Archive for the ‘dogs’ Tag
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.
I had a call recently from a concerned owner with a service dog who was becoming more and more reactive to sounds and changes in her environment. The dog was described as “timid” even on arrival into the home of her new handler. I will not address the reality that someone trained and placed a dog to be a service dog in the community who was timid and wary from the get-go. I wasn’t joking when I told the owner that he was going to be his dog’s service human.
As the conversation progressed I learned that they were located in a town where I knew there was a good trainer. A trainer who understood how animals learn, who has studied and practiced teaching new behaviors to animals, who knew how to discern between her ability to teach a behavior and an animal’s ability to learn it. This latter point is important. As trainers it’s important for us to be able to see when our own skills are lacking and not immediately assume that an animal requires more aversive techniques to be trained. Or if we do decide that we need to move up the scale and punish a dog we consider which type of punishment we will use and how it might adversely impact an animal’s behavior. I trusted this trainer to be able to do that intelligently.
My faith in humanity is always buffed up a bit when I speak with people like this fellow. He had already demonstrated compassion toward his dog and was doing some of the things I would have recommended; jollying and playing with the dog when she was afraid (as opposed to punishing her or making her deal with what was scaring her). As we were wrapping up the conversation he told me that he would do anything to help his dog and if what one trainer told him didn’t work, he’d find another. And suddenly the conversation wasn’t almost over.
I understood what he meant, and in practice changing trainers may be the best thing to do especially if a trainer has recommended the use of punishment but in this case I knew that if what my colleague advised him to do wasn’t working, he should return to her to find out why. Often when a training technique doesn’t work it’s not because the technique itself is flawed, it’s the application of it or that the process requires more time. Trainers hear it almost daily, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works,” the implication being that someone’s dog is especially recalcitrant, stupid, or aggressive (and far too often the justification for the use of training equipment designed to hurt or scare a dog). In this day and age when we can all be experts in the trivia of practically everything thanks to the non-stop availability of television shows, it’s easy to think we actually know something.
Most of our dogs do not require the subtlety of surgeons when it comes to being able to be trained to be good pets. But add fear, anxiety or phobias to a dog’s make up and the skill required to help them increases. Doing something right becomes paramount because of the risks involved with doing it wrong. To assume that a technique a professional, force-free, trainer recommends isn’t working, or working fast enough and moving on to find the next magic bullet can be a mistake.
Being willing to do what it takes to help a dog is admirable. And on that list should be knowing whose advice you are taking.
For the past two summers I’ve been staying with my mum near Cape Cod. I know that having her youngest, and least fastidious daughter come and stay along with her four dogs is a challenge for her, but it’s a trade-off she’s had to make. Despite needing to spray the couch with Febreeze every day (Sunny’s preferred sleeping spot) I think she actually enjoys having them around. There’s no need to worry about whether she’s locked the doors at night. There’s not an icicle’s chance in hell that anyone would be able to so much as walk to the door, let alone actually open it without a chorus of barking. That chorus is another issue, but it’s getting easier for the dogs to end them when asked. Having a new home for the summer requires some adjustments for them as well.
Overall it’s been good. I have been able to see the skills they’ve developed and which need more work. There are more people coming and going and not only does that require more effort on my part to manage them it actually gives me the opportunity to practice the behaviors I want with them. Both Nibbles and Annie have learned to cut down on their initial barking and Nibbles has also learned that yapping and snapping after someone who gets up or walks by is not a good choice to make. I started by using lots of treats for recalls and sits and then added in a brief time-out (about 5 seconds alone in the bathroom) for infractions. Nibbles was a quick study but Annie has a more difficult time not voicing her opinion on things. Sunny is put in a place where he feels safe and where he cannot move toward people arriving.
