One of my goals for this blog, my Facebook pages, group, and tweets, is to try to stave off the inclination pet owners and many dog trainers have to jump on any bandwagon that comes along in regard to training dogs, or to keep throwing different sh*t against the wall and hoping something sticks. There is no shortage of advice, methods, equipment and supplements out there being touted as helping dogs. Some actually do.
I know that when I explain to someone that what they are doing with their dog is inappropriate that I may come up against the but “somebody told me” effect. If what somebody told them made sense to them, even though it was not being effective, or was in fact causing the dog’s behavior to become worse, I know that I have my work cut out for me. For many it doesn’t even matter who the somebody was. Once I hit a brick wall with a client whose dog had started biting him when he was alpha-rolled. One recommendation I made was to stop alpha-rolling the dog but apparently the advice given to him by the folks down at the corner grocery store trumped the advice he was paying me for. Not only did the original advice mesh with this fellow’s thoughts about dogs and how they should be interacted with, my advice made his behavior the problem. It was another nail in the coffin for modern dog training advice.
It’s easy to be led to believe a particular training method is appropriate because something about it resonates for us. Training is a dance we do with our dogs, we pass our energy through the leash while the dog naturally discovers the ways to integrate their behavior with ours while attaining organic reinforcement for reaching a level of communication only possible when we get in touch with both the dog’s and our true nature. The preceding statement may have created any number of different emotional responses in you. If your response was “right on sistah!” there’s a good chance you’ll be onboard with whatever else I recommend, even if what I said makes no real sense at all. But if you read that and your response was “WTH is she talking about? Sounds like a load of crap to me,” I may find it more difficult to convince you that anything I have to say is worth spending the time listening to it. Or if you are told to, “Up the rate of positive reinforcement for a desired behavior after considering both establishing and abolishing operations,” you may react to the jargon by either being impressed or frustrated because not only do you need to figure out what to do with your dog, you also need to grab a dictionary. Alpha-rolling is pretty straightforward and somebody already told you to try it.
Somebodies come in all shapes and sizes. They may even brandish degrees and certifications. Pay attention to your reaction when faced with advice that is contrary to what somebody else told you to do. When you see yourself digging in your heels to resist it out of hand or are ready to pick up a banner and rush into battle to fight for it, take a step back, a deep breath, and talk to somebody else. Being able to weigh the benefits and risks of how we train means we need more information to put on the scale.
Our interest in the latest new thing is at once a good thing, possibly benign or potentially dangerous. If someone wants to spend weeks seeing if they can teach their dog to ring the doorbell by demonstrating the behavior and hoping their dog will imitate it, unless being able to ring the doorbell is an important skill the dog needs to have, I figure they can knock themselves out and see what happens. But if someone has a new dog in their home and housetraining is an issue, I’d suggest that not only is time of the essence (pooping and peeing in the house is a surefire way to get a dog returned to the shelter), I’m not so thrilled with the prospect of having to explain to an owner how they will implement an imitation-based protocol for this one.
Sometimes we behave less like the general population in regard to jumping on bandwagons than we do like someone heading to the Bahamas in 3 weeks who wants to lose 30lbs. Eating only tuna fish and grapefruit juice may “work” but we know that it’s not healthy and not likely to lead to long-term weight loss. There is no end to the diets one can try and apparently are working for some. Some of those diets may even claim to offer behind the scenes kinds of benefits, increased metabolism, happier brain chemistry, you name it. They may even offer all kinds of “evidence” supporting their claim. But the bottom-line remains that when it comes to losing weight the formula is simple (though not easy to follow) it’s about calories, eat fewer, burn more. Any diet based on this formula is likely to be successful.
Learning to be discriminating and thoughtful when it comes to how we train dogs, especially those with life-threatening behavior challenges (i.e., the dog will be relinquished to a shelter or euthanized) is important. Sometimes by the time we find which sh*t is going to stick to the wall the owner’s patience and the dog’s time is up. Or we subject a dog to a life of chronic suffering.
Jean Donaldson will be featured in this upcoming webinar on the importance of standard operating procedures in the dog training industry. Creativity and innovation can be wonderful things, but it’s helpful to be able to know how to kick the tires on that bandwagon before you climb onboard.
I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents.
As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.
In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.
What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?
I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.
I know just enough about my car and computer to turn them on and use them, when all is going according to plan. When problems arise, even if my cursing and kicking of tires seems to provide a temporary solution, I know enough to know I should contact a professional who understands the way car engines and computers work. Put the wrong fluid in the wrong compartment, delete the wrong file, and I may be in trouble that will be expensive to fix. Use the wrong approach to training a dog and the price just might be the dog’s life.
