One of the reasons I go on like a broken record about the importance of using reward based training methods that have been designed based on the evidence available garnered through the study of animal behavior and research is because working with fearful dogs can be so darn challenging. So challenging that if you don’t start seeing improvements soon you might become frustrated and disillusioned and the dog’s behavior can continue to degrade.
It’s the same reason I repeatedly remind people about behavioral medications that can help the process of changing how a dog feels about things that scare them. The risks of putting a dog on an approved behavioral medication for a few months, following the protocol recommended by a veterinarian, may be fewer than the risks we take by continuing to expose a dog to triggers without them. We can add more fears to a dog’s list of triggers, or further sensitize them to the ones they already have. It’s something to think about.
The gold standard for working with fear based behaviors in dogs is to use a combination of desensitization and counter conditioning. These are easy enough to understand, but not always easy to implement successfully. When a dog’s behavior does not improve, though the handler is employing these techniques, there are some common “fails” that may be occurring.
One common fail is to expose the dog to what scares them at a level that overwhelms them. It could be that the scary object or event is too close, too big, too many, too loud or around too long. Being able to eat treats is not a guarantee that a dog is what we commonly refer to as under threshold. It is possible for a dog to be motivated enough by something, to tolerate something scary or unpleasant to them in order to get it. It’s why it’s not recommended that a dog who is afraid of people be invited to take treats from a stranger. The same way you might be willing to pick up a paycheck every week and still hate your job, a dog may be willing to snatch a treat from someone and still wish they weren’t there. This does not mean that we can’t help a dog who is routinely over threshold, sometimes we have no choice, but until you have a good relationship with a dog and have given them coping skills it’s best to strive for less bothered rather than more.
Another fail is to assume that you are actually counter conditioning a dog to what it is they are afraid of. Our understanding of classical conditioning is based on the work of Pavlov, the man who turned getting dogs to drool into an art form. Classical conditioning is learning by association. We all do it, all the time. Counter conditioning is changing an already established classically conditioned response. A dog who is afraid of ________ learns to love children, loud noises, other dogs, car rides, vacuums, getting their ears cleaned, men with hats, etc. The scary thing which once predicted being scared now predicts cheese or a frisbee toss. It can take countless repetitions for some dogs to get this new association to replace the old one. A handler may be feeding steak in the presence of a trigger for years and not make this switch. The problem may be that the trigger is not what is predicting the treat for the dog.
Life is not always orderly. What can seem obvious to us is not to our dogs. If there is something that is relevant to us we often assume it is relevant to others, and it is not. There can be things and events in the environment that take precedence over another for a dog’s attention. We may be assuming that because we noticed the trigger and fed our dog treats, that the dog will make the association that it was the appearance of the trigger that made the treats appear. This isn’t always the case. Even if the dog notices the trigger it might not be the event in the environment that the dog is learning makes treats appear. If this goes on long enough, you reaching for a treat when a kid on a skate board goes by, the dog may eventually learn to feel ok about the skateboarding kid, but not as quickly as he would if it was the kid on the skate board that predicted the treat, and not your hand movement or that you stopped and turned in a particular direction.
Another common fail is that whatever is being used to counter condition is simply not good enough. Many dogs will eat anything, any time. I have no trouble motivating my dogs for a training session using treats, after they’ve had a meal. This is not true of all dogs, but by my dogs’ reactions to seeing me gather up training paraphernalia; clicker, treats, target stick, toys, bait bag, you’d think they’d never had a square meal in their lives. One of the reasons for this is that it’s not just the food that they enjoy. Figuring stuff out is fun for dogs too. But when you are working with a dog who is really afraid of something whatever you are offering them to create a positive association, needs to be amazin. Sometimes this is tough, and is why we combine counter conditioning with desensitization, to tip the scales in our favor. Suffice to say if someone wanted me to feel good about seeing Rush Limbaugh walk into a room they’d have to take out a loan. It’s not always easy to change how a dog feels about something or someone.
As the dog’s emotional responses change we can increase the level of their exposure to a trigger and we may find that what used to require filet mignon to get a tail wag only requires a smile and word of praise from us to get a positive response from our dog. If what you are doing isn’t working, it’s not that the process of desensitization and counter conditioning doesn’t work, it’s that your technique may need some work.
There is so much progress that needs to be made in regard to how people “think” about animal behavior and training that it can seem overwhelming. But seven years ago I had to seek out and search for information regarding the most humane and effective ways to help dogs with fear based behavior challenges, whereas today it streams on my Facebook page and twitter account. Articles like this one, sharing the research done on how our intervention when a dog is scared can help alleviate their fear, is becoming mainstream. The science and research is being repackaged for mass consumption. It’s about time. But don’t think that everyone is buying it.
