Archive for the ‘dogs’ Tag
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.
Last night when I should have been doing other things or at least heading off to bed I was looking at Facebook. A friend had posted a plea for information about how to get ointment into the eye of her resistant little dog. Almost all of the suggestions included using some form of restraint, including wrapping him in a towel, which would create the level of helplessness the owner would need to do what she needed to. The hypocrisy of it was that I suspected had she asked for suggestions as to how to get him to stop pulling on the leash, and had someone recommended a prong or ecollar, fireworks would have followed. It was topped off with a healthy dose of irony as yesterday Lili Chin’s fabulous poster about force-free training had been making the rounds.
I directed her to Canines in Action’s fabulous clicker training video Tucker’s Nail Trim, which remains my all time favorite for showing people how dogs can be trained to ‘be good’ even when being asked to do something they are not comfortable with. In many cases the bigger problem is the restraint, not the task that needs to be accomplished.
It was timely for me because for months a bottle of tartar removing tooth goop had been sitting on the counter, unused. I confess I do not brush my dogs’ teeth and we pay for it at the vet clinic with routine cleanings. When I had tried to squirt some in Annie’s mouth she was not pleased at all. The next time I picked up the bottle of tooth goop she promptly ducked her head and fled the scene. So I didn’t bother with it. But my friend’s request for info prompted me to grab my camera and see if I could show how I’d get a dog used to having something done ‘to them’.
The following video was a slap dash effort, warts, stupid chatter and all, it’s not been edited and professional trainers can find things to criticize but I hope the point is made that what I am doing is something ANY pet owner can do. Annie is very food motivated and we play ‘training’ games all the time, so she’s comfortable with how ‘you do this, I do that’ works. If a dog is not food motivated enough to want to engage in training games then pet owners would do well to come up with other reinforcers for their dog’s behavior. Play, ear rubs, butt scratches, tug, something. You need to have something that your dog finds rewarding enough to do things for. If there is nothing than before you start trying to get your dog to do stuff or change their behavior you need to work on that!
Just because I can forcibly restrain a dog doesn’t mean I have to. In the long run I’d rather not have to deal with the frustration and struggle that using force perpetuates and often escalates. And if I truly care about an animal why would I settle for forcing them to ‘give up’? I was a little sister and remember well the way it felt when someone bigger held me down and demanded that I ‘say uncle’. Sometimes it was funny but other times I ran off to ‘tell mom’. I’m the one policing my behavior when it comes to my interactions with my animals. I try to let the grown up in my head make the decisions.
Dog trainers hear it all the time- pet owners who have ‘tried everything’ or declare that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work because they’ve tried giving their dog treats and still have not been able to get the behavior they’re after. I can say with 100% certainty that if you are among those ranks that you have NOT tried everything. Everything you have tried might not have worked, but that’s different. It can feel as if you’ve tried everything, but take my word for it, you haven’t. ’Everything’ is a tall order. You might have tried everything you can think of or have readily at hand.
The use of force, coercion or punishment is often justified because someone has ‘tried’ using positive reinforcement and been unsuccessful. Positive reinforcement works when you find something that is positively reinforcing to the dog. That you have not found what it is, does not negate the method. Even if your dog likes something, finds it rewarding, it may not be reinforcing. For something to be used as reinforcement is has to increase the likelihood that a dog will repeat a behavior in order to get it or make it happen. I may find painting my deck rewarding, it looks good when I’m done, but I do not find painting my deck positively reinforcing. I will only paint it again when faced with the possibility (threat) of having it rot, the embarrassment of having guests see an unattractive, peeling deck or the prospect of paying someone else to do it. I wish I found it positively reinforcing, it might get done more often.
A dog may happily gobble down a treat, wag their tail when you scratch their ears or tell them how marvelous they are, or gladly chase a ball, but not find any of these to be reinforcement for the behavior you are after. Or they might. My own dogs will perform some behaviors, but not all, for a food treat. And this is always subject to change. Anyone who has decided to join a gym may have had to play all kinds of tricks with themselves to get the habit started. These tricks often include some kind of reward, a favorite coffee drink after a workout or a new pair of sneakers or clothing. If the ‘going to the gym’ behavior is repeated often enough you might discover that you no longer need the reward to perform the behavior. You go for the sake of going and the workout has become rewarding, and reinforcing, in and of itself. Or whatever you were using to reward yourself no longer is enough and you need to change it in order to keep up the ‘going to the gym’ behavior.
Dog trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement techniques to build, shape or create behaviors think of themselves as detectives. We know, like someone investigating a murder that even though we don’t know who the murderer is, one exists. We know that if a behavior continues to be repeated, ‘something’ is reinforcing it. We also know that if we are having trouble getting a behavior to be repeated, we have not discovered what is reinforcing to the dog. If we decide to use a form of punishment to stop a behavior we are aware that unless we give the dog something else to do to replace the unwanted behavior we are likely to either get the unwanted behavior again, or end up with a stressed out dog who doesn’t know what to do for fear of being punished. When this happens we can see all kinds of bad behavior emerge, and unfortunately it’s a downward spiral if more punishment is applied to end these as well.
The next time you find yourself throwing up your hands in frustration, believing that you’ve tried everything, try contacting a trainer with experience in positive reinforcement and behavior modification. Good trainers see problem behaviors as puzzles to be solved, not confrontations to be won.
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.
