Theories abound on what dogs need in order to be happy and successful pet dogs. Happy may be subjective but successful means they remain in the home they find themselves. Some will suggest they need love, leadership, dominance, training, etc., and definitions of each will vary from person to person. But the one thing we know about dogs is that they are social animals who have been bred to include humans as part of their social network. Dogs may benefit from social interactions with other dogs, but they don’t survive for long if they don’t have positive social interactions with people.
For years I have been involved with rescue groups in Puerto Rico, including the islands of Vieques and Culebra. The stray dog population on these islands exists in numbers that could be considered epidemic. There are a variety of reasons why this is occurring and hard-working, devoted people are addressing them, specifically making spay/neuter programs and affordable health care more readily available to owners.
In May of this year I will be bringing a group of dog-enthusiasts to Puerto Rico to work with owners, shelter staff and rescue groups to share information about force-free and coercion-free training methods. It is my belief that if people have a better understanding of how to teach dogs new behaviors using modern training techniques it is easier for dogs to learn them. When a dog comes when called, waits when asked to, and can perform a silly trick or two to delight an owner, these dogs will remain in their homes. It is the lack of a positive relationship between a dog and owner that allows for the abandonment and neglect of dogs that is seen not only in Puerto Rico, but around the world.
Participants do not need to have any special skills or training to join us. People interested in learning more about modern dog training are welcome. Along with contributing to changing a culture’s view of their dogs we’ll also be exploring the islands’ unique and exquisite beaches and forests. I hope you can join me!
Let me know if you have any questions. Visit this webpage for more information.
For dogs without fear-based challenges it may only take one introduction for the dog to feel safe with you. For others it might require a dozen, and for another hundreds. This is likely the reason many fearful dogs are able to be ok with their primary caregiver(s). There are enough repetitions of positive interactions to tip the scale in their favor. We can’t know how many reps it will take for an individual dog so just keep on adding to the total.
Today on our woods walk I watched as the scale began to tip in John’s favor. For years John rarely joined me and the dogs on our daily walks. But lately that’s changed. Initially I handed out the treats when Sunny stopped and eyed John warily. One day I started doling out handfuls of treats for John to dispense to the dogs, tossing them on the ground for Sunny. I took my chances the next week and handed him a bag of treats and watched as he increased the number of times he stopped and fed the dogs. Sunny began to spend more time close to John looking at him expectantly for treats.
The years of coaching (ok, call it nagging if you will) John on how to avoid making eye contact, leaning toward, or reaching for Sunny actually paid off as John noticed how something as simple as turning his head away from Sunny made it possible for him to take a treat from his hand. Both players were being reinforced for their behavior. Sunny got treats and John discovered that fabulous feeling of watching an animal begin to trust you.
Today I noticed that Sunny decided to sit, granted a safe distance away, and wait for John while he worked on building a log bridge over a small stream. I had continued on with the other dogs and was surprised to find the only one missing was Sunny. Even after Sunny caught up with me he returned to John three separate times.
The journey isn’t over for them but gone are the days when Sunny had to shadow us in the woods, too afraid to stay on the trail with John. Call it a milestone or a miracle.
There was a blog post going around recently that could have easily been parody as serious. It was written by a volunteer trainer at a shelter who was declaring he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again because of his recent experience at one. The reason for his defection? Were dogs being mistreated? Were the conditions gross and unsanitary? Were too many dogs being euthanized? Was the staff being disrespected? Nope. The reason he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again was because the dogs were going to be clicker trained. Apparently this was so distasteful to this trainer that he was out the door never to return.
His litany of reasons for this decision included many of the old faithful, and incorrect I will add, missives regarding why force-free training and the use of food in training kills dogs. They included:
Force-free trainers sit around flipping through magazines waiting for good behaviors to reinforce while a dog gobbles down the food off the counter, chews the leg off the dining table and pees on the Oriental.
Dogs in shelters are there because their owners, patient saints each and every one of them is, never told a dog “NO!” or yanked on their leash. Never having been reprimanded the dog has become uncontrollable and dumped at a shelter.
Dogs in shelters are there because force-free trainers advised the aforementioned saints not to prevent or interrupt their dog’s inappropriate behavior, but instead to grab a magazine and wait for an appropriate behavior to reinforce with the bits of filet mignon they are schlepping about in a treat pouch. That studies of dogs left at shelters have shown that upwards of 94% of pet owners never even consulted with a trainer about their dog’s inappropriate behavior is insignificant. Of the 6% (or less) of the pet owners who did contact a trainer all were handed a clicker and treat pouch (and a magazine) and instructed on how to create a dog they will want to dump at a shelter.