There are those who, due to an inconsistency in the terms we use to “talk” about behavior, will go on endless semantic journeys to dispute the claim that “comforting dogs does not reinforce fearfulness.” Comforting will be termed coddling and the methodology for applying either will be criticized. In one way it’s good. It means people are thinking, but when pieces of the puzzle don’t belong there, it’s difficult to come up with the right picture.
One such piece is the misunderstanding that people have regarding the use of the term “reinforcing” and how it is applied to behavior versus emotional responses. Behaviors that are reinforced can be expected to increase. Behaviors based on powerful emotional responses, if paired with what one might label a “reinforcer” (the same bit of cheese that increased the chances that a dog would sit when asked) cause a decrease in the emotional response, and subsequently we are likely to see a decrease in the behavior associated with the emotion. This is because we are counter conditioning the emotional response. Not all behavior is created equal.
Let’s use “hunger” as an example. Though not exactly an “emotion” if we feed an animal who is hungry, their hunger will decrease, and unless there is an eating disorder involved, the behavior associated with hunger, eating, will decrease. We do not reinforce hunger by feeding an animal. We do not reinforce fear when we comfort an animal. In both cases what constitutes food or comfort is dependent on the animal’s definition of them. One dog may find being stroked and held comforting, another might find it annoying. A hungry lion would not look at a bale of hay and see a meal, but a horse would. In either case if we know what a dog finds comforting or an animal thinks is tasty, and give it to them, we are likely to see a decrease in the behaviors associated with either being scared or hungry (after they’re done chewing of course).
I am going to propose that since the word “comfort” seems to be difficult for people to accept, even though it can be clearly defined-
1. To soothe in time of affliction or distress.
2. To ease physically; relieve.
1. A condition or feeling of pleasurable ease, well-being, and contentment.
2. Solace in time of grief or fear.
3. Help; assistance: gave comfort to the enemy.
4. One that brings or provides comfort.
5. The capacity to give physical ease and well-being: enjoying the comfort of my favorite chair.*
can be replaced by the term “to support.”
My aging border collie Finn was walking down a flight of stairs in our house when I could hear his nails scrambling on the wood. I got to him in time to prevent him from tumbling down. I helped him right himself and supported his hind end as he continued down. At the bottom I gave him a cheer and opened the door so he could go outside. I provided him with what he needed to get down the stairs unharmed. It is likely that he will avoid the stairs, and until I can put a runner down I would prefer that he did. But I did not want him to be injured to learn that lesson. Ultimately, when it is safe for him to do so, I want him to continue to go up and down the stairs on his own.
When we offer a stressed and scared animal our support we do so based on the needs of that animal. It does not make sense to state unequivocally that we should not attend to these needs because we may not be clear on what that support should look like. Or having provided that support inexpertly in the past it is proof that it doesn’t help. Our goal is to help a dog develop the skills and confidence they need so that continuing support becomes unnecessary, but until that happens it would be foolish to stop providing it.
Advising that supporting someone trying to learn to swim will keep them a life-long non-swimmer doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous. Someone may not need you to hold their hand as they walk into the waves, but someone else might lest, they be swept under and drown.
Every now and then a Cesar Millan fan will find my blog and do their darndest to convince me of the error of my ways and assessment of his. I have to give them credit for their efforts. They are right to accuse me of moderating many of their comments. I didn’t always but I decided that he has gotten enough airtime without my blog giving him more. My blog, my choice.
The arguments presented by these folks are at once amusing and stomach churning. One commenter suggested that I edify myself by visiting the websites of trainers who were open-minded and informed trainers (and who of course agreed with his methods). I got as far on one webpage to where the trainer states they used both “rewards and consequences” to train, when I had to just stop. This is akin to someone saying, “I speaks english real good.” Ummm….no you don’t. Rewards ARE consequences. I know what they are trying to say, but their inability to say it properly belies their lack of understanding of learning theory. Oh and in regard to “learning theory,” I was told I could keep my “science psycho babble.” Honestly.
There seems to be the misunderstanding among these people who call themselves trainers that anyone who actually bothers to learn about animal behavior and training, cannot provide practical advice for pet owners. They misrepresent rewards-based training as “purely positive” and that what they do is “balanced.” Again this only indicates how little the trainer understands about….well about “learning theory,” oh here I go again, muddying the waters with scientific psycho babble. Meanwhile they go on about “dog psychology.” Sorry. I give up.
One of the aspects about dog training that I love so much has been the opening up of worlds I didn’t realize existed. There’s the history of Skinner and Pavlov, the practical application of skills by Bob Bailey, the insights of trainers who I don’t even dare try to list for fear of leaving someone deserving out. I am tickled pink that I am able to rub shoulders with and learn from people with more education, skill and empathy than I can hope to attain in whatever time I have left on this planet.
I have come to terms with the fact that having a conversation about dog training with someone who quotes Cesar Millan is like trying to discuss civil rights with someone who recites passages of the bible. Don’t bother.
