Archive for the ‘reinforcing fear’ Tag
It wouldn’t be the first time someone has used my discomfort with something they said or did, to turn the tables and make it my problem, but it was happening and for some reason I couldn’t let it go. One of the skills we all need to practice in this day and age of instant communication is to push ourselves away from the keyboard. Just stop, end your part of the engagement. Let the sting of a comment fade and move on, do the dishes, weed the garden, read a book. Though I reminded myself of this for some reason I was like a dog with a bone, I couldn’t let it go.
I had for a few days been answering someone’s questions about their dog’s fearful behavior via Facebook’s messages. I was glad to do it. I know how it feels to find yourself living with an extremely fearful dog. But at no time do I ever believe that my words of wisdom typed into a 1 inch box are likely to be adequate in fully addressing the challenges owners are facing. I offered to either schedule a time for a consult or assist in finding a trainer near them. The reply I received stunned me, though it was not the first time I, or any trainer, has heard it in some form or another.
“I can see your (sic) in a business to make money sorry I bothered you”
Move away from the keyboard, I thought. But not only didn’t I do that, I couldn’t do it. Perhaps it has something to do with being a middle-aged woman (a label I will probably continue to use long past the time I should switch to “older” or “senior”). It’s not unusual for young women to shut up, to worry about being impolite or hurting feelings. At my age I no longer feel the need to bear the brunt of someone’s rudeness without providing them with a response. There are consequences to behavior. Maybe it was because I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before. Whatever the reason, I had to respond, to express the fact that I had been insulted by the insinuation that my motivation for doing the work that I do was purely mercenary.
After I pointed out how the comment he made insulted me, I was told it was not meant to be insulting and that I was “too sensitive.” This was an odd way to offer an apology. Again I could not let it go and replied. The conversation continued in this fashion, me pointing out how I was interpreting his comments and was met with a justification for each and admonition to “chill out.” The author even included the number of twitter followers he had. Why? My interpretation was it was a threat to expose me for the sensitive person that I am. He denied this, labeling me a “very negative person” to even think it. Then why include it in the conversation? I was feeling very confused.
Then it occurred to me why this conversation was so compelling that I couldn’t walk away from it. The ease with which my perspective of the conversation was discounted was glaring. That I might feel upset had nothing to do with the author’s behavior from his point of view. I was accused of trying to turn the conversation into a conflict. I was too sensitive. Any misunderstanding was my fault.
His dog defecated when picked up. How could he get the dog to stop behaving this way? The answer was ultimately complex but immediately simple, stop picking the dog up. The dog is sensitive, the owner’s behavior was being interpreted as threatening, scaring the dog. The only way for the dog to change was for the owner to change. But how can someone change if they are unable to consider that their behavior and actions might be perceived differently than they are intended?
Dogs are telling us how we make them feel all the time. If we are serious about helping them become less sensitive we have to acknowledge their perspective, their feelings, and stop putting the blame of misunderstanding on them, expecting to find an answer to changing their behavior that doesn’t include a major overhaul of our own.
One of the reasons I go on like a broken record about the importance of using reward based training methods that have been designed based on the evidence available garnered through the study of animal behavior and research is because working with fearful dogs can be so darn challenging. So challenging that if you don’t start seeing improvements soon you might become frustrated and disillusioned and the dog’s behavior can continue to degrade.
It’s the same reason I repeatedly remind people about behavioral medications that can help the process of changing how a dog feels about things that scare them. The risks of putting a dog on an approved behavioral medication for a few months, following the protocol recommended by a veterinarian, may be fewer than the risks we take by continuing to expose a dog to triggers without them. We can add more fears to a dog’s list of triggers, or further sensitize them to the ones they already have. It’s something to think about.
The gold standard for working with fear based behaviors in dogs is to use a combination of desensitization and counter conditioning. These are easy enough to understand, but not always easy to implement successfully. When a dog’s behavior does not improve, though the handler is employing these techniques, there are some common “fails” that may be occurring.
