Archive for the ‘desensitization’ Tag

Time To Raise The Bar

dog on pavement with caption training shouldn't hurtThere are few fields in which having grown up either performing a task or with the student, is enough to qualify one as a professional and justifies charging for one’s services. Unless of course we are talking about dog trainers.

I grew up reading and might be able to teach plenty of kids to read but if your kid has dyslexia it would be wiser to choose someone with an education in reading science. I’ve been driving a car since I was 15 but I hold no delusions that I could be a good race car driver because of it. I’ve been feeding myself for decades, and I’m still alive, but it doesn’t qualify me to charge people for nutritional advice.

There is a science of animal behavior. How animals learn has been studied and researched for decades. Ignoring this and continuing to train dogs based on one’s own personal system that deviates from the science, would in any other field leave one open to criticism and possibly criminal prosecution. But not so in dog training. ANYONE can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist, and label the criticism close-mindedness or jealousy. I’ve been training dogs since I was a toddler (what else is holding out my cracker and getting the dog to come to me to take it if not training) but it’s no reason to hire me or seek me out for advice.

Dog training is an unregulated industry with no accepted standards outside of those established by professional groups, and they vary even between groups. Before you let anyone put a hand or piece of equipment on your dog, or encourage you to do so yourself, stop. Don’t let their confidence, arrogance or even big words or concepts sway you. You may end up paying a bigger price than you thought.

Staying At The Party

I received this message on Facebook. I thought I’d share it and my response.

“And while I was writing this in response to someone’s question … I was booted from that group ..lol nice Let me tell you what happens every time I state something I believe… I’m abused. I’ll be part of a discussion and before you know it I’m getting bombarded with nasty emails and become everybody’s example of ” what not to do” you’d think instead of ridiculing me for some of my beliefs there’d be someone curious to know how I came to those beliefs… You think I enjoy being hated by my peers? Trust me I don’t but there’s no way around it. When i pose the question ” is it possible to get 100% reliability recall using all positive ” I’m actually hopping to learn something… I’m not looking for a fight. My dogs are reliable with recall , and as a result they have lots of freedom . However the only way I can ensure reliability is with remotes.. Even though the remote NEVER goes past 1. (The lowest setting ) it’s still technically still a shock. I can’t imagine getting 100% reliability without the remote as backup. However if there was a way I’d absolutely change my opinion and switch over.. It’s not about ego for me it’s about making my dogs as happy as I can nothing more… Sorry for the babbling.”

I’m not sure why I have received this message from you. I don’t know you and so wonder if it was meant for someone else, is spam or trolling. But I will take it at face value, on good faith, and will attempt a response.

A question that comes to mind is why you persist in behaving in a way that culminates in a consequence you profess not to like or Lampshade-headwant? Are you honestly seeking answers to your question about training reliable recalls without aversives? Are you an e-collar advocate out to espouse its benefits anywhere, to anyone, at any cost? If it’s the latter I return to the first question. Do you also go to dinner parties and try to convert people to your religion or diet regime, continuing even as other guests pick up their drinks and scurry away from you? Either you want to be at the party or not.

There will be different cultural “rules” at different parties. Frat house parties will allow for certain behaviors that a party with the table set with 3 forks and 2 different spoons would not. I for one would not go to a frat party and try to get the guests to put napkins on their laps before they eat their pizza. Nor would I put the table center piece on my head at a formal gathering regardless of how funny I thought it was. Not if I wanted to be invited back anyway. If I felt that not being able to put the table center piece on my head cramped by artistic freedom or inner child, I would have to seriously consider my choice to attend such parties and the judgement I was using to come to that decision. If I felt very strongly about dining etiquette practices for Delta Phis (or whatever the heck those frats are called) I would consider how well my approach to disseminating information was working or likely to work. Obviously not very well if I was having the door slammed shut and locked behind me after being pushed out of it. If you are indeed looking for answers and not advocating e-collars you probably need to look at how you are saying what you are saying if so many people are missing your point.

