Positive Reinforcement Training Protocal
Keep your Employees Safe and Gain Client Trust
By Kama Preston
One of the trickiest parts of running any business is getting all the staff members on the same page. In an animal boarding and daycare business, how staff members implement and follow a routine can mean the health and safety of themselves and the animals.
In just the same way that a kennel carries out a routine for administering medicine, treating injuries, reporting client complaints and cleaning out the kennels, an easy to follow positive reinforcement training protocol can be put into place.
Getting all staff members to implement a positive training protocol for the dogs in care is an excellent way to reduce aggression, reduce stress, avoid injuries and gain client trust. Having a staff savvy in positive reinforcement training is a wonderful way to reduce an employees’ anxiety about what to do in an unexpected situation concerning canine behavior.
With all of the following example training protocols, you’ll want to make sure that you begin by telling the employees what they’ll be seeing and learning, then demonstrate the skills with a dog in a typical kennel setting. Next, allow the employee to practice the new skill with the dog.
The following are a few beginning protocols that I use to give employees a nice foundation of positive training skills and concepts. It’s not a full education but it’s a great place to start teaching the concepts of a positive training mindset.
Problem Situation #1:
A dog in daycare is almost always good, but he snaps and growls whenever a few certain dogs jump on him during play. The snapping doesn’t contact skin but it makes the other dogs jump back and get excited. The tension begins to rise in the group and the situation makes the employees nervous.
Have the employees practice communicating specific language about unwanted behaviors. Employees should say or mark that ‘Sugar Pie snaps whenever other dogs jump on her or run into her during play.’ This is a clear and precise way for others to understand, rather than marking simply ‘Sugar pie snaps at other dogs.’
Behavior like this is typically caused by arousal. Arousal is that emotion in-between appropriate play and aggression. A great sign of arousal is the hair going up on the back of a dog’s body. Squealing and high pitched whining are other great arousal signs. Chasing in very fast, tight circles is another arousal inducing game. Arousal is not aggression but it can easily set the stage for it.
One way to reduce arousal is to walk around the perimeter of the play field calmly and at a normal pace. Dogs will naturally follow anyone moving about and so just by doing this you are able to get most of the dogs interested in moving around and focusing on things other than each other.
Another great tactic is to clap your hands, use a high pitched “let’s go” and seem to be interested in something much further away to break up the dogs. Say the problem dog has just snapped and you want to prevent any further confrontations. Clap your hands while walking away and then bend down 15-20 feet away and pretend to look at something. Just about every dog will come over to you and as soon as they do, stand up and walk away, leaving them to sniff the floor for a moment. Sniffing is a natural diffusion behavior for dogs, so encouraging and allowing them to sniff as much as possible will reduce their arousal.
Dealing with the situation this way allows employees to avoid putting their hands into a group of excitable dogs to grab a collar or pick a small dog up, which reduces the potential for snapping and scratching.
Of course, always instruct employees to remove the dog if the situation seems dangerous. Removing a repeat client’s dog won’t solve the problem and isn’t bound to make the owner happy, so I only do this if the problem dog is actually touching the other dogs with his/her teeth. As long as all the dogs seem safe, I try to reduce the tension and help the problem dog settle down a bit and learn to enjoy the group.
To recap: Explain what arousal looks like in a dog and then demonstrate walking the perimeter of the daycare yard at a normal pace with a group of dogs. Allow each employee to practice.
Problem situation #2:
A dog jumps on and barks at employees constantly during daycare or when anyone enters the kennel. The dog is friendly but is creating a problem by making employees drop things, while scratching their arms and legs. Each encounter with the dog is taking the employees twice as long as it needs to.
Zip tie a plastic bucket to a place on the kennel that no dog is able to get into. Fill the bucket with popcorn (only if the owner has approved this as a treat), kibble or treats. For the first day, put a sign on the dog’s kennel that instructs all employees who walk by the kennel to drop one piece of popcorn or kibble on the floor of the kennel through the bars. It’s best to do this without stopping, looking or talking to the dog since the key is to reduce time. Just simply walk by, put popcorn in kennel and keep walking. It’s really important that the dog doesn’t jump and grab the piece of food as it’s falling. The dog should only eat the popcorn when he/she has all four feet on the ground. So if the dog is jumping at the front of the kennel, then throw it towards the back.
On the second day, whenever the employees in charge of feeding/walking the dog go into the kennel, have them drop 4-5 pieces of popcorn towards the back of the kennel, so the dog must walk away from them in order to get the treat. When the dog comes back from eating, immediately drop another piece on the ground right in front of them. Then, ask the dog to sit and give them one more piece of popcorn.