One common fail is to expose the dog to what scares them at a level that overwhelms them. It could be that the scary object or event is too close, too big, too many, too loud or around too long. Being able to eat treats is not a guarantee that a dog is what we commonly refer to as under threshold. It is possible for a dog to be motivated enough by something, to tolerate something scary or unpleasant to them in order to get it. It’s why it’s not recommended that a dog who is afraid of people be invited to take treats from a stranger. The same way you might be willing to pick up a paycheck every week and still hate your job, a dog may be willing to snatch a treat from someone and still wish they weren’t there. This does not mean that we can’t help a dog who is routinely over threshold, sometimes we have no choice, but until you have a good relationship with a dog and have given them coping skills it’s best to strive for less bothered rather than more.
Another fail is to assume that you are actually counter conditioning a dog to what it is they are afraid of. Our understanding of classical conditioning is based on the work of Pavlov, the man who turned getting dogs to drool into an art form. Classical conditioning is learning by association. We all do it, all the time. Counter conditioning is changing an already established classically conditioned response. A dog who is afraid of ________ learns to love children, loud noises, other dogs, car rides, vacuums, getting their ears cleaned, men with hats, etc. The scary thing which once predicted being scared now predicts cheese or a frisbee toss. It can take countless repetitions for some dogs to get this new association to replace the old one. A handler may be feeding steak in the presence of a trigger for years and not make this switch. The problem may be that the trigger is not what is predicting the treat for the dog.
Life is not always orderly. What can seem obvious to us is not to our dogs. If there is something that is relevant to us we often assume it is relevant to others, and it is not. There can be things and events in the environment that take precedence over another for a dog’s attention. We may be assuming that because we noticed the trigger and fed our dog treats, that the dog will make the association that it was the appearance of the trigger that made the treats appear. This isn’t always the case. Even if the dog notices the trigger it might not be the event in the environment that the dog is learning makes treats appear. If this goes on long enough, you reaching for a treat when a kid on a skate board goes by, the dog may eventually learn to feel ok about the skateboarding kid, but not as quickly as he would if it was the kid on the skate board that predicted the treat, and not your hand movement or that you stopped and turned in a particular direction.
Another common fail is that whatever is being used to counter condition is simply not good enough. Many dogs will eat anything, any time. I have no trouble motivating my dogs for a training session using treats, after they’ve had a meal. This is not true of all dogs, but by my dogs’ reactions to seeing me gather up training paraphernalia; clicker, treats, target stick, toys, bait bag, you’d think they’d never had a square meal in their lives. One of the reasons for this is that it’s not just the food that they enjoy. Figuring stuff out is fun for dogs too. But when you are working with a dog who is really afraid of something whatever you are offering them to create a positive association, needs to be amazin. Sometimes this is tough, and is why we combine counter conditioning with desensitization, to tip the scales in our favor. Suffice to say if someone wanted me to feel good about seeing Rush Limbaugh walk into a room they’d have to take out a loan. It’s not always easy to change how a dog feels about something or someone.
As the dog’s emotional responses change we can increase the level of their exposure to a trigger and we may find that what used to require filet mignon to get a tail wag only requires a smile and word of praise from us to get a positive response from our dog. If what you are doing isn’t working, it’s not that the process of desensitization and counter conditioning doesn’t work, it’s that your technique may need some work.
In order to survive every species has to have reason to crawl out of bed every morning, or evening if they’re nocturnal. If they can’t it’s an indication something is wrong, seriously wrong. If we have dogs who are not fearful an unwillingness or inability to eat or engage in something fun is a big red flag. Sure our dogs get old and slow down, but when they start refusing food or ignore invitations to go for a walk we start to dread the writing on the wall. Often we head to the vet. An otherwise healthy dog who is not interested in food or doing anything that dogs typically enjoy doing, is in trouble. No magic is going to help them, we are.
