Archive for the ‘rescue dogs’ Tag
Stop in for a visit to any one of the thousands of forums or groups devoted to dog training and behavior and you’re likely to bump into a discussion about whether or not it’s acceptable to punish dogs during training. There will be both reasonable and unreasonable comments from either side of the table.
Punishment is a very effective consequence to apply in order to end behavior. The challenge is getting it right. Reinforcement in the form of food is a very effective consequence to apply in order to see more of a behavior, and again the challenge is getting it right. In either case I want to consider what the consequences of me getting it wrong will be. Am I willing to accept, and subsequently have to deal with those consequences? In the case of punishment, often I am not. The reason? The consequences of the misapplication of a reinforcer, though problematic, especially if it’s routine, are likely going to be easy for me to change compared to the consequences of the misapplication of punishment, especially if it’s routine.
There are many reasons why a dog may continue to perform an inappropriate behavior or fail to perform a behavior we ask them to. Punishing a dog for failure to respond to a cue is risky business. What are we punishing? In this case we are often punishing what we interpret as a dog who is being willfully disobedient or blowing us off. There are other reasons why we may not get what we ask for, leading reasons being that the dog has not really learned the behavior, or has not generalized the cue to different locations or variations in the handler’s delivery of the cue.
Check out this video* and keep it in mind the next time you are inclined to yell at, yank on a leash, shock or hit a dog who doesn’t respond to a cue. They may not have even been aware that a cue to perform a behavior was presented to them.
*I was among the 70% of the people watching this video who did not.
Childhood milestones in my life could be measured by learning how to swim. There are grainy, black and white home movies showing me leaping up, wiping the hair out of my eyes after demonstrating the newly gained skill of putting my face in the water at our lakeside cottage. I remember learning the “deadman’s float” and pretending to swim in the shallow water, my hands on the bottom of the lake as I practiced kicking my feet. When I went away to college I sought refuge in the pool swimming laps. Waiting for me at the deep end one afternoon was a young man. He had been watching me and asked if I’d like some tips to improve my strokes. I’d never had a lesson and along with enjoying the attention figured, why not?
He suggested some minor adjustments to how I held my head in the water, the position of my arms as they reached to enter the water and start the freestyle stroke, how to loosen up my hands and alter the depth of my kicks. Whenever we happened to be at the pool at the same time he coached me on subtle changes I could make to improve the efficiency of my movements. Soon I was swimming a mile and only stopping because I was tired of the routine, not because I was tired. The things he taught me made me a better swimmer and I took my new found confidence and joy in my abilities and found summer jobs as a life guard and swim instructor. I went from being good enough to being better.
It’s not unusual for us to learn how to do something just well enough to achieve some success and be happy with it. We get the job done, and that’s reinforcing. I have no plans to become a competitive swimmer and am content to go for long distance swims simply for the pleasure of it. Most of the skills I have learned are probably like my swimming skills, I get by with them enough to not see the need to put the energy into improving them. My interactions with my dogs were like that for most of my life, that is until Sunny came along and showed me that good enough was not going to cut it.
There are people involved in dog rescue, training and rehab who seem to have settled for “good enough” when it comes to how they handle dogs. They get what they need from the dogs and that’s reinforcing enough for them to not bother trying to improve on what they do. I recently watched a video of an obviously caring and compassionate rescuer using restraint and force to get a dog to let them handle her. To the casual observer it was heartwarming and the audience broke into applause and shed tears when the dog finally gave in and stopped resisting. Many would say that the ends justify the means and I did not question for a moment the good intentions of the handler. But I’m not a casual observer. No one working with fearful dogs can take the risk of remaining casual when interacting with scared dogs.
I remember reading this rescuer saying that they did not pay attention to what others said or did, they did what worked for them, and without question they were being reinforced routinely by the success they were having with dogs. But I saw someone who though “good enough” by the low standards currently upheld today in the field of dog rescue, had the potential to be amazing. All of the behaviors they were getting they could have attained without using force and restraint. A terrified dog would not have to be subjected to the additional stress and what looked to some as acquiescence in the dog, looked to me like a dog who had simply given up trying to fight anymore. A dog who was saying “uncle.” Why go there if you don’t need to?
We all know that the story continues after the camera stops rolling, the tears have been shed and the money has been donated. Plenty of dogs go on to become happy pets, but there are others for whom “good enough” wasn’t enough. Their failure will be attributed to any number of causes; the dog’s past or genetics. But when will we acknowledge that if all the people who handled the dog throughout the rescue process understood behavior, understood how animals learn, understood that good enough was not always going to cut it, more dogs could be successful pets? It’s one thing to be on the path to improving one’s skills. It’s another to refuse to even step onto it.
In order to simplify training for pet owners, and to incorporate training into daily life, eliminating the need to set aside a specific time for it many trainers recommend the Nothing In Life is Free protocol (NILF)*. It has its merits, though an unfortunate name. Tagging along with the technique is a fuzzy notion of “we’re in charge here and the sooner you figure that out the better” or something like that. There is also an unfortunate misunderstanding among many that merely making a behavior a requirement will change how a dog feels about performing it. This