As smart as we humans consider ourselves to be, we can be remarkably short-sighted or inconsiderate of the effects of our beliefs or actions. Antibiotics have saved countless lives and I consider myself among the lucky in history to have lived in an age during which we have access to them. But we have also learned that unless we use them judiciously, the fall out of resistant bacteria is very real and can be deadly. Yet for many, including, surprisingly, doctors, they continue to be misused.
When I meet trainers or dogs owners who believe that dogs need to be dominated in order to be appropriate pets I rarely doubt that they enjoy having dogs in their lives. However the perpetuation of the myth that dogs need to be ‘shown their place’ in the household pack hierarchy may have had serious consequences for breeds of dogs some trainers and advocates have specifically targeted for image improvement. This impact goes beyond the routine effect on a dog who has been ‘dominated’ displaying increased fear and aggression. That alone should be enough to reconsider the practice.
Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary. Growling, used by dogs to indicate that they want to maintain or increase their personal space, which may include food, locations or toys, is upsetting enough that many pet owners and trainers will punish a dog for it. It scares us. It scares us even more if we believe that it is a rung on the ladder up to domination. ‘Nip it in the bud’ is the tactic employed by many, and can have unintended consequences. Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.
As sophisticated as humans are we are still ‘animals’ and have retained many of the responses that kept us alive long enough to evolve and achieve our own level of global domination (germs and cockroaches aside). We are as concerned about being attacked as the next fellow mortal regardless of how many limbs they use to walk, or whether they swim or fly. When we incorporated the myth that status seeking in dogs is a powerful enough desire that they are willing to attack and kill humans to get it, red lights started flashing in the parts of our brains that respond to immediate threats which affect our survival. This unfortunately has led to less use of the parts of our brains that are capable of critical thinking.
There is plenty of information, provided by biologists, ethologists, behaviorists, and writers, far more skilled than I, to include the research done on both wolves and dogs which indicates that both animals interact within a system that promotes cooperation far more than it does conflict, especially conflict which might lead to grievous bodily harm, in this post. I welcome readers to include links to that information in comments. My goal for this post is not to address that, but rather to suggest that when you convince people that dogs need an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in order to be a safe, ‘balanced’ pet you instill a level of fear in people about dogs which may have led to the increase in breed specific legislation and heightened laws regarding which dogs communities feel safe having in them.
I have rarely doubted that trainers like Cesar Millan and others who follow his ‘premises’ about the relationship between people and dogs, like and love dogs, but the unintended consequences of maintaining the ‘alpha’ and pack leader paradigm, including practices and handling techniques which can increase aggression, may be proving to be deadly to the very dogs they claim to care about.
Strolling a beach who can help but be pleased to find a piece of sanded smooth seaglass? With the sharp edges worn down to safety they are tiny treasures used to make jewelry. Bathrooms around the world contain baskets of the stuff gathered during vacations and holidays. Even with their shiny surface blurred by abrasion we rarely resist the urge to put a piece in our pocket.
As I pick up stones to toss into the lake for my dogs I set aside ones rounded to lozenge-shaped smoothness. My childhood friends and I would covet these kinds of rocks, sharing them with special friends the way teenagers now share friendship bracelets or rings. What is it about these stones that, even as an adult, I find irresistible? Why is something that was once irregular with sharp edges, more appealing now that it has been tumbled and had those edges refined?
Sunny is my seaglass. Once he might have been considered by many to be a broken shard, without worth, destined for the trash heap. But with his edges smoothed he’s one of my most valued treasures. A rare piece of red or blue glass that has put in its time tumbling in the sand and ended up all the more beautiful for it.
Give me a break.
Cut me some slack.
We learn from our mistakes.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Despite the fact that our language is littered with phrases that attempt to make us feel ok about making mistakes, or to request that others be less critical of us when we do, we sure as heck do not seem to have incorporated this magnanimity into our lives or culture. Even our dogs are subject to our lack of tolerance for ‘errors’.
When we are afraid to make ‘mistakes’ we become limited in our abilities to learn, improve or innovate. How many of us refuse to try to do something for fear of looking ‘foolish’ or being ridiculed? Few of us are ‘naturals’ at all the activities we may attempt to perform. I rarely participated in team sports when I was growing up because I didn’t think I was ‘good’ enough yet every summer I learned a host of new skills as I played with friends.
I could walk on stilts, jump on a pogo stick, swirl a mean hula hoop, swim, dive, and run. We showed off to each other, shouted to our parents to ‘LOOK AT ME!’ ‘WATCH THIS MOM!’ even as we stumbled or belly flopped. We were cheered on regardless and this encouragement gave us the incentive to keep trying, to screw up our courage and try a back flip, to show how fast we could run barefooted on a dirt road and ride our bikes with our hands at our sides.
Any new skill requires a certain amount of ‘rewiring’ of the brain. Our muscles need to memorize new movements, and dexterity improves with repetition. Even behaviors such as loose leash walking require a dog learn a new way of moving. Sure they already ‘know’ how to walk slowly, but just think how challenging it would be for you to go out and train for a marathon while being forced to hold the hand of a three year old. Old patterns and habits are hard to break.
When your dog’s behavior isn’t quite perfect, instead of finding fault, throw them a bone and help them do better next time.
NOTE: I will be offering a seminar on working with fearful dogs in Santa Cruz, CA on September 9, 2012. Contact me for details.