The question you are asking, regarding achieving 100% compliance is a disingenuous one. There is no 100% in behavior. We can only predict the likelihood that we will see more or less of a particular behavior based on the consequences for the animal. The makers of e-collars are aware of this and many include a “bump” button that will raise the level of the shock (or stim if you prefer) a set number of levels. If the dog does not respond to level 10, hit the bump button and they get level 30. If we could get 100% at level 10 why the need for a bump? What happens when we don’t get 100% at level 30? Onward and upward?

I would also need clarification as to whether we are talking about using an e-collar for training or management. Many trainers and most pet owners are using them as a management tool, not a training tool. If what you mean to say is that you use an e-collar to replace a longline or fence, I think we should make that distinction. There is no 100% even if an e-collar has been used in training (or for management, dogs are learning when being managed). Any behavior, in the absence of a historic reinforcer or punisher is subject to extinction. The trainers who I have seen who use e-collars more effectively and humanely than most (and there are unfortunately few of them around if what is routinely posted online is any example), rely on positive reinforcement to build and maintain behaviors, i.e., they don’t need to use shock to teach or maintain the behaviors they’ve taught the dog. Many trainers and owners can’t get a reliable recall from their dog because they have failed to provide or stopped providing positive reinforcement for the behavior. They may be “rewarding” the behavior, but they are not reinforcing it and they don’t understand the difference.

I recently attended a training seminar and had the opportunity to learn from people who train birds. The birds are fully flighted and many are taken outside for exercise and enrichment. Flocks of parrots without a bit of hardware on them (nor were they trained using any), and not starved, are allowed to fly around as they like. When they are cued to return to their handlers they do, close enough to 100% of the time for the handlers to continue the practice. Pretty impressive for a creature not touted as “man’s best friend,” the animal who is saddled with an increasingly available array of equipment in order to teach or maintain behavior.

The other fly in the ointment as far as 100% goes is handler error. Batteries go dead, contacts aren’t made, remotes are turned off, a behavior occurs and by the time the handler reaches into their pocket the opportunity for training is long gone and they are instead merely providing a consequence to whatever behavior happens to be occurring at the time they press the button. It may suit their needs or not, but it’s not good training. I also have to question an e-collar which is designed so that level one works for a dog. One would assume that using the lowest level of shock possible to get what they need would be preferable. If there is no lower setting available how can they be sure they are doing that? I can’t help but wonder why the commitment, in the face of social media shunning (if that’s as aversive to you as you seem to trying to say), to promoting an aversive with a high potential for misuse as a training tool, or advertising the use of one?

If you are looking to learn how one achieves high levels of compliance without the use of an e-collar I would look to people who are training dogs to perform at competitive or professional skill levels, trainers like Denise Fenzi and Steve White, to name only two of the many who are out there working with dogs. The way it is done is by arranging antecedents, managing the economy and providing positive reinforcement as consequences in a skilled manner.

Please do not feel that you need to respond to this post publicly. My goal is not to single you out, insult or shame you. I just thought that it was a worthwhile question to answer, even if you were only trying to “get my goat” or sell something. Ultimately we all have to make choices about what we are willing to do to an animal to get the behaviors we decide we need or become skilled enough to get using the least amount of invasiveness.

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

toddler feeding treats to a cocker spaniel and small black dogWhen 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.

 

Assume They Bite

border collie with ball and baby sitting in front

Even a “good” dog has teeth.

During his early time with us Sunny never growled or lifted a lip toward me or my husband. No one was more surprised than I was when he landed a bite on my neighbor’s calf when she was walking in front of our house. I soon learned  from other, more experienced fearful dog owners, that there was nothing surprising about Sunny’s behavior. He was essentially a dog who never had the opportunity to learn to feel good and comfortable around people, especially strangers, and I had encouraged my neighbor to toss tennis balls for Sunny when he went down to the road and barked at her. OMG. I can hardly believe it myself. What was I thinking? Fact is I didn’t know what to think. I never had a dog who was as prepared to bite people as Sunny was. Learning that the dog you are living with has the increased potential to, and in all likelihood will, bite someone is a crushing realization. I felt terrible about what happened to my neighbor, who was beyond understanding and generous in her response. I baked her a maple walnut pie and still am upset about Sunny biting her.