People like stories. We like bedtime stories, scary stories told around a campfire, stories in books, on television, in movie theaters, and on blogs. Every culture has its stories. Every religious holiday we celebrate is based on a story.
What we don’t like are stories that we’re told that we are led to believe are true, but aren’t. It was certainly a believable story when Mike Daisy detailed his experience visiting an industrial complex in China where Apple products were manufactured. There is no shortage of stories about workers who are taken advantage of so it was not a stretch for a major radio broadcaster to believe this one, except they shouldn’t have. That parts of the story could be true, does not change the fact that the story was told unequivocally as the truth, and it wasn’t. When James Frey admitted that his riveting, autobiographical story of drug abuse, was fiction he had to face the wrath of Oprah who had endorsed his book.
Some stories, told as truth, but having no evidence supporting their validity, may be harmless. That George Washington did not actually chop down a cherry tree, does not necessarily lessen the value of the parable for children, future presidents own up to their actions, even when they’re kids. However that this is fiction should matter to us as adults. The poignant words and sentiment of Chief Seattle’s famous speech have moved generations of environmentalists. That he did not actual make the speech does not make it any less stirring, unless you care about historical facts.
One of the best storytellers in the world of dogs is Cesar Millan. He and his whispering proteges have concocted complete works of fiction when it comes to dog behavior and rehabilitation that it’s surprising Oprah hasn’t called him onto the carpet to own up. But even Oprah likes a good story. It’s even more challenging to see through the guise of a piece of fiction being passed along as non-fiction when some parts of the story mesh with our own experience. A good lie always has elements of the truth in it, any teenager or politician knows that.
But lies matter. Some maybe not so much- maybe orange isn’t really your color but no sense making you feel bad about it now that you’re already at the party- but others matter more than you may realize. They may seem innocuous but they gather debris as they roll along, attaching implications that affect the way you think and behave. That growl, a plea for space, becomes tainted with the fiction that it’s a step toward control and domination of the household. Instead of being given information to help a dog learn new skills people are fed the empty calories of “calm assertiveness” and “wolf energy,” leaving them starving as they struggle with creating permanent, positive behavior change in their dogs.
There is no shortage of things said or believed about dogs to make me, and others, cringe. Though I can understand “why” people believe the things they do, it doesn’t change the fact that I wish they didn’t. I understand why people would think the earth was flat, the sun revolved around us and because dogs are closely related to wolves they live in packs and follow a leader. Superficially these might make sense, but let’s not linger on the surface.
A reoccurring message that I am surprised to hear from trainers or people involved in rescue is that when providing foster care for a dog one must be careful not to let the dog form a strong attachment to the foster caregiver. Despite the fact that I have no idea how one would define what this meant for a dog, or how it would be implemented, the reasoning used to come to the conclusion seems shabby. It’s a sticky idea though, I wrote about it back in 2010 in the blog post BOND! and still find it in blogs and articles written today.
The conclusion seems to be that dogs who have been rehomed and institutionalized and suffer from behavior challenges, including separation anxiety, do so because they formed strong attachments with a previous owner, and had to move on. Really? I’m not going to argue that dogs don’t feel heart broken when they lose someone they loved and felt safe with, I’m going with the hypothesis that they do, but that this translates into separation anxiety or like a spurned lover they’d decide “never to love again” makes for great poetry, but not necessarily a manual for how to manage dogs. Is being rehomed more stressful because you lose a loved-one or because you are unprepared to find solace in the arms of someone else? What skills are gained having lived life on the sidelines while others bonded around you, or no bonding occurred at all?
I am not aware of any studies indicating that dogs who had formed strong bonds with a previous owner are more likely to develop behavioral challenges when they are rehomed. There are studies indicating that shelter dogs who are comfortable with people, are handled by a previously unknown person during their first 3 days at a shelter have lower cortisol levels than dogs who are not handled. Cortisol levels are indications of stress. Having positive associations with humans in the past would seem an important condition to see this effect.
What foster dogs need are skills and experience learning that humans predict good things to come. They need the skills pet dogs need so as to avoid being punished. As much a I think that my dogs would be unhappy about me not being in their lives I am also certain that should they (most of them anyway) find themselves in a new home they would quickly discover who can open the refrigerator or toss frisbees. I am not insulted by this, I find it comforting. This ability is likely to contribute to them experiencing lower stress levels overall. Lower stress is good. Stress can trigger mental disorders.
I am not suggesting that being repeatedly institutionalized and rehomed is good for the soul, but it’s more likely this experience, and not the attachments formed that destabilize a dog. Moving is one of the more stressful events a social animal can experience. If you want to help a foster dog navigate the maze of rehoming teach them how to; come when called, get off, or not get on in the first place, the couch, walk nicely on a leash, greet guests calmly, snooze contentedly in a crate, and how to play with people. There are plenty of other fish in the metaphorical sea when you have the right bait.