Good Enough Maybe Isn’t

boy rewarding a cocker spaniel standing on a bucketDogs are remarkable. They are so adept at figuring out what we want that we are often led to believe that we know what we’re going. Enough dogs figured out how to change their behavior when faced with Cesar Millan’s alpha rolling, tssking, and neck pokes that people came to believe that they knew how to be leaders and how dogs need to be handled. As with any product or service being marketed, only the success stories are highlighted and aired, or pasted into magazine ads and stories. But don’t be fooled. For every success story there are failures. There are the people who did not lose 20 pounds in two weeks, stop smoking forever, speak a different language fluently in a month or get 45 miles to the gallon. Unfortunately when we apply the term “failures” to dogs it means either dead or subjected to a life of misery in a cage or on a chain somewhere.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in dog training. On one hand there are the people who are so invested in the method they are using that they can’t see that any lack of success with it is likely due to flaws in the method in general. Dogs don’t live in packs, they don’t have pack leaders so why should employing a method based on being a pack leader be expected to work? But it often does work, and for this reason, in the cloud of misinformation, people put the blame on the dog or their own ability to fully manifest the energy of a true pack leader.

On the other hand we can have methods which have shown that when correctly applied change behavior in almost all the dogs they are used with. But when these methods are used improperly, usually unwittingly and innocently enough, and they don’t work, the method itself is tossed into the trash and new ones are invented. It’s a lucrative market this dog training industry with its endless supply of equipment and magic methods for changing behavior. It often goes something like this- we are able to train 8 out of 10 dogs using the subpar application of a training method, the two dogs who for one reason or another require a more perfect execution of the method become examples of why the method doesn’t always work, instead of being canaries in the coal mine indicating that there may be problems afoot with the way the training is being performed.

One of the milestones for me in my journey to help a very scared dog was when I realized that I did not have the skills necessary to train a dog with the level of fearfulness my dog was displaying. The margin for error was smaller than it was with other dogs who were willing to continue to remain engaged with me long enough for the light bulb to finally go off in their head, “Oh so this is what she wants!”

I have gotten to the point where I’m confident that I know what I’m doing based on the research I’ve done and education I’ve received in animal behavior and learning. But I also know that I can keep getting better at doing it. No doubt that one day there’s going to be a dog who will point out the flaws in my technique and I will remind myself to point the finger where it needs to be, at me, not at the dog or the method.

Say Thank You

man giving dog treats while out on a walk

Thanks for sticking around during a walk in the woods

If your kids bring you breakfast in bed it’s best not to respond, “I hope you didn’t leave me a mess in the kitchen to clean-up!” Or accept a gift and explain why it’s not something you’d ever use. You could I suppose but not if you want to see either of these examples to occur again. With people we can wait until the end of the day and tell someone how nice it was to get up in the morning and find the coffee made, but with dogs we need to be more immediate with our appreciation. 

In some cases our praise and positive attention is enough reinforcement to see a behavior repeated. But it may not be. Going in to work every week and being awarded a “special employee” plaque may be nice but it’s not likely going to get you to go back every day. You need the paycheck. For most dogs the easiest way to not only show your appreciation of their behavior, but to increase the chances you’ll see it again is by giving them a bit of food. It’s easy enough to do, so long as you’ve prepared yourself for it.

This week practice saying thank you to your dog. Look for behaviors you like, as simple or basic as they may seem. Want to be able to get your dog’s attention more easily? Give them a piece of cheese when they look at you. Want your dog to come when you call them? Slip them a piece a chicken when they run up and check-in with you at the dog park. Can you catch your dog looking out of the window and not barking at squirrels? Prepare yourself for the inevitability of success by having food reinforcers handy and available. No doubt your dog will thank you.