Since that time Sunny has put his teeth into another calf once. Again it was a predictable, and therefore avoidable situation. There was the perfect storm of conditions, I assumed one thing, the person engaging with him assumed another and “bam” it happened again. That sinking gut feeling is one I can do without. Again, the recipient of the bite was kind and generous and in fact was even unsure as to whether she’d been bitten or scratched, but I knew better, those marks were from teeth.

Recently I found out that another of the little dogs who was part of the same confiscation from a breeder as my Nibbles, had started biting people. Of all the shy dogs I met of that group, this little guy had the most skill and comfort around people. I never would have guessed that he’d end up biting, my money would have been on Nibbles. It’s been a couple of years since the dog had been adopted and I’m going to assume that this new propensity to bite has been building. The conditions the dog had been living in were leading to the creation of the behavior. Don’t get me wrong, the people he lives with are loving and kind. The dog is adored and well cared for but the, what are often subtle, signs of discomfort and fear were not seen or heeded.

When we live with a dog with “issues” of any kind we have two options that are often best combined. We manage the dog so that they are not put into situations in which they are likely to experience fear or discomfort and then fail at being good dogs. For pet owners without a lot of training background or skill, this is the go-to approach. Your dog lunges at dogs while out walking on a leash, stop walking your dog where or when you’re likely to run into other dogs. Your dog barks and charges guests who come into your home, put the dog in a crate or another room so they can’t.

The second thing we do is a combination of changing how the dog feels and teaching them new behaviors. Both of these are often most easily done using super good food treats. It can take some skill development on the part of an owner, but a good trainer, well versed in positive reinforcement methods and protocols can teach you. It’s a gentle and kind process that is a joy to watch unfold. As you are learning and practicing good management, your dog is learning and less likely to feel stressed and pressured, and less likely to bite.

I live with four dogs. My cocker Annie and border collie Finn have teeth and like all dogs can bite, but I don’t have the same degree of concern about their behavior with people as I do with Sunny and Nibbles. Annie and Finn have a buffer of tolerance and resiliency to being stressed by people. They are not afraid of people. Both Sunny and Nibbles have come a long way in their ability to feel more comfortable and safe with people, but the first feeling that washes over them when they see a person is probably fear, worry or concern. My goal has been to change that feeling to one of gleeful anticipation. In Sunny’s case it might be a frisbee toss across the dog yard. For Nibbles it’s a treat. For both dogs it means no handling or social pressure to engage in a conversation that decreases the distance between person and dog without the dog’s stamp of approval.

By assuming that your dog will bite you might save yourself and someone else having to deal with one. It’s painful.

Fixing What Ails You

french fries with ketchupIt seems that many of us go through our lives trying to make something better or fix something that we hold responsible for our troubles.

Years ago I was traveling with a couple of friends. One an ex-housemate who I enjoyed and laughed with, the other, his girlfriend was a friend only the most superficial of ways. We worked at the same place and we liked hanging out with the same guy. She always seemed to be struggling with something in her past that kept her unhappy with her better than average body, her prettier than average face and her smarter than average brain. Luckily her richer than average parents were able to provide her with decades of therapy. Even this seemed to be a cause of dissatisfaction and guilt.

I found her tiresome and self-centered. At dinner one evening when she asked how I would “feel” about her having some of my french fries I thought, “I’d feel like stabbing you with my fork,” but I am an adult and my future will hold many more french fries so, “Help yourself.” In retrospect she might have been a good dog trainer. Considering a person’s emotional attachment to their french fries certainly would set one up for understanding a dog’s attachment to a bone, or old sock.

I’m not sure if this woman ever found the solution to her nagging discontent, but no doubt it motivated many of her behaviors. When I look at dogs I often wonder what nagging discontent is motivating their behavior. Why does one find it impossible to walk outside, or another to race frantically from window to window to bark at the slightest movement or sound? What problem is their behavior trying to solve? And I understand that whatever reason I come up with may be right, but may also be very wrong. The best I can hope for is that whatever I come up with motivates me to change the dog’s environment and my or the owner’s interactions in ways that help solve the problem, rather than contribute to it.