On the third day, have any employee who goes into the kennel ask the dog to sit and then drop a piece of popcorn on the ground as soon as the dog sits. Continue this for the dog’s stay and the dog should be manageable without jumping. If the dog begins jumping again once outside of the kennel, drop a piece of popcorn on the ground every 10 feet or so for a day and then every 20 feet on the second day, until finally you are able to walk the entire way with just one piece of popcorn.
To recap: Drop in a piece of popcorn whenever employees go by for the first day. Throw popcorn into the back of the kennel once you’ve opened it, on the second day. Ask the dog to sit before receiving popcorn on the third day. Drop popcorn on the ground whenever necessary, while transporting and interacting with the dog to keep their feet firmly planted on the floor.
Problem Situation #3:
A dog barks non-stop, creating a stressful working environment.
Gaining a quiet kennel is a little bit of magic we all wish would come bottled and could be poured into the water. Unfortunately, it takes a little bit more creativity and time. I’ve personally found that only a few dogs set off the whole place and as long as I can keep those dogs quiet, I’ll generally have a semi-silent atmosphere.
Once employees have identified the barkers from the non-barkers, a new routine can take place. Barkers should always go outside first, so they have the least amount of time and impact on stirring up all the non-barkers. I always feed the barkers their food on the floor. The longer it takes them to eat, the better. This is another skip the bowl situation.
Actually, the longer their mouth is busy doing something else, the better. I always have frozen Kong toys on hand for the barkers. If they have a strict diet, I simply freeze water inside of them. If they’re allowed treats, I fill them with frozen ice cubes of wet dog food or use a spatula to spread some peanut butter on the kennel floor. I used to use paper plates but those often got eaten. If the dog is staying longer than a few days, I give them some of their daily kibble in a food toy, such as a Buster Cube or a Kong Wobbler.
I keep the zip tied bucket of popcorn on their kennels and have all employees drop in a piece whenever they notice the dog is quiet.
Usually after about 48 hours I can get a barker to be a non-barker, just in time for the next barker to come in...
To recap: Have employees identify and communicate with each other which dogs seem to bark in between feeding and potty times, or the dogs who bark much longer than the other dogs. Create a routine for the identified barker to receive food on the ground, food in toys, popcorn dropped during quiet moments and peanut butter spread on the floor.
Problem Situation #4:
A staff member reports that a dog growled at them.
Employees should know that dogs growl for many different reasons and that it can be difficult to simplify or always know the reasons. So all employees should make note of when the dog growls and also when the dog does not growl. For example, an employee might note the growling as ‘Rex growls when you pick up his empty bowl. Rex does not growl when you put food in the bowl.’
Using specific wording will make it easier to change the behavior and reduce the employees’ fear about working with the dog. When a kennel card simply says ‘Rex growls,’ it can seem unpredictable and scary to anyone who doesn’t know Rex. Assuming Rex has passed an initial behavior assessment with the owner, we can conclude that this behavior is happening under only certain circumstances.
Once the behavior has been reported and the circumstances under which it is happening is made clear to everyone, it’s time to implement the training.
The first rule of training is always to reduce the opportunity for unwanted behavior. If you have a guillotine kennel system it’s an easy problem to avoid, simply make sure the dog is on the other side of the kennel run when feeding and cleaning.
If you cannot put the dog in another area while feeding and cleaning, skip the bowl and scoop out the correct amount of food and pour it on the floor or blanket in their kennel. This way, no one needs to pick up or put down a bowl and the whole problem can be avoided.
To recap: Practice communicating clear and specific wording between employees about problem behaviors. Brainstorm ways to avoid opportunities for the unwanted behavior to occur.
The basic rules of positive reinforcement are very simple. The first rule is to do no harm. This means that during the training process, we do not use fear or intimidation. Often times using fear or intimidation can work right away in the moment, seemingly solving the problem right then and there. In reality, using fear only shuts down the animal, creating an animal that, for a moment, suppresses their behaviors. This happens because the animal is more afraid of you than he/she is of anything else at the moment and so a natural reaction is to stop demonstrating any behaviors. Shutting an animal down is always a temporary fix; the behavior will always come back eventually.
The second rule is to prevent the unwanted behavior from happening whenever possible during the training process.
In all of the previous cases, it would have been possible to solve the same issues with punishment. It’s easy and quick to spray a dog with water, push them off with your knee or hold an air horn near their ear. I won’t deny that these things work either, because they do work in the moment. By being able to talk to owners about positive training protocols, your clients will have complete trust that if something goes wrong, their dog will have a stress free way to work through it.