Archive for the ‘animal shelters’ 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.
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.
At my first appointment with a new dentist after I moved to Vermont I asked if he’d like me to have my charts sent from my previous dentist. His reply was, “I don’t need them, I have your mouth.” Everything he needed to know about my teeth was in front of him.
When we begin to work with fearful dogs it’s not uncommon for us to think that we need to know the dog’s past in order to help them. It’s not that the information would be superfluous, but it likely will not change how we are going to work with the dog. We have their mouth, so to speak. Their behavior will guide us. Whether it’s an 8-week old pup or 8 year old dog who won’t come out from under the bed, our approach will be the same–help them feel safe. The same would be true of a dog growling, we don’t need to determine whether the dog is fear aggressive or aggressive and not fearful, our response to the situation will be the same–do what we need to do to end or prevent the growling without punishing the dog. We take away any perceived threat, desensitize and countercondition, and teach the dog to do something else using positive reinforcement-based training.
I have had clients spend the majority of a consult describing in great detail everything that happened to their dog. They think that something is going to inform me about the exact “fix” their dog needs in order to stop being fearful. If there was a sudden onset of the dog’s behavior it would indicate the need for a vet visit, and even with that, we’d prepare ourselves to work on any newly added fears that occurred due to pain or illness. We’d do this the same way if the dog had been displaying fearful behavior for years.
“Why” can get in the way of developing humane and effective plans for working with a dog. Decide that a dog is being aggressive because they are trying to dominate you and respond in a way to thwart this attempt and you’re likely to start brewing trouble. Knowing whether our dog was timid from birth, spent years in a cage at a puppy-mill, was tied up in a yard for most of their life, was beaten by a man with a hat and a beard may satisfy our curiosity, but it won’t change our training plan. Make sure they feel safe, DS/CC and teach them something.
My dentist did take x-rays. It would be nice to have a machine to look into a dog’s past, but don’t worry that we don’t.
When we meet a dog, especially a dog in a shelter or in the rehoming process somewhere, the first piece of information we need to give them is why they should engage with us. Most of us, dog lovers that we are, would never say to the dog, “Because I said so!” when it came to the reason they should pay attention to us. But in effect that’s what we often do. We approach, we pet, we clip a leash on their collar and however gently we do it, make them attend to us.
Our intentions are good. We have time constraints. We think “dogs like me.” It’s for their own good. But none of these are necessarily reason enough for a dog. Especially a stressed-out dog. Erasing first impressions is tough, if not impossible. There are some dogs who it would appear are able to hold onto that first impression for years.
We may be limited in what we can offer a dog, but fortunately for us what is usually most effective is readily available to us–food. We have to start someplace and pairing our appearance or handling of a dog with steak can create a powerful and long-lasting positive emotional response. We know we are more than just vending machines and that there are other things in life that we’ll be able to provide a dog with at different times that food will pale in comparison to– running, playing, tugging, herding, sniffing, exploring, snuggling on the couch–the list goes on, but it’s not a bad or ignoble start.
Imagine taking your car to a mechanic to find out what was wrong with it and having a discussion like this-
Mechanic: When did you get it?
Car owner: Six months ago?
Car owner: Not long after I got it.
Mechanic: Tell me what’s wrong.
Car owner: It doesn’t work the way it’s suppose to.
Mechanic: Does it have enough gas?
Car owner: Gas?
Mechanic: Did you check the oil?
Car owner: Oil?
Mechanic: How about transmission fluid, anti-freeze, brake fluid?
Car owner: I’m not sure what you’re talking about.
Mechanic: Ok give me the keys and I’ll have a look.
Car owner: Keys?
I confess that I fried my beloved 4Runner’s engine when I drove it with no oil. Wasn’t a light suppose to come on? Guess I could have been better about checking it in between changes. I paid for a new engine. In my defense I would add that humans have only been interacting with cars for a few hundred years, and just over 100 if you only count the time since Henry Ford brought the Model T to the public.
Imagine having a similar conversation with a trainer about your dog and admitting to being completely unaware that puppies need to meet other dogs, be exposed to the world they are expected to live in, and require exercise and training in order to develop physically, mentally and emotionally.
People have been living with dogs for thousands of years. It would seem that we have not done a very good job of sharing information about what they need in order to become good pets. If you screw up with a car you’re out transportation and some cash. Too bad for you and the car won’t know the difference. The stakes are much higher for the dog.
Stop by my Facebook page Giving My Dog a Life and enjoy the pictures of happy pets. Post a few of your own while you’re there.
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.
We are familiar with the experience of living with an aging creature and being caught by surprise when we realize how much they have changed before our eyes. This routinely happens to me when I look in the mirror, “When the heck did THAT happen?!” The same thing can happen with our fearful dogs. Their progress can be so slow that it’s difficult to notice until we take a step back and look.
It’s not unusual for people to tell me that their dog is either not interested in food or in playing. This may be an indication of a dog who is not feeling well physically, or emotionally. A fearful dog needs to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are safe in order to begin to experiment with new behaviors. A dog who feels under the weather or is in pain may not be interested in doing much of anything except protecting themselves from a perceived threat.