In the dog training world more people take relationships into consideration. There is the realization that how we feel about each other will impact how and what a dog learns. And the relationship the dog has with their environment will also play a part in how they choose to behave or are triggered to behave. Dogs will find behaviors that make them feel better or provide some kind of relief, even if those behaviors are maladaptive to our homes and our lives.  Indeed these behaviors may be maladaptive to their own lives. We need to find solutions that help them solve their problems in ways that are constructive and safe.

I try to extend my compassion and understanding to people as well as dogs when it comes to being patient with behaviors that annoy me. But it’s probably still a good idea not to reach for my fries. I may be having a bad day.

Old News

dog under desk targeting a ball on the end of a stickAfter years of flipping through the magazines strategically placed at the check-out in grocery stores, it was impossible not to notice that generations of young women are being schooled on how to apply mascara, bake a no-fail chocolate cake, and on what turns men off, assuming any of this matters to them. The faces on the covers have changed, but the information hasn’t since any of these topics were new to me, decades ago. I understand that while not news to me, it is news to some.

With that in mind I am going to revisit the “reinforcing fear” topic. I should explain that the idea that we reinforce fear in dogs by doing anything even remotely “nice” or pleasant to them, is a hot button subject for me. This misinformation was shared with me by a trainer, and accounts for months of mishandling my fearful dog Sunny. It was mentioned in a class I attended years before I had met Sunny, but the information stuck and shaped my interactions with him. I will never know how much this has impacted his current behavior, and I realize that hindsight is 20/20 but it continues to upset me. How much different might he be today if I had not spent months worrying about reinforcing or enabling his fear, and instead had immediately addressed his stress levels, however I needed to, to lower them? Maybe there wouldn’t be much of a difference, but I suspect there would be, hence the relevance this topic has for me.

On my Facebook page, a masseuse made brief comment that discouraged people from praising a scared dog. They didn’t explain why not to do it, but it is apparent to me why they’d say it-the reinforcing fear myth. I tried to be equally as brief in my reply and hopefully not rude but imagine if I had gone on to a page about canine massage and commented that one should not “massage old dogs.” And let’s say that there were people who thought that massage was dangerous for old dogs, that it could stop their hearts. Ridiculous you might think, but no more ridiculous than thinking you will reinforce fear in a dog by comforting them, or handing them a bit of cheese.

And why would I think that I was not qualified to comment on massage? I have after all lived with a body for decades, have had massages, my husband routinely tries to get me to massage his feet, and once I shared a house with two women in massage school. No I had not ever seen a dog’s heart stop when they were massaged, but neither has anyone seen a dog’s fear being reinforced when they are praised or comforted. A dog’s fear might have remained the same or increased when someone thought they were praising (and that praising was perceived by the dog as a reinforcer), or comforting, but that’s not evidence of anything other than that a handler didn’t understand thresholds and counter conditioning.

Not all behavior is created equal. There is behavior that is used to get something done. A dog scratches the door to get a person to open it. There is behavior that is a product of the presentation of something that creates a strong emotional response in a dog (or is part of the set of behaviors that dogs come packaged with, chasing stuff for example). This latter behavior might also produce results, a dog who is scared snarls and makes another dog move away, and dogs can get better at snarling and making dogs move away, but there is a difference between operant, the former, and respondent, the latter, behaviors. Wrap your head around this, it’s important.

If the consequence of an operant behavior is something the dog finds pleasant or beneficial, we are likely to see that behavior occur more often. If the consequence of a behavior caused by a dog being afraid of something, is something the dog finds pleasant or enjoyable, the emotional response is likely to change, from bad to good, and subsequently the behavior that it produced will change. If a kid hates going to school, we’ll probably find it difficult to get them to perform “going to school” behaviors, but if they LOVE going to school, getting them up in the morning, dressed and out the door is likely to be a different scene than for the poor kid who doesn’t enjoy it.

It isn’t easy to change emotional responses, but it is easy for someone to think they’re following the protocol to do it, and they are not. This is not evidence that desensitization and counter conditioning don’t work, just that they’re not being implemented properly.