First we eliminate any medical reasons for a dog’s behavior. An injured or sick dog needs to be treated. Once we can be assured that they aren’t hurting we tap into their brain’s reward system and run with it. If we can’t do this using food or fun, we have to do something to make it easier for them to stop worrying about protecting themselves and find ways to help them out of the funk of despair and depression, both responses I don’t doubt dogs experience.
If we can lower the dog’s level of anxiety either by the management of their environment and/or the use of medications we need to do it. We need to take hold of the reins of a dog’s reward system and turn them into addicts for what we offer them. Once we do that it only looks like magic.
Scientists who have studied fear in animals have come up with four responses, one or more of which are common, in one form or another, to organisms ranging from bacteria to humans.
1. Withdrawal, avoidance, flee
2. Immobilization, freeze-up
3. Submission, appeasement
When working with our fearful dogs it’s important to keep in mind that these responses do not necessarily indicate the ‘level’ of fear a dog is experiencing. It is not unusual to hear people say that their fearful dog ‘lets’ people pet him/her. ‘Letting’ something happen does not mean that the dog is not afraid, it is just that for that dog, in that situation the dog is reacting with option #2. They are still afraid, in fact they may be horrified, but because they have not reacted with options 1, 3 or 4 their owners assume that they are ‘ok’.
At a seminar I suggested that people reward their dog for avoiding what scares them. A participant asked, “But isn’t that feeding into the fleeing?” Let’s just think about it-
When working with a fearful dog we typically set our sights on getting the dog closer to the things that scare them. That is how we are gauging success, and it makes sense, but the devil is in the details. We know that aggression is one of the responses common to feeling threatened, and as handlers or owners of fearful dogs it’s the one response we want to avoid at all costs. A fearful dog who cowers in the corner is likely to be allowed to live in that corner longer than a dog who responds aggressively. Moving away from something scary keeps both the dog, and whoever or whatever the scary thing is, safe. You won’t get bit by a dog who runs away from you (though I still wouldn’t turn my back on them!).
Whether or not we give a dog who has moved away from a trigger (scary thing) a piece of cheese (or other high value food reward), the distance gained is rewarding to the dog. If the dog is able to eat the cheese we are not only addressing their behavior but how they ‘feel’. Eating cheese makes dogs feel good. And if they are a safe distance from the trigger the dog may start to have more positive feelings than they do negative ones. Call it the Ben & Jerry’s effect if you like. This is the first step in helping a dog learn to be anywhere near a trigger and feel better about it. It’s the dog who decides what the appropriate starting distance is.
Studies of brains have shown that aggression is ‘rewarding’, which is obvious when you consider that hockey and boxing probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t. Put a dog in the position to respond aggressively and you are flagging a neural network in their brain you do not want them to learn to like.
Check out this video of a chameleon responding to a perceived threat. I don’t know enough about the ethology of these creatures to know if any appeasement behaviors were offered, but you can see what happens when withdrawing, freezing and threatening gestures don’t work to keep the scary technology away. You might want to turn the sound down on your computer. The following video was obviously NOT produced for educational purposes.
Yesterday I attended a seminar with Suzanne Clothier to learn more about her Relationship Assessment Tool. It was, as expected, informative and thought provoking, but that’s not what I’m going to write about. I’ll save that for another post.
The seminar was held at the Monadnock Humane Society in Keene NH. It’s a pleasant facility with lots of outdoor space for dogs and an open, cheery entry way, which happened to also be full of cages of cats. Even for a ‘dog person’ it’s hard to see so many beautiful animals, some struggling to engage with visitors, stretching their paws out of cages, mewling and making what felt like pleading eye contact, others seemingly resigned to their lives in captivity. There were play rooms full of cats as well. Too many cats and kittens. I was told that many would be adopted but others might live there for years. But this is also not what I was planning to write about either.