Surviving in the Wilderness

dog under desk touching a target stick When I was younger I trained to be an “outdoor leader” so I could take people into the mountains or on rivers, for days at a time. I studied wilderness first aid and carried a knife to cut ropes, wore a helmet and PFD on rivers, enjoyed shopping for clothes and shoes designed using the latest technology and fabric for keeping me warm and dry, and coveted other people’s back packs for their good looks or ergonomic design.

As leaders we talked about and practiced what to do if something went wrong. We considered the ways we could remedy the problem using the equipment we had on hand or improvising with what we could find. There was always something new available to make the job easier; lighter, stronger paddles and boat hulls or better signaling technology in case you got caught in an avalanche. We learned to prioritize so we would focus on the key issues we’d face in an emergency. The bottomline becomes very clear and helps to direct our actions and to guide us as to what skills we needed to practice. If someone isn’t breathing or struggling to breathe, they’ll die. If they are bleeding excessively or their heart is stopped, they’ll die (and in pretty quick order in the latter case).

In the wilderness of dog training we are often faced with a variety of equipment choices and protocols to use to get basically one thing; a dog to behave the way we want them to. Some of the equipment and protocols we can use can make our jobs easier for us. Regardless of what we choose to use the bottomline remains as clear as it is when we have a medical emergency– we need to get a behavior. And making it even clearer, and therefore simpler, is that just as we know how when done correctly blowing into someone’s mouth will put air into their lungs, we know that when reinforced, behaviors are more likely to be repeated. Both are straightforward, true for everybody, systems. If they are not working then either we are doing something wrong (don’t forget to pinch the nose shut) or there is something very wrong (a piece of steak in the windpipe). We have to remove obstacles to success and follow the protocol for performing mouth-to-mouth correctly.

When trying to live with and train a fearful dog it becomes very important that we understand the basics of the system. Once we do we can break out the special equipment or try a new protocol available to us. And we are safer doing either of these when we understand how the system works. Understanding the purpose of an exercise is important. Good ones are about practicing a behavior and being reinforced for doing it. And being reinforced using something the dog feels good about.

In an emergency one of the first rules is to assess the situation. We assess the situation to ascertain what happened and to ensure our own safety. We want to avoid being the fool who rushes in. We can apply the same rule to working with scared dogs. Assess the situation and make sure that we will be safe and that the dog is safe so no further damage will be done. If someone is on fire for gosh sake, put it out. The faster we can extinguish the flames the less damage will be done. True with our dogs as well. If they are afraid figure out what they need to stop feeling that way. Give them space if they need it, a place to hunker down in, talk to a vet about medications to lower anxiety, or simply stop looking at them. Do what you need to do.

Once a dog is no longer fearing for their life we can work on changing the negative emotional responses they are experiencing and making them positive. We do this by pairing the scary thing with something fabulous, usually super good food. If the trigger comes to consistently and reliably predict the good thing, the emotional response changes. If we are not seeing this change then reassess. Is the dog still on fire? Are they still feeling scared and threatened? If so, you have to change that. Are you sure the trigger has been paired with the good thing consistently? Is the good thing good enough? Have you painted the picture clearly enough for the dog– the trigger predicts the treat– all the time?

Along with changing emotional responses we go back to the other basic– reinforcing behaviors we like. If a dog is still too scared to participate in a formal training session, they are still learning and we can still find behaviors to reinforce using positive reinforcement. Can the dog look at you? Turn their head? Stretch their neck? Sniff a toy? These are behaviors we can reinforce because as simple as they seem, they build the foundation not only for future, more complicated behaviors (pick up that toy and bring it back to me) they also contribute to helping the dog understand how *we* operate and how the system works. We do something, they do something and we give them a treat. We say their name, they look at us, we toss a treat. No need to make it more complicated than that.

I think it’s great that dog trainers are always trying to come up with ways to help dogs and make their lives better. But the best protocols and equipment keep your eyes on the prize. Identify the behavior you want and teach the dog to do it using positive reinforcement. Don’t waste your energy stumbling around in the wilderness. If you don’t understand how to apply the basics, find a trainer skilled enough to show you. In medical emergencies we know that we may have a small window in which to address that emergency. When a dog is really afraid we should be as concerned about addressing the crisis they are experiencing. If we don’t, all the equipment and special protocols may not be enough to save their life.