I have not yet looked at these DVDs produced by Animal Behavior Associates, but I will be. I also will be careful about giving advice on topics I do not fully grasp, and even more careful about the advice I give when I am being paid for it.

Support Systems

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.
n.
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.

*thefreedictionary.com/comfort

Bite Me!

woman standing with wolfI recently had the unfortunate, albeit educational experience of being on a radio show with three other dog trainers. When asked if we’d ever been bitten I recounted the story of being bitten when I was a kid, another trainer spoke of his experience with sharp puppy teeth and his nose, but it was the last trainer whose response was most disturbing.

This self-proclaimed dog whisperer boasted- there was no disguising how proud she was- that she has been bitten countless number of times with varying levels of damage sustained. She considered being bitten a badge of honor and her creds for working with aggressive dogs. “Unless you’re willing to get bitten you shouldn’t work with them,” she declared. This I realized was what she thought separated her from other trainers, what made her better than other trainers, but to my ears it rang out incompetence. It was teenage boy bravado.

Imagine a trainer of wild animals, most of which will display some form of aggression toward people if they feel threatened, bragging about the number of times the lion bit them. If you work with wild animals these are not the kind of stories you necessarily live to tell. Most dog trainers do survive bites but that has more to do with the dog’s intentions, not the trainer’s skill. That being bitten by a dog poses less risk to us is no excuse for shoddy training. “Why,” I wanted to ask her, “If someone can train wild animals without being bitten, can’t you do it with a dog!?”

Her cavalier attitude toward being bitten also belied either naivete or ignorance about what happens when a dog, who might otherwise not have bitten if handled properly, does bite. Anyone adopting out a dog, is obligated to share a dog’s bite history with potential adopters. To not do so sets them up for being found liable for gross negligence should the dog bite someone in the future and the dog’s bite history becomes known. Imagine you’re visiting a shelter and all things being equal you can choose from Fluffy who has never bitten anyone and Lassie who bit his previous owners and the trainer brought in to work with him. How convincing will the guarantees of Lassie’s successful rehabilitation be? I am not saying that Lassie can’t be rehabilitated or that even nice dogs don’t have good reasons for biting sometimes. There are shelters with a policy of simply not adopting out dogs with bite histories, period.

We know that all dogs have the capability to bite. Depending on either inclination or size, one dog might do more damage than another. Simply putting their teeth on a person is not necessarily the only piece of information we have to decide whether or not they’d make a good pet for someone. Early on in our relationship I grabbed Sunny’s harness and he spun around and bit me. My hand was in his mouth and his teeth were on my hand. I sustained no injury, not even a dent or bruise. I was relieved for that reason, and also because it showed me that he had a high level of bite inhibition, meaning, he could control how hard he bit. He was giving me information, not picking a fight. From his point of view, I was probably the one doing that. Some dogs don’t have good bite inhibition and this is very difficult, if not impossible to change.

This trainer’s attitude was distressing and frankly, warped. Imagining that being bitten by dogs gives you some kind of caché, that you speak about it proudly on the air, says loads about your skills and relationship with dogs. Why brag about making a dog feel so threatened that they bite you? What does this prove? That you’re tough? That you’re in charge? That you don’t take any crap from a dog, a dog who is most likely reacting out of fear? Thinking that you have to be able to accept being bitten as a part of the process of training and rehabilitation indicates a lack of understanding about that process. Expecting that bragging about it should raise people’s opinions of you is pathetic. Sometimes I can’t help wishing that instead of whispering these trainers would just stop talking.

In The Zone

Have you ever exited the highway and entered a curve that changes the direction you were heading? A well designed curve requires very little steering. Once you adjust for it there are no sharp changes that require you to make abrupt movements of the steering wheel, you hold your position and wind along with the curve.

In the industry of outdoor recreation improvements are always being made to equipment so that man water skiingthe energy required to use it decreases. Downhill skis are shorter and shaped so that minor shifts in weight will cause them to carve out a turn. A huge improvement compared to the cumbersome wooden skis you see mounted as decoration on old barns or straight fiberglass skis cluttering garages.