A time-out is a form of punishment. We take away the dog’s opportunity for reinforcement (barking is very reinforcing for many dogs) by removing them from the situation and then returning them so they have the chance to behave the way we want them to for some other form of reinforcement, in our case it’s food. It can take a few trials for the dog to figure out why they are being walked off to the bathroom (or wherever you choose to put them) so don’t get frustrated or upset when you have to repeat the process. With Annie it’s a tricky one because if left there too long she’ll start barking to be let out, and I don’t want to have to deal with getting that to stop because I’m doing this when we have guests (which is why they are barking) so I’m juggling welcoming people into my home while I’m picking up leashes and leaving the room. But I would prefer to do this rather than shout at the dogs to shut up, which can also work. One reason is that I don’t like to yell and another is that I don’t want to make the association between guests and being yelled at for my dogs. So long as they don’t bark they are welcome to stay, maybe even get a treat or two from me or a dog-loving guest.
I hadn’t planned on writing a training post this morning. I wanted to share the photo of me in my rowboat (which we’ve had since I was a kid) along with some friends. Even Sunny managed to climb in for the ride. I also wanted to invite those of you who may not know about it to like the Fearfuldogs.com Face book page. I try to post something fearful dog related there every day for education and inspiration.
I will also be traveling this fall offering full-day seminars on fear-based behaviors in dogs and the most humane and effective ways to help them.
For my friends in the northern hemisphere I hope you are enjoying your summer and the living really is easier.
I live with 4 dogs who I enjoy the company of, care greatly about and wouldn’t trade for the world. I like to think that they feel the same about me. But lately, as friends get sturdy puppies who are growing up to be confident and handsome dogs, I find myself feeling nostalgic about dogs from my past. And dreaming of dogs in my future.
Before this current group of dogs I could grab a map of local hiking trails, load up a backpack, get the dogs in the car, and head off for the day. There were no worries about what I’d do were we to run into children, men with hats, beards, and walking sticks, or other dogs. Don’t get me wrong, those dogs had their share of challenges. They barked too much at cars driving by the house, rolled in stinky, dead things, one could locate discarded baby diapers from 1/2 mile, and they stole their share of sandwiches from picnicking toddlers. But at the end of the day I could stop and visit a friend, the dogs either joining me inside or waiting contentedly in the car until I returned. Those were the days.
Now I live with dogs who require constant thought and planning. Annie barks a lot, likes to ride in the car but never settles if I leave her in it. She’s not destructive but I feel guilty returning after an hour shopping trip and finding her, front feet on the dashboard, in the same position I left her, watching for me. Nibbles is terrified riding in the car and the last time I left him for any amount of time, he vomited all over our suitcases. At home he’s always on alert, waiting for someone to jog, bike or drive by so he can charge and bark. There have been improvements in this behavior, but nothing is ever not a big deal to Nibs. Sunny can’t join the big, wide world except in very small and controlled doses. Thank goodness he’s ok in the car and doesn’t seem to mind having to wait in it when I’m gone. And then there’s Finn my border collie–my most normal dog is a border collie, if that gives you perspective.
I’m not complaining. I know that one day, all too soon, I’ll be missing those faces.
Recently I added a scanner to the array of equipment cluttering my desk. I am working on a project for the family which includes scanning old photos. It’s been fun to look at the images of the dogs I’ve lived with, and will continue to enjoy subjecting my Facebook friends to them.
Memories of each dog include a lightbulb moment or two when I learned something about them and their behavior. Samantha was a fox terrier we were given by cousins who didn’t want her. She had been relegated to life in their garage and when our dog Blackie died, we didn’t stay dog-less for long.
Home for lunch from grade school, I took Sam for a walk around the neighborhood. I dropped the leash accidentally when she pulled and off she ran. I was wearing a pair of fish net stockings (this was before the days of pantyhose). I had fashioned a garter belt out of a pair of my father’s sock garter’s and as I ran screaming after Sam the stockings and garters slid down my legs and puddled around my ankles. I was scared and angry as I ran shouting her name. I returned home in tears without her. It wasn’t long before she returned and I yelled at her for running away. She cowered and even in my pre-developed, pre-frontal cortex, there was a glimmer of what would make perfect sense to me later, and that was that she didn’t understand the specifics of why I was shouting at her. She had come back, I should have thanked her.
