Archive for the ‘alpha’ Tag
At 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.
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.
Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.
Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.
Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.
A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.
Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.
The term ‘red zone’ dog has come into vogue to describe aggressive dogs. There is the connotation that these dogs are different in some fundamental way from other dogs. The term is often used to justify the use of severe punishment in order to train them. It’s as though, unlike every other dog on the planet, they are only able to learn if punishment is used.
Creating ‘red zone’ dogs is a fairly straight forward process. Take a dog, preferably one who is fearful, and force them to deal with things that upset them. Add one or more humans who are either arrogant, uneducated, ignorant, mentally ill, or some combination of the aforementioned. Do not allow the dog the freedom to get away, and maintain constant pressure on them in the form of punishment or threats of it. Any resistance on the dog’s part should be addressed with physical punishment, almost anything will do, a collar yank, a slap, kick or alpha roll. Yelling at the dog can suffice in some cases. The goal is to remind the dog that they are completely out of control of what happens to them, and that humans will make sure it stays that way.
The domestication process gave us dogs who are not likely to behave aggressively toward humans. Unfortunately some glitch has created people who are all too willing to behave aggressively toward dogs. And like a self-fulfilling prophesy, create the problem that allows them the excuse to continue to do so.
There are plenty of professionals who are routinely frustrated by the beliefs held by their clients or potential clients. Researchers studying climate change are likely among them. Humans are complicated creatures. On one hand we seem to be capable of stunning thoughts. Whether in the arts or sciences, we can come up with remarkable ideas. On the other hand, we are also bound by a brain that seems to have a mind of its own.
Ask a roomful of people if dogs need pack leaders and I’m going to guess you’ll see more hands raised than not. Why is this? Chances are that the only reason they believe this to be true is because they’ve heard it before. It turns out that we are inclined to believe a statement is true because we’ve heard it before, regardless of whether it is true.
Brain scientists call it the illusion of truth effect. In some cases it may be absolutely benign, believing that when you die you go to heaven doesn’t hurt anyone and likely provides comfort to many. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter (except of course once you’re dead). The problems arise when someone is repeatedly exposed to slogans or edicts which are not true, or should be questioned.
The ray of hope that force-free trainers should see from this is that so long as we keep talking, keep putting information out there about how animals, even snarling, aggressive ones, can be trained without persistent punishment or coercion, people will start to believe it. So don’t despair, just keep talking. We’ve got more than illusion to back us up.
How would you justify going to a surgeon who claimed to be really good at cutting out tumors but had flunked out of classes on physiology and biology? Maybe some of their patients survived the surgery and went on to live full lives without a tumor, but what about the others? What about that nerve bundle that the surgeon nicked because they didn’t realize how important it was to walking? Or that the tests ordered prior to surgery were read incorrectly and the wrong blood type was requested? If someone was desperate and grasping at straws I could understand how they might use this surgeon. But how does that surgeon explain putting themselves out there as a professional?
At a seminar I was attending a young trainer described how she explains to potential clients how she trains dogs. It was along the lines of; All dogs are different and I do whatever works. It’s a statement I could even make about myself. I had the opportunity to watch this trainer handle a rambunctious, young, male, Labrador Retriever. She had been unable to provide a rate of reinforcement that was high enough to get the behavior she wanted from the dog. She was also unable to explain to the owners how to do this and instead the dog wore a shock collar and was subjected to repeated collar corrections in order to get him to ‘calm down’. I realized that she wasn’t doing what worked, she was doing what she could do.
I understand how challenging high energy dogs can be, but I was stunned. The foundation reward-based trainers build with a dog is finding rewards that are reinforcing enough to the dog they will repeat behaviors to get them. Sometimes this can take some exploring, but with a lab? A lab!? Labs are the poster children for food and play as reinforcers.
Unless you have the skills to teach behaviors without inflicting pain, yelling, or threatening a dog, with a level of proficiency that demonstrates knowledge of how the various types & schedules of reinforcement get behavior, you have no business, as a professional, resorting to punishment as a solution to a behavior challenge. Even if you can demonstrate that skill and knowledge you should also be able to identify the potential risks and fallout of using punishment, should you decide to use it, so you are prepared to identify them should they occur. Knowing how to punish a dog to stop behaviors is not enough, you should be well versed in all the reasons why you shouldn’t.
Back in the early 1980′s I was intent on finding ways to get university credits without actually sitting in a classroom. I discovered study programs which were taught ‘in the field’ and awarded credits toward graduation. I spent months hiking in the Sierra Nevada in California, weeks canoeing rivers in Montana and sweating in Death Valley. My biggest regret to date is that I didn’t participate in a wolf study program because someone told me all you ended up seeing was wolf scat.
On a reading list for one course was Barry Lopez‘s Of Wolves and Men which followed the histories of people’s relationship to and mythology about wolves, and made a case for the conversation of the species. It seemed long overdue that I would visit a place like Wolf Park where I could actually meet, and interact with wolves. A 3-day seminar contrasting the behaviors of wolves and dogs, and the agreement of a friend to join me, tipped the scales, and I sent off a check and booked a flight.
As a dog trainer focusing on fear based behavior challenges I’ve had to consider how current popular attitudes about wolves and their relationships with each other have impacted how dogs are being handled and trained. Notions of ‘pack leaders’ and ’alphas’ have been questioned and redefined but for a variety of reasons have been slow to percolate through to the cultural knowledge of the general population.
What I observed at Wolf Park was not only educational, it raised my opinion of dogs, which says a lot since I already hold them in the highest of esteem. This was not because my opinion of wolves was lowered. Never having seen a natural pack of wolves interacting with each other, I didn’t have an opinion. My opinion of dogs went up because of their connection to this extraordinary animal.
The sophistication and fluidity of the emotional responses of wolves was awe inspiring. The wolves appeared to rely on a spectrum of emotions that changed smoothly and rapidly to communicate preference and intent. I was reminded of the difference between our sense of smell and that of canines. With more scent receptors to work with they can detect scents and levels of scents that we cannot even fathom the sensitivity of this ability. Their social interactions seemed to include a constantly changing emotional kaleidoscope, which made human interactions seem bland by comparison.
If our dogs have retained even a fraction of the emotional sensitivity of wolves they must think us brutes in our interactions with them. We ascribe them limited variability in personality, pulling labels from a short list of attributes. And as a trainer friend commented, then we insult them by asserting that they are merely reflections of their almighty human handlers. Certainly our behavior affects theirs, but they have their own ‘souls’ as my friend said, or unique identity, if the religious implication of ‘soul’ is off-putting.
Many of us have been fortunate enough that we are able to take certain things in our lives for granted. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time watching wolves. I am even more fortunate to be able to spend time with dogs who prod me into opening my eyes and mind wider. And who also never fail to remind me to pay attention to what both my heart and gut have to say, even if I’m not listening to anything else.