Losing Your Audience

I enjoy reading nonfiction and watching documentaries. But there are some books and videos I will avoid watching or stop watching, they are too upsetting to me. It won’t matter how important someone tells me the information I’d be gaining is or how artfully it is presented. There are award-winning films I have not watched because I know how they end; me feeling bad. Berate me all you like for sticking my head in the sand when I choose Glee over Blackfish, I’m still not watching it (read Death At SeaWorld, I get the picture).

pointy-eared dog looking down

“Were you saying something?”

When we lose our audience we effectively end the conversation. I’m not suggesting that people stop writing well-researched works of nonfiction or producing documentaries featuring behind-the-scenes information most of us are unaware of. I just can’t promise that I’ll want to read or see it.

If I am trying to teach a dog to do something I always consider whether or not they are willing to remain engaged in the conversation. They respond to my behavior with their behavior. For the most part dogs are pretty easy to wow with my conversational prowess, especially when the conversation includes food and play. When I do lose them it’s often because I’ve bored them or have made it an unpleasant enough exchange that they choose to opt out.

Good performers play to their audience and fearful dogs can be a tough one.

 

Suffering the Consequences

small black dog with 3 quills in his noseI heard an interesting piece on NPR’s This American Life radio show. The topic was institutionalized, racial segregation in housing in America. During the 1960′s when people protested, often violently, against this practice a comment made by then President Nixon went something like this, if the demands were met (end policies that perpetuated segregation in housing) the protesters would be rewarded for protesting or rioting, and therefore their demands should not be met.

Knowing that consequences drive behavior we could look at that scenario and agree with President Nixon. We have to be very careful about behaviors we reinforce. Dog owners and trainers could think about the puppy shrieking to get out of her crate. Open the door and the puppy learns that shrieking gets doors open, and that’s not anything we want to encourage. When my husband worked for a youth club years back he was faulted for inviting a young girl to have a snack after she became upset, spewed a litany of swears and hid in a locker. Hadn’t he rewarded her for her bad behavior of swearing and hiding in lockers with the snack offer?

Reinforce it and you’ll likely see more of it. But there’s a piece missing, a big piece, and that’s the reality that when someone, animal or human is upset they may behave in ways we don’t like. If all we are going to rely on is the use of consequences, chiefly punishment, to change their behavior we are in effect forcing them to suffer the consequences, when a goal should be to eliminate the need for those behaviors to be performed in the first place.

If we don’t want people to riot for equal rights or treatment, and accept they should have them, then we either have to provide them with those rights, or provide a way in which they can achieve them without needing to riot. A puppy who screams and whines to be taken out of their crate could be given the opportunity to learn to feel good inside the crate with opportunities to play, rest and chew bones there. They can learn to feel safe and comfortable in their crate for longer and longer periods of time. The little girl who became upset and hid in the locker could be given the tools for expressing herself in a more socially appropriate way. She could have also stood to have had a better home life and this fact makes the use of punishment or the withholding of rewards to change her behavior seem even more inhumane to me.

We are responsible for setting up the conditions for our dogs to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and useful to them. If we can’t create ideal conditions we need to give them skills to be able to cope with less than ideal conditions. Let the consequences drive your behavior. Being able to predict that your dog is not likely to be successful means you can change the conditions to improve the chances that they will be. This will spare you from having to suffer the consequences of your dog’s inappropriate behavior.

Trust Counts

Trust is a central theme of soap operas, TV dramas and political relationships. It’s lauded as being the keystone of good marriages and partnerships. Teenagers are reminded that they will not be allowed to stay home on their own, or out late, or have the keys to the car until they can be trusted. For many people the realization that trust has been “broken” can lead to a lengthy or impossible reconciliation.