For my 16th birthday I was the recipient of the best gift I can image ever getting, an 8-week old puppy. It was love at first sight and I slept on a couch in the basement because my mother did not allow dogs upstairs in the bedrooms. I named her Treble and brought her with me whenever I could, including on the subway into the Boston Common where she was delighted to chase squirrels back into the trees. It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t come when I called her, she would spin on a dime mid-chase, to return to me. I knew nothing about training or positive reinforcement. All I knew about was adoration, and I think it was mutual.
When Treble died I was heart-broken and when an adolescent stray dog arrived at the summer camp where I was working it wasn’t long before he was my dog. I called him BC (he was wearing a blue collar) and unlike Treble, he had no recall and I had no idea how to teach one. Many a time I would have to sit and wait while he ran around exploring until he’d had his fill. I discovered that if I ran away from him, as though off on my own pursuit of adventure, he’d follow me. Years later when I was shown how to do this in a dog training class I smiled at the memory of BC stopping to look at me quizzically before deciding to change direction and run after me.
He also taught me about appeasement gestures, that guilty look that people think their dog is making because they understand that they misbehaved. When confronted BC would lower his head and squint, something which I found utterly charming and I could never stay angry with him for long. One day I confronted him with, “What did you do?” even though he’d done nothing, and in return he squinted. Having done nothing wrong, why behave as though he had? Something else must have been going on, and indeed it was, he was displaying behaviors designed to get me to stop scaring him. So I did.
These are just 3 of the dogs who I shared some time with on this planet. With each I have found myself wishing that I knew then what I know now. I suspect that will be true for every dog I live with, present and future.
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.
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.
Ray Coppinger studies the world’s population of free-ranging dogs. These are the domesticated dog (as opposed to wild dogs) who are not under the reproductive control of humans. There are millions of them and they represent over 80% of the world’s population of dogs. He has looked at how dogs end up living as pets.
The most common thing that happens is that dogs adopt people. Travel in any developing country and you’re likely to see a puppy or young dog trailing behind a person, often a child. The pup survives on the scraps or offerings of the person they choose to be with. If the food or other necessity such as water or shelter is available on a regular basis, and provides an advantage over not sticking around the person, the dog has found a home.
When I was a kid my mother, having traveled to Florida, brought me home a baby alligator. The person who sold her the alligator told her that we should feed it bread. That my mother didn’t have an understanding of the needs of alligators is obvious, that the person selling her the alligator didn’t care is obvious as well. Martin the alligator (named after my brother) didn’t survive for long in his bathtub by the radiator. People also adopt dogs. One of the required conditions for any animal that is adopted by people is that they are able to survive the adoption process. Dogs for the most part, unlike alligators, have been overwhelmingly success at this.
Fearful dogs frequently do not survive the adoption process. Their needs are misunderstood, and even the most compassionate of people may not be able to meet them. The people responsible for finding homes for dogs with fear based behavior challenges need to be able to either give a dog the skills they will need to be successful as pets, or find someone who can.
Is the pet shop owner, knowing that the majority of baby alligators they are selling to tourists to bring home to their kids will not be cared for appropriately, behaving in an ethical way? If the pet shop owner is unaware of the needs of baby alligators should they be in the business of selling them? What is our responsibility for the dogs we either adopt out or bring home to live with us as pets? How can we increase the chances that a dog will not only survive the adoption process but thrive in it?
One of the most cited reasons for the use of a shock collar is to get reliable recalls from a dog. It can be very challenging to come up with an alternative for a dog which is as, or more reinforcing, than doing whatever it is the dog is choosing to do rather than return when called. So people quickly choose to use other options for changing behavior and those are using punishment or negative reinforcement. If you’re not a trainer, don’t worry about all the training lingo. It’s helpful to understand it, but I think it’s enough to keep in mind that dogs will repeat behaviors they are rewarded for and will get better at behaviors they repeat.