As I read I kept waiting for “SURPRISE! only kidding.” I am not going to walk away from shelter dogs for similar reasons that boys walk away from their sports team, because someone (who never knows as much as they do) decided to let girls play. Or quitting the typing pool because your typewriter is being replaced with a computer. This guy was leaving because the shelter management decided to introduce a training method that is less stressful to dogs. Full stop. Period. It’s like the fellow at a hearing about our local nuclear power plant declaring that he’s, “Lived next to the plant for 30 years and he’s ok.” But what about the spent fuel rods sitting in a pool on the property sir? Any suggestions as to what to do with them? Or someone boasting they’ve been smoking a pack a day since they were 15 and didn’t get cancer and see this as enough reason to keep on smoking and recommend Marlboros to friends.
I admit I only read the post once, glanced through the comments, shook my head and left the page. The requisite “all dogs learn differently” myth was tossed out as further evidence that one dare not attempt to use force-free methods with them. I’m assuming that this is because dogs, unlike any other organism on the planet, NEED to be trained using aversives. There were the head spinning, tail chasing comments about how trainers who advocate positive reinforcement also use punishment by depriving dogs of food treats when they don’t do the right thing, justifying the use of any number of collars designed to hurt or impede oxygen intake, or whatever form of positive punishment they prefer. Terms like “balanced” were used to describe trainers who I’m assuming do not have the mechanical skills in place to put behaviors on dogs using primarily positive reinforcement, tipping the scales to unbalanced in favor of force-free.
For those of you unfamiliar with the world of force-free dog trainers, allow me to share this with you. Many of us spend hundreds to thousands of dollars a year on continuing education. We study with some of the world’s best animal trainers. We practice the mechanical skills of training with some of the great names in animal behavior. Do you honestly think that trainers who can teach a multi-behavior chain to a chicken, hamster, fish, horse, lion or dolphin can’t teach a dog to walk nicely on leash, sit on a mat when people come into the house, watch quietly as other dogs go by, without using positive punishment? When “balanced” trainers choose to call us “treat dispensers” I want to channel Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and shout, “Show me some goddamn respect!”
If you want to pack up your toys and go home because the 21st century of animal training has arrived on your doorstep, go. You have as much to lose as the dogs you claim to care so deeply about.
The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people.
Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so. Some will have had enough positive experiences with people that they are able to withstand a few minor bumps and bruises and not be worse for it. There will be others whose background with people is spotty. Some people have been kind and gentle with them, obviously some have cared enough to get the dog into a foster home. But other people have been less than kind. This lack of kindness may have manifested in neglect, in other cases abuse. When these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens. They may be disproportionally prepared for the worst. A foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.
What might constitute too much pressure or punishment for one dog, may not for another. It’s best not to assume that any pressure put on a dog to engage socially or any punishment, even if only a raised voice, is tolerable for a dog. Behavior that might be ok with a dog you have developed a positive relationship, may not be with a dog newly introduced to your home. This is true for dog/dog relationships. Fear is unfortunately easy to install in animals and nearly impossible to remove. This is true of all kinds of fears; other dogs, people, cars, storms, etc. And you are not seeing the dog at their best. As addressed in my previous post Fostering Success, these dogs are stressed and stress can negatively impact them in a variety of ways.
Consider the first impression you will make with a dog. Will you be snapping on a leash and pressuring them to follow you with no other incentive other than because you say so? Will you be touching them or putting your face close to theirs without knowing if that is what they feel comfortable with? Are you immediately bringing them into your home and ordering them around; come here, get off of that, leave that alone, go this way? Do you have a pocket full of treats or a squeaky toy at the ready?
If you hold outdated beliefs about dogs and how they relate and interact with other dogs and people, it’s time for an upgrade. Dogs do not need pack leaders, they do not behave in ways to gain domination over the household. They do what works for them, like every other organism on the planet. If their behavior does not work for us, it’s up to us to teach them what does. If you are unfamiliar with the risks of using force, coercion and punishment when training dogs, it’s time you became familiar with those risks. If you do not know how to use positive reinforcement to teach dogs new behaviors you might want to brush up on those skills before you take on a dog whose life may be depending on that you do.
Giving a dog an interim home while they are in the rescue system is a kind and generous act. Few who do it seem to realize how important the role they play is. It goes beyond providing a safe and comfortable place for a dog to reside while a permanent home is sought for them.
Though they are not pack animals, dogs are social animals. For social animals one of the most stressful events they can experience is the loss of their familiar social network, i.e., moving. Even if a dog appears to be happy and outgoing when they arrive in a foster home, we should assume that their level of stress is higher than it would be otherwise. Many dogs are able to cope with this and settle in with little trouble as they navigate their new surroundings and the expectations put on them by people and other dogs. But foster caregivers would be wise to consider how stress and relocation can impact a dog’s current and future behavior. Stress alone does not cause disease or inappropriate behavior, but it can contribute to the equation that produces it.
