 10 sits you’ll get at least 8 on the 1st request, you can start to randomize when you will reinforce the behavior. You will reinforce the 2nd sit, the 5th sit, the 6th sit, the 8th sit, etc. The key is to be RANDOM. This is how you work to remove food from the immediate training picture.

You will teach the down using the same principals that you just used for the sit:  food in your hand signal, followed by adding the verbal cue, and then transitioning to no food in your signal hand, and finally randomizing your rewards.

To get the down it is usually easiest to ask for it when your dog is sitting. You will NOT mark that sit (or you’ll never get beyond that point) you can feed it if you want to but don’t mark it. Once your dog is sitting you will take a piece of food from his nose and bring it straight down (as if on a string) to the floor. Your dog’s nose should be following the treat in your hand. Once your hand’s at the floor you may want to move the treat either in toward your dog’s body or out away from your dog’s body, along the floor. This sounds contradictory but it really depends on the dog — I think it may have something to do with their individual structure. Anyway, at first you will mark any behavior even approximating a down, such as a leg extension, even the bowing of the head. hopefully you will get a full down within the first 5 tries. Once your dog is giving you a nice down you will progress in the same manner you did with the sit outlined above.

Small dogs seem to have more difficulty with the down. If you run into this problem see if you can sit on the floor with your dog. Extend one of your legs, so it”s laying flat on the floor. Your dog should be sitting or standing on one side. You will slightly bend your knee, adding a little elevation and provide a little gingerbread trail under your leg for your dog to follow. As they are crawling under your leg hold a treat at their nose so they stop their forward movement for a moment. Lightly & slowly lower your leg — your dog should now be in a down! Mark the behavior, give them the treat and release.

Next time we’ll work on teaching your dog to stay!

Therapy Dogs International Testing Part 5


In this test the dog is evaluated on how well he walks through/amongst a crowd of people (at least 3).

Once your dog is comfortably meeting & greeting strangers calmly (Exercises 1 & 2) and walking on a loose leash (#4) they have the skills to start working on walking through a crowd successfully.

You probably already walk your dog on leash through your neighborhood. If your dog just casually notices other walkers and continues to be calm in their presence, you are off to a great start — reward your dog for his good behavior!  If however, you have one of the social butterflies who believes all strangers are for greeting then you will have some work to do.

If your dog gets excited upon seeing people on the street you may want to do one or both of the following:

• Take your dog a little further off the street, or sidewalk, so they will not even have a chance to interact with the approaching person/people.

• Initially you may also want to ask your dog to sit, as it’s harder to get up and lunge if your dog is already sitting.

While you’re dog’s sitting feed him tasty treats while the person/people pass by. As soon as the person/people are out of reach stop feeding your dog and continue on your way. After a few trials of this your dog should be able to sit still without constant feeding. If your dog holds his sit on his own as the person/people walk by mark the behavior as the people get out of reach and give your dog a jackpot (5 or 6 tasty treats) for doing the behavior so well on his own.

Once the sit calmly is mastered you can try to continue walking as a person/people approach, but you may still want to be a couple of feet off the street, away from them. If necessary you can hold some tasty treats at your dog’s nose as you walk by. Praise a lot if your dog doesn’t give the people any attention! You will gradually increase the difficulty (allowing your dog to be closer to the oncoming person/people) until your dog can pass by others with hardly a care.

You will want to be proactive. When you see a person/people approaching start talking to your dog and getting his attention on you. Praise him a lot for choosing to give you attention instead of giving it to others.

Once you are having success you may want to take your dog into town or to a local park where you can expect to really meet up with some crowds. You must remember that you want to set your dog up for success, not failure. So don’t over expose him to too much stimuli (too many people) too quickly or early on in his training.

Also, in preparation for testing you will want to make sure your dog is comfortable with folks who might be jogging or even on a skateboard or rollerblades. You would train for these stimuli using the same methods as above.

Good luck 🙂

Positive Reinforcement Training and using a Marker

Positive reinforcement training is based in science. I won’t get into too much technical information here, however I will start off by identifying what I mean by positive reinforcement.

Positive means something is “added” to the situation.

A reinforcer is ANYTHING that will build or maintain a behavior. In a training environment common reinforcers are things like tasty treats or a chance to play with a toy.

The timing of when the reinforcer is added to the situation matters a great deal. Especially with puppies who move VERY quickly. If your timing is late you may end up reinforcing the wrong behavior. This is why many positive reinforcement trainers use a “marker”. A marker is a conditioned signal that tells the dog/puppy that they just did something right and that a treat will promptly follow. A couple popular markers are:

• A verbal cue, like the word “Yes”

• A clicker (a little metal box that makes a click sound when you press it with your thumb)

To condition the marker you just pair it with a reinforcer like food. Let’s use the “Yes” word for our example. You would take out 5 tasty treats to start (you might want to hold them behind your back so the puppy doesn’t just stare at your hand). Your puppy does not have to do anything except eat for this exercise. You will say the word “Yes” in a cheerful upbeat voice and promptly follow it by delivering a treat to your puppy’s mouth. You repeat this 5x in short succession. Your puppy’s probably already catching on to this new fun game.

Before each training session you should power up your “Yes” with the 5 treat exercise as described above so your puppy’s primed for learning. One thing to keep in mind, do NOT use the word “Yes” if you don’t have any food. It will begin to lose it’s power. Also, never just say “Yes”  to get your dog’s attention, remember the “Yes” means “you just did something good” and that might not be the case.

Now that you have a powerful marker to help you communicate with your puppy you can start training new behaviors. Markers can help with house training, teaching basic commands like sit & down and so much more.

More next time 🙂