If one was inclined to look at the importance we place on trust in a marriage from a biological point of view, the risk of raising someone else’s offspring, or losing the support of a good partner to someone else, could impact the long-term success of one’s own off-spring. But mostly, when someone discovers that their partner was not “faithful,” babies aside, it feels really bad- poem-writing, sad song singing bad.

Dogs are among the few species on the planet who allow us to break trust with them, and not make us pay for it, consistently. Yell at or physically reprimand a cat and you might not see them again, or are at least likely to have to clean out the scratches you received in return. Few believe that the lions in the cage being kept under control with a whip are to be trusted to safely snuggle on the couch with their “tamer.”

We can and do break the trust with our dogs routinely and there is a price. It’s bad enough to wonder if your partner is trustworthy when they call claiming another late night at the office. It’s another to wonder if the person approaching you is going to physically restrain, hurt or scare you. Being at risk physically, even if it’s done leaving no marks, is not something one forgets or puts aside easily.

The risk of losing trust with a dog is greater the shorter the relationship or the smaller the existing trust account. If we, from the moment we meet and handle a dog demonstrate that we are safe and worthy of their trust, and should we have to withdraw from the trust account we’ve built, we are less likely to lose it all. We are less likely to get bitten, or growled at by a dog and more likely to have them come when we call them. A dog’s behavior can tell us as much about our relationship with them as it tells us about them. Trust counts.

 

Staying At The Party

I received this message on Facebook. I thought I’d share it and my response.

“And while I was writing this in response to someone’s question … I was booted from that group ..lol nice Let me tell you what happens every time I state something I believe… I’m abused. I’ll be part of a discussion and before you know it I’m getting bombarded with nasty emails and become everybody’s example of ” what not to do” you’d think instead of ridiculing me for some of my beliefs there’d be someone curious to know how I came to those beliefs… You think I enjoy being hated by my peers? Trust me I don’t but there’s no way around it. When i pose the question ” is it possible to get 100% reliability recall using all positive ” I’m actually hopping to learn something… I’m not looking for a fight. My dogs are reliable with recall , and as a result they have lots of freedom . However the only way I can ensure reliability is with remotes.. Even though the remote NEVER goes past 1. (The lowest setting ) it’s still technically still a shock. I can’t imagine getting 100% reliability without the remote as backup. However if there was a way I’d absolutely change my opinion and switch over.. It’s not about ego for me it’s about making my dogs as happy as I can nothing more… Sorry for the babbling.”

I’m not sure why I have received this message from you. I don’t know you and so wonder if it was meant for someone else, is spam or trolling. But I will take it at face value, on good faith, and will attempt a response.

A question that comes to mind is why you persist in behaving in a way that culminates in a consequence you profess not to like or Lampshade-headwant? Are you honestly seeking answers to your question about training reliable recalls without aversives? Are you an e-collar advocate out to espouse its benefits anywhere, to anyone, at any cost? If it’s the latter I return to the first question. Do you also go to dinner parties and try to convert people to your religion or diet regime, continuing even as other guests pick up their drinks and scurry away from you? Either you want to be at the party or not.

There will be different cultural “rules” at different parties. Frat house parties will allow for certain behaviors that a party with the table set with 3 forks and 2 different spoons would not. I for one would not go to a frat party and try to get the guests to put napkins on their laps before they eat their pizza. Nor would I put the table center piece on my head at a formal gathering regardless of how funny I thought it was. Not if I wanted to be invited back anyway. If I felt that not being able to put the table center piece on my head cramped by artistic freedom or inner child, I would have to seriously consider my choice to attend such parties and the judgement I was using to come to that decision. If I felt very strongly about dining etiquette practices for Delta Phis (or whatever the heck those frats are called) I would consider how well my approach to disseminating information was working or likely to work. Obviously not very well if I was having the door slammed shut and locked behind me after being pushed out of it. If you are indeed looking for answers and not advocating e-collars you probably need to look at how you are saying what you are saying if so many people are missing your point.