Nibbles came to live with us just over a year ago. He spent a few months too afraid for us handle him. He’s over that now and is one of the most affectionate and engaging dogs in the house. But Nibs like to chase things. He likes to chase things he can see and things he can only smell the track they have left behind. When we went for our daily walk in the woods as soon as I unclipped the leash it was his cue to bolt. His body vibrated in anticipation of being able to run off and my calling him seemed to mean nothing.
On our walks it’s not that big of an issue. I like my dogs to have the opportunity to run in the woods and most of the time they either stick with me, or check in regularly. But Nibs also likes to chase joggers and bikers going by in front of our house. I knew that if I was going to stand a chance of getting him to come when I called him when he had a bike to chase, I’d need to get him to come to me when there wasn’t. He knows what to do when I say come and wait. He can perform both when there’s nothing else of interest around. I know that before we decide to use punishment with a dog we need to be sure that the dog knows and can perform the behavior we are asking of them*. I worked on ways to make it more likely that Nibbles would come when I called him at the start of our walks, where he was more likely not to come when called.
I used two leashes so that the sound and feel of a leash being unclipped ceased to be the cue for being able to race off. Haha Nibs, that’s when my bigger brain comes in handy! Well, except for the time I dropped the second leash and he took off dragging it along with him. That’s what fast reflexes will get a dog. I started going for walks before breakfast and using super good food treats along the way. When Nibbles didn’t come when I called him I took all the dogs and turned around and walked away from him. Running in the woods is fun and all, but it’s better with company. As a matter of course I give dogs treats when leashes come off. This keeps them sticking around for that, though in Nib’s case was not enough to counter the allure of the possibilities awaiting in the woods.
Here’s a video of where we are with his recall now.
Once I packed the camera up we joined Nibs and Sunny on the trail. They were running back down the trail to find us.
*When you are working with a dog with fear based behavior challenges you MUST factor in that a dog is not coming to you because they are afraid to do so. Don’t even consider punishing a dog for this.
If you sat two children down, one with a pile of marbles, the other with a bucket of tennis balls and gave each the task to put these objects into a milk jug, what do you think is likely to happen? Start off with- which child is more likely to be successful? Assuming that the marbles are all small enough to fit into the jug and the child has the dexterity and hand/eye coordination, the child with the marbles will be. What about the child with the tennis balls? Even if they have the ability to try to perform the task, how many attempts do you think they will make before they give up altogether when they discover that tennis balls don’t fit into milk jugs? I’m going to guess, not many. Why bother?
If we were to bring in another child and give them a variety of different sized marbles, some which will fit, some just barely, others not at all, how many attempts do you think they will make before they stop? Let’s assume that putting marbles in jugs is fun for the child or that we’ve promised them their special treat for doing it, and I’m guessing that they will keep trying until they have put all the marbles that fit into the jug and have a pile of those that don’t. If we asked them to do this a second time they might even do it more quickly if there were easy ways for them to differentiate between the sizes of the marbles; all the red ones fit, blue ones don’t.
When our dogs are interacting with us and their environment there is a continuous flow of experimentation of behavior. Each behavior provides the dog with information as to whether they should do it again or not based on what outcome the behavior produces. Does the behavior fit? If we always provide our dogs with information that tells them that a behavior is the right one, they can be prepared to use that behavior again in the future. If we resort to punishment too often, which for a fearful dog may be just once, they may, like the child with the tennis balls, stop bothering to experiment to come up with the behavior that fits.
We don’t need to hit them over the head to let them know that a behavior isn’t fitting. If they have learned a variety of ways that tell them that a behavior does fit; food treats, praise, smiles, cheers of approval, a click, the word YES, when one of these does not occur, they are prepared to experiment with another response until they are successful.
In life, on rivers, or when training a dog, there are advantages to going with the flow.