A dog who in their former life never put a tooth on a person or other dog, even though the opportunity existed, is less likely to do so in a new home than a dog with a history of biting, but add a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of stress and the odds that we’ll see this behavior increases. Within the shelter and rescue system people will look at a dog’s “bite history.” In many cases there are no opportunities for a dog to make an appeal once they have bitten a person or pet.
“But your honor he pulled on my ear and I have a raging infection in there!”
“She sat on me!”
“I was being threatened by another dog and the woman grabbed my collar.”
“I was eating that bone.”
“It was small, fluffy and ran right under my nose so I grabbed it.”
Foster caregivers have the responsibility to ensure that at the very minimum they do not add to the list of things that upset a dog, or provoke a behavioral response everyone will regret. One of the privileges I have is consulting with rescue groups pulling dogs out of shelters where many are euthanized. I see the important role that foster caregivers play. In some cases they literally save a dog’s life by providing a place for the dog to go when its time is up at an open-door shelter. This blog is one in a series which I will write addressing how foster caregivers can move a dog in transition away from the edge of the cliff, and avoid pushing them off, as they begin their journey to safety.
From the comments I’ve been hearing and the stuff I’ve been reading on the internet one would be inclined to think that the use of food in training poses great problems or risks. I cannot think of one conversation I’ve had with a trainer who laments that their clients reinforce behaviors with food too much. Indeed it’s usually the opposite. Having trouble with the duration of a down/stay? I’d put money on that it’s because the behavior is not being reinforced with food soon or often enough, or in the right place. Dog won’t come when called? Put me down for a fiver for the same reason.
I’m not suggesting that there are not other reinforcers that can be as effective as food or that we don’t need to be aware of how we use food in training, but do we really need to be out there warning pet owners about the dangers of using food to train their dogs? Have we already won the battle of helping owners understand how positive reinforcement works and how to implement it in their relationship with their dog? And so what if a dog likes steak?
If you get dog as a pup it’s likely that you’ll have the opportunity to create hundreds, hopefully thousands, of positive associations between you and good things or events in the dog’s life. Well-handled young pups will often follow us around regardless of whether we have a treat in hand or pocket, our shoe laces may be the draw along with our companionship. We have become conditioned reinforcers to our dog through the lovely organic process of living gently and playfully with a social animal. It’s not so seamless with rehomed dogs, and even more challenging with scared dogs.
If we are lucky someone along the way has provided a dog with a reason for feeling good about people. My border collie, adopted at least 2 other times from what I know about his history, was given the gift of learning to love as only some dogs can, catching and retrieving frisbees. When life seems uncertain and perhaps a little scary, there’s always frisbee. That my dogs who are not 100% comfortable with people will perform behaviors in order to get a tidbit of treat is a blessing for all of us. Sure the vet smells funny and wields tools of ear and anal prodding capability, but there’s always gorgonzola to mitigate the discomfort.
Travel anywhere in the developing world and the most common relationship you’ll see between people and dogs is based on food. Dogs follow children who drop crumbs of bread, or they hang out at roadside food stands gobbling up discards. I am aware of those torturous studies done on baby monkeys that showed that they spent more time hanging onto a soft facsimile of mother monkey compared to the wire mother monkey who provided milk. I am not attempting to downplay the relationship we can create with our dogs that does not include food or that animals derive comfort and relief in a variety of physical ways other than through eating.
Can our relationships go beyond food? Of course they can, and do. But so what if food plays a major role in that relationship, at anytime during its creation? Try and tell a grandmother that her corned beef with carrots or key lime pie don’t matter in her relationship with her grandchildren. Try believing it yourself the next time you plan a party and decide that the food you serve doesn’t matter. It may not be just about the food, but the food is definitely part of the equation. Our social engagements don’t have to include food, but interestingly they often do.
If a dog is only responding to an owner because of the promise of food, the food is not the problem, and the relationship might not be the problem either. Advising pet owners to ditch the food treats and replace it with “relationship” may not be prudent. Food is a part of the relationship and may be the only salient reinforcer a new pet owner has to use with their dog. And I say, “So what?” By pairing interactions with their owner with food the “feel good” power of a primary reinforcer rubs off on them. Instead of warning owners off of food we should be instructing them on how to use it effectively for creating strong, reliable behaviors. That one can over-hydrate and die is not a reason to advise against drinking water. ”Stop using food” is one of the most misguided pieces of advice I’ve heard today.