Outside of the dog kennels were containers of treats (good treats in some cases, not just dry biscuits) and on the containers were the instructions- PLEASE FEED ME TREATS EVEN IF I AM BARKING. Huh? Feed them treats even if they’re barking? Won’t that just reinforce the barking behavior? I mean that’s the way it works right? Dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for, so giving them treats even if they’re barking means everyone who approached the cage would be teaching the dog to bark, right? Wrong!
What the good folks at the shelter understand is that dogs in shelters, and other stressful situations, are most likely behaving out of anxiety and stress. Some may be concerned about people approaching. The treats are not being used to address the behavior the dogs are displaying but rather the emotions the dogs are experiencing. Feeling a bit nervous about people? What better way for a dog to feel less concerned about people than to pair their approach with something the dog enjoys. Wanting out in a bad way and feeling frustrated and trapped? A treat may not be the perfect solution but it sure beats nothing. Some of the dogs were obviously fearful of having people approach their cages, but none so much that they couldn’t gobble up treats tossed to them. Many then sat and looked expectantly for more.
One of the big challenges fearful dogs face is their handler’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that every behavior has an emotion attached to it. We are always addressing the emotion when we handle or train dogs. Sometimes we use their enjoyment and excitement for a reward to get them to perform behaviors, withholding rewards until we get or improve behavior. Sometimes we see that the behavior is driven by fear and use rewards to change how the dog feels realizing that when the fear subsides the behavior attached to it is going to change as well. And importantly, for the handling and training of any dog, understanding we are also causing emotional responses to certain behaviors. How we behave with dogs, whether we shout, yank, hit, ignore, shock, praise or reward, affects how they feel about particular behaviors, not to mention how they feel about us.
Tis the season for bad advice. It seems no matter where I turn-blog posts, website, forums, chats- someone is putting ‘don’t comfort your dog when they are scared’ messages out. The last I read, provided by someone who by choice or certification, is identified as a ‘behaviorist’, was a list of tips for dealing with fireworks and storm phobias included; no cooing or baby talk because it will only be telling the dog that they are right to be afraid. Really? Where I come from the way we let someone know that they are right to be afraid is to shriek, “LOOK OUT IT’S GOING TO KILL YOU!”
I suppose if we’ve paired cooing and baby talk with enough negative experiences then it might reaffirm a dog’s concern. I imagine the scene from a bad crime drama in which the killer calmly looks at his victim, knife glinting in his hands and says, “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt…..for long.” Hopefully we have not done this, and instead our cooing and baby talk has been used to get a tail wag and to let our dogs know who is “the cutest, fluffiest, most handsomest, doggie on the planet.”
And let’s face it, if you’re really terrified no amount of, ‘don’t worry darling it’s going to be alright’, is likely to help. Often we seem to be either unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge how scared our dogs are. So why, if comforting a dog may not help do I get my knickers in twist when someone advises against it? Because sometimes comforting helps, because if you believe that being kind and gentle with a scared dog is going to reinforce their fear you might take that line of thought, as many do, and assume that making a dog deal, on their own, with what scares them, is the thing to do. And it is not. But more importantly it’s because it’s wrong. And it doesn’t take much deep thinking to see why that is.
It would appear that when it comes to dogs we have adopted a ‘fast food’ way of thinking. All it takes is for someone to assert that; dogs need leaders, that they live in the moment (This one tickles me particularly because it implies that every moment in a dog’s life their brain is a clean slate, that what they experienced yesterday had no effect on them in which case I wonder-how do they remember their name?), that they will try to dominate their owners if given the chance, that their noses should be rubbed in their poop, that a smack with a rolled-up newspaper is an appropriate thing to do-for whatever reason, that every single dog on the planet must be spayed or neutered, that breed is destiny, and you shouldn’t comfort scared creatures.
The next time you read something about dogs and how to handle or train them, after you’ve bitten through the crunchy sugar coating, take some time to mull the information over. You may find that that first bite leaves you with a toothache.