The question you are asking, regarding achieving 100% compliance is a disingenuous one. There is no 100% in behavior. We can only predict the likelihood that we will see more or less of a particular behavior based on the consequences for the animal. The makers of e-collars are aware of this and many include a “bump” button that will raise the level of the shock (or stim if you prefer) a set number of levels. If the dog does not respond to level 10, hit the bump button and they get level 30. If we could get 100% at level 10 why the need for a bump? What happens when we don’t get 100% at level 30? Onward and upward?

I would also need clarification as to whether we are talking about using an e-collar for training or management. Many trainers and most pet owners are using them as a management tool, not a training tool. If what you mean to say is that you use an e-collar to replace a longline or fence, I think we should make that distinction. There is no 100% even if an e-collar has been used in training (or for management, dogs are learning when being managed). Any behavior, in the absence of a historic reinforcer or punisher is subject to extinction. The trainers who I have seen who use e-collars more effectively and humanely than most (and there are unfortunately few of them around if what is routinely posted online is any example), rely on positive reinforcement to build and maintain behaviors, i.e., they don’t need to use shock to teach or maintain the behaviors they’ve taught the dog. Many trainers and owners can’t get a reliable recall from their dog because they have failed to provide or stopped providing positive reinforcement for the behavior. They may be “rewarding” the behavior, but they are not reinforcing it and they don’t understand the difference.

I recently attended a training seminar and had the opportunity to learn from people who train birds. The birds are fully flighted and many are taken outside for exercise and enrichment. Flocks of parrots without a bit of hardware on them (nor were they trained using any), and not starved, are allowed to fly around as they like. When they are cued to return to their handlers they do, close enough to 100% of the time for the handlers to continue the practice. Pretty impressive for a creature not touted as “man’s best friend,” the animal who is saddled with an increasingly available array of equipment in order to teach or maintain behavior.

The other fly in the ointment as far as 100% goes is handler error. Batteries go dead, contacts aren’t made, remotes are turned off, a behavior occurs and by the time the handler reaches into their pocket the opportunity for training is long gone and they are instead merely providing a consequence to whatever behavior happens to be occurring at the time they press the button. It may suit their needs or not, but it’s not good training. I also have to question an e-collar which is designed so that level one works for a dog. One would assume that using the lowest level of shock possible to get what they need would be preferable. If there is no lower setting available how can they be sure they are doing that? I can’t help but wonder why the commitment, in the face of social media shunning (if that’s as aversive to you as you seem to trying to say), to promoting an aversive with a high potential for misuse as a training tool, or advertising the use of one?

If you are looking to learn how one achieves high levels of compliance without the use of an e-collar I would look to people who are training dogs to perform at competitive or professional skill levels, trainers like Denise Fenzi and Steve White, to name only two of the many who are out there working with dogs. The way it is done is by arranging antecedents, managing the economy and providing positive reinforcement as consequences in a skilled manner.

Please do not feel that you need to respond to this post publicly. My goal is not to single you out, insult or shame you. I just thought that it was a worthwhile question to answer, even if you were only trying to “get my goat” or sell something. Ultimately we all have to make choices about what we are willing to do to an animal to get the behaviors we decide we need or become skilled enough to get using the least amount of invasiveness.

Just Do It!

boy doing tricks with a small black dogAt a large dog event I watched with some disgust and much dismay, as people who probably really care about their dogs handled them with all I can label was “disrespect.” Dogs were being dragged around on leashes, being reprimanded and jerked for spending too much time (typically measurable in seconds) looking at or sniffing something, not responding to cues fast enough and being left standing on grooming tables while people chatted.

Most of the human behavior was rude though some could be called abusive, and troubling. I realized it was time for me to move on when I found myself watching a groomer handling a young aussie who was not sitting when asked. The dog was being very solicitous, lowering his head and ears, licking and wiggling. I watched as the groomer continued to try unsuccessfully to cue the dog into a sit. Finally she yanked on the lead securing the dog to the stand and slammed his butt down. My own social filters must have been strained because the thought bubble I put over the groomer’s head, and spoke out loud (a tad too out loud) was, “JUST DO IT!”