Good athletes make their sports look easy, effortless. They don’t battle with gravity, they play with it. When a level of proficiency is established, even among novices, there’s a feeling described as “being in the zone.” It’s a feeling of flow and synchronicity. It’s a feeling of exhilaration.

People can also experience these feelings in relationships. We have best friends, lovers, soul mates. There’s an ease we feel in each other’s company. And like being in the “the zone” there’s a lack of fear.

When I spent more time hiking and backpacking I enjoyed crossing boulder fields. Unlike walking on an easily identified trail, boulder fields lack a single defined route. As you hop from boulder to boulder you are constantly scanning ahead so that each choice you make regarding where to put your foot is sure to provide you with another option for moving forward. It felt like playing a game with a mountain.

Good trainers of dogs make the work they do look effortless. There’s a flow to behavior and their sight is already set on the next behavior and what they need to do to get it, what subtle shift of weight is necessary to end up at their desired destination. No missteps to send them tumbling.

It is possible when climbing up a rock face or ledges to get “bluffed.” You were able to go up or down to get to a particular location but there is no safe, next step to take, and it’s impossible to back track. It can require a rescue by professionals, if you’re lucky to have them available to help.

We can find ourselves “bluffed” by some dogs. There’s a behavior, perhaps one we’ve created, and there seems to be no turning back, and we can’t see a route forward. It is possible for some people to muscle their way to the top of a rock or through a challenging rapid. It can be tempting to try to muscle our way to behavior changes in our dogs.

The athletes who are a joy to watch are the ones who use good technique and finesse to reach their goals. The skaters who fly on the ice and the gymnasts who soar as though physical laws don’t pertain to them. Their efforts are imperceptible but the results are obvious. The time and energy they put into honing their skills is apparent.

The same is true of dog trainers. Force and coercion often mask a lack of skill. The thrill the audience gets watching these trainers is different than the thrill one gets watching an artist. When you’ve experienced performance “in the zone” you want to stay there. When you bring your dog along with you, you’re less likely to find yourself on behavioral bluffs, hoping that both of you make it out alive.

Feeling is Believing

During our daily woods walk I spied a piece of birch bark rolled up and lying on the snow. Nibbles also saw it and tentatively stretched his nose toward it for a sniff. I felt myself experience a small hit of adrenalin that often accompanies events that scare or startle me. Other than it being the same size and dimensions of a belly-up grey squirrel, and the brownish-orange colorations on the bark being sort of the same color as blood, it was most definitely a piece of birch bark. Nibbles hesitation to approach it registered in my mind and contributed to my response.

I am not afraid of squirrels, dead or alive, but the “yuck a dead thing” reaction happens regardless of how squeamish something might make me. It wasn’t that I thought it was a dead squirrel, I felt it was a dead squirrel, and there’s a difference. Had it been a dead squirrel I might have had cause for concern. Any animal that might have killed it should have eaten it or moved it off the trail. I would have to decide whether or not to let the dogs think it was Christmas. Did it die from a disease? But I didn’t have to entertain any of those questions because it was clearly a piece of birch bark.

Our brains, and our dogs’ brains, are set up so that information processed by the limbic system, the part of the brain that contains the amygdala, travels faster to the parts of our brain that think and ponder information, than happens in reverse. Had it been a dead squirrel, or something potentially dangerous to me, I was primed to react, even if that only means I would have jumped back and screamed.

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How scary or upsetting something might be to us will impact the degree to which we have an emotional response. That emotional response will cause a physical response. Bodies respond to fear in different ways, they freeze, they flee or they fight. With training we get better at responding more thoughtfully when we are afraid, but it’s not easy and takes practice. Even professional actors can experience debilitating stage fright.

When a dog is repeatedly scared by the same thing, and is not given the opportunity, usually through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, to learn to think about it differently, they are likely to continue to feel the same way about it. It’s the feeling that is going to drive the behavior that you see. When we talk about thresholds to triggers we are referring to the level of concern that allows, or doesn’t, a dog to think about what it is they are dealing with. It is up to us to determine the conditions under which our dogs are more likely to learn new responses. Wanting your dog’s response to change is not enough.

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