As you might imagine I hear from many people trying to sort out how to help their fearful dogs. Yesterday I got a call from a pet owner and had there been a board monitoring the ethics of dog trainers, I would have contacted them. But there isn’t so I am left writing to writing blog posts. The dog, acknowledged as fearful by the owners (and one would assume by the trainer) had started to display increasingly aggressive behavior, including biting the owners. This is bad news. Even worse news was that I was not being contacted for training help, the owners were looking for help to rehome their dog. When I mentioned training, from the owner’s perspective, they HAD been training, and since it wasn’t helping (indeed it appeared to making matters worse) they were done with it.
I was not familiar with the trainer they were using but it didn’t take long for me to find the self-described whisperer’s website. Dog whispering ala Millan (as opposed to Paul Owen’s earlier use of the term) is akin to practicing medicine in a barber’s chair. It should be outlawed. That enough people survived bleeding cures is not enough to continue the practice. Should the patient die, the disease can always be blamed.
Fearful and aggressive dogs need competent training by educated, skilled professionals. They exist, but in the historical muddle of dog training information, they may be hard to pick out among the quacks. The topic of competency in dog training will be addressed in this webinar with Jean Donaldson. It may be too late for some dogs but it’s about time we talked about this for the rest.
We have a long, rich history of folk healing. In modern times many of the remedies people still rely on either include or refer back to cures used before people understood the cause of disease. “Hair of the dog,” the term used to suggest that having a drink to help ease the effects of a hangover may go back to a time when the hair of the dog who bit a rabies sufferer was incorporated into the treatment. Folk healing survives not only because the people in need of healing are gullible, but also in part because many of the providers of the treatment believe in it themselves. And we know that belief is a powerful thing. Brains are impacted in numerous ways by the placebo effect. We also know that we have the very real inclination to see whatever it is we want to see, and why scientific studies factor that in when research is being gathered and attempt to eliminate it as a factor in the conclusions being reached.
Dog training is replete with folk healers as well. We don’t have to look far for solutions to our dog’s behavior problems that include energy, force fields, faulty or unforgivably inaccurate declarations about the true nature of dogs and their “needs.” It is virtually impossible for someone without a background in animal behavior to know when they are buying a cure or snake oil. Whether it is because of an intent to deceive or the supplier’s actual belief that they are selling something of value, in the end it is the dog who pays the ultimate price when the cure is ineffective. Adding to the challenge of owners knowing whether they are being sold a “bill of goods” or not is the suave marketing of their product by the retailers. In the internet age it doesn’t take much for an idea to catch fire, and the association with an already established brand will increase the perceived worth of a product or method. Being hosted by National Geographic and heralded by Oprah provided Cesar Millan with a boost to meteoric fame. His theories on dog behavior were so far off the mark that they would be laughable if it wasn’t the dogs who weren’t getting the joke.
The sprinkling in of “truth” can make it difficult for even the savviest of consumers to know what they are buying. That providing a dog with the opportunity to exercise is a good idea and that the addition of it may improve not only the quality of a dog’s life but also their behavior, is not a reflection that the rest of the “alpha dog” prescription for dog training has merit. That a dog may learn a new desirable behavior without direct instruction from their owner does not mean that focusing on changing energy, or attempting to discover balance, are efficient ways to get the behaviors we need dogs to perform. By the time a pet owner consults with a trainer they usually needed the dog’s behavior to have changed yesterday. Messing around with remedies that might help is time consuming and potentially deadly. And I refer to both the use of folk training methods, however new age and trendy they may be, and the addition of dietary and other supplements to a dog’s environment.
Fearful dogs are vulnerable and at risk. It is up to us as their trainers to use methods that are both humane and effective. Create environments where a dog feels safe. It is the perceived threat to their safety, actual or not, that creates most of the inappropriate behaviors we see. Change what the appearance of the threat predicts. The fearful response to a scary object is faster than the speed of light traveling on nerves into the parts of the brain that think about making choices. We need to quickly and reliably add something to the picture that makes the dog feel good. This is what counterconditioning is all about. At the same time we give a dog skills. We teach them to do something. Not only is this what an owner so desperately needs, a dog who can do something other than the inappropriate behavior, but it is through positive reinforcement that we can take full advantage of the ability of a brain to change. Doing this effectively and efficiently is the magic we should be spending our time and money on.
Dogs 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.
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.
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.