During a consult with a caring owner of a fearful dog it was clear to me from her description of the dog’s behavior how much he had improved. He had gone from being aggressive toward the man in the house, to actively seeking him out during storms to snuggle with. One of the safest bets we could make is that a fearful dog can become an aggressive dog unless handled appropriately. That this dog did not escalate his aggressive behavior toward someone in the house, and actually began to seek him out when feeling frightened, is no small feat.
One concern the owner had was that the dog often seemed sad or depressed and with further questioning we discovered that he had not had the opportunity to play with food toys. They either scared him or appeared to be of no interest to him. We began to explore ways to change this. It may be safe to say that the dog WAS feeling sad and depressed and along with medications we could try to make changes in his brain so that feeling happy and enthusiastic was easier for him.
Our goal is to get him to work on getting food out of a stuffed Kong. As with any behavior we want to teach a dog, we break it down. If the dog showed wariness about the object itself we’d start there. There are a myriad of ways we could eliminate his concern about a novel object. There was another dog in the house who displayed resource guarding behaviors so leaving Kongs around for the fearful dog to get used to, wasn’t an option. The owner had been playing targeting games with the dog so one suggestion I had was to smear baby food or something tasty on the Kong and letting him lick it off after performing a cued behavior. Or the dog could target the Kong for a treat. Once the Kong no longer seemed scary to the dog, a few bits of yummy food, that would fall out easily, could be put into it and then given to the dog.
This may seem too simple to matter in the rehabilitation of a fearful dog, but it is the start of encouraging a dog to begin to solve problems-how to get the food. When a problem is solved we can expect that the dog will feel good about it, “SUCCCESS!” From here we can gradually increase the difficulty of getting at the food. I work toward being able to put a combination of dry and wet food into the Kong and freezing it. This takes longer for the dog to get the job of getting food out, done. Other games to try include hiding a bit of food under a face cloth or piece of cardboard for a dog who is unwilling to engage with novel objects.
Play provides a number of benefits that are worth working for.
It stands to reason that if we have not ever lived with a seriously scared dog that we would not have developed the skills to work effectively with them. Even if we’ve assisted other people living with a dog like this, there’s nothing quite like 24/7 to put our feet to the fire.
I regularly speak with people embarked on the bumpy journey to change their dogs. Many, after hearing the suggestions I make, express regret that they had been going about it ineffectively for as long as they had. It was obvious that what they were doing was ineffective, but unaware of the protocols used to change emotional responses and behaviors in dogs, had no way to discern if the problem was with the dog or with them. Many were following the advice of misinformed trainers or veterinarians and doubted their own ability to apply what were ineffective protocols to begin with.
The two ingredients which are essential to the process of helping fearful dogs are skill and patience. We can often stumble along making slow headway if we are missing one or the other, and it’s what most of us do when first confronted with the challenge of training fearful dogs. It’s when both of these key ingredients are missing from the mix that it becomes frustrating and potentially deadly for the dog. It is often our lack of patience with a dog that compels us to put too much pressure on them and some will snap, literally snap. Dogs who bite people or other animals run an increased risk of being abandoned or killed.
We improve our skills through education and practice. It takes time and energy. That education can also help increase our patience with a dog. When you understand that a terrified dog can’t do what you are trying to get them to do and is not being willfully disobedient it’s easier to cut them some slack. No one stands a 9 month old baby on their feet and implores them to walk or is surprised or disappointed when they don’t. Or we become able to see their behavior for what it is, a warning or a plea.
We shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has only ever lived with happy, social dogs would struggle when an unsocialized or abused dog lands in their home. We need to extend some of that patience to ourselves as the dog’s trainer and caretaker. We too can continue to become more confident and competent in the way we communicate and go about the unending process of becoming better than we already are.
What are the other ingredients you add to your work with fearful dogs?
Stop in for a visit to any one of the thousands of forums or groups devoted to dog training and behavior and you’re likely to bump into a discussion about whether or not it’s acceptable to punish dogs during training. There will be both reasonable and unreasonable comments from either side of the table.
Punishment is a very effective consequence to apply in order to end behavior. The challenge is getting it right. Reinforcement in the form of food is a very effective consequence to apply in order to see more of a behavior, and again the challenge is getting it right. In either case I want to consider what the consequences of me getting it wrong will be. Am I willing to accept, and subsequently have to deal with those consequences? In the case of punishment, often I am not. The reason? The consequences of the misapplication of a reinforcer, though problematic, especially if it’s routine, are likely going to be easy for me to change compared to the consequences of the misapplication of punishment, especially if it’s routine.
There are many reasons why a dog may continue to perform an inappropriate behavior or fail to perform a behavior we ask them to. Punishing a dog for failure to respond to a cue is risky business. What are we punishing? In this case we are often punishing what we interpret as a dog who is being willfully disobedient or blowing us off. There are other reasons why we may not get what we ask for, leading reasons being that the dog has not really learned the behavior, or has not generalized the cue to different locations or variations in the handler’s delivery of the cue.
Check out this video* and keep it in mind the next time you are inclined to yell at, yank on a leash, shock or hit a dog who doesn’t respond to a cue. They may not have even been aware that a cue to perform a behavior was presented to them.
*I was among the 70% of the people watching this video who did not.