We know how important good relationships are in all areas of our lives, with our family, friends and pets. I assume dogs are less likely to be given up to shelters or abandoned if their owners feel positively about the relationship they have with them. Working on and repairing these relationships are a part of what many trainers strive to do. But as I watched the groomer manhandle the aussie I realized I had been hoping, for the dog’s sake, that he would just do it to spare himself the wrath I suspect both he and I could see brewing. Why he didn’t will remain a mystery and I prefer to go with the thought that he had his reasons and they were good enough for him and valid enough for the groomer to accept. Maybe he didn’t know what she was asking for, maybe he was worried about something, maybe he would have preferred to have been off the table and had not ever been given a good enough reason for sitting when asked up there. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Life for him at that moment would have been kinder if he had sat when asked.

When you think about it most of our human relationships would improve if the people in our lives did what we wanted them to. It is frequently the daily drag of feeling inconvenienced and ignored that wears away at relationships. If only they; didn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink (get on the furniture with muddy feet), put the toilet seat up or down when they were finished using it (didn’t pee on the carpet), put their smelly socks in the laundry hamper (didn’t chew up our favorite shoes), were on time (came when called), etc. It’s not that we don’t want to feel loved and cared for, but it sure would be nice if they cleaned the bathroom now and then.

As complex as relationships can be, one solution is to teach dogs what it is that their human wants them to do, and put it on cue. Put simply, they do what they are asked to do. The relationship may still require work, but a few well-trained behaviors (using positive reinforcement as the foundation of that training) might act as a tourniquet to keep it alive long enough for the dog to remain in the home where the work can be done.

This is the reasoning behind my upcoming volunteer vacation to three islands in the Caribbean; Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. When pet owners understand how to use positive reinforcement to teach their dogs new behaviors, those dogs are likely to learn and maintain those behaviors, are less likely to end up being part of the sad statistics of homeless animals.

Use Protection

I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.

Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.

The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.

It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.

History Matters

I’ll be at my vet’s office tonight running a class called “Vet Ready!” to help owners and dogs feel more comfortable coming to the clinic. Few things are as clear as how they respond to handling to give you an idea of what they have learned to expect from you. For some owners the way their dog responds is….well….history. The dog has learned that visits to the vet are not happy events. Their behavior will reflect this and both dog and owner are likely to be upset and stressed.

Today my 15lb dog Nibbles got a bit of wood stuck in his teeth. It wasn’t dangerous but it was annoying. Initially I wasn’t sure what he had in his mouth and thought that it was a bit of food that he’d easily dislodge. But when he began to paw at his muzzle and become more upset I thought I better have a look.

Years ago I had a dog get a stick stuck between his teeth on the roof of his mouth. When I saw him his fur was tinged pink from the blood his pawing to get it out had caused. I didn’t know this at the time and feared he’d been in a fight with a critter. Off we went to the vet. Because he was not comfortable with me handling his muzzle and looking into his mouth he resisted my efforts and I called the small piece of wood the vet removed his $40 root canal (this was back in the days when a vet visit and sedation only cost $40!). Had I been able to get a better look into his mouth I could have popped it out myself.

Nibbles came to me a dog afraid of being handled by people but I have put time and energy into changing this. He let me run my fingers along the sides of his teeth to find out what the problem was. I was able to flick the splinter out from between his teeth and with a few licks he’d spit it out. I didn’t have time to teach Nibbles to let me do this, but our history of gentle handling and my efforts to teach him what to do instead of using force and restraint paid off. This video by Chirag Patel shows how simple it can be to create a positive history of handling with your dog. If you are fostering a dog consider working on both restraint and restraint-free handling with your charges. Show them that their bad history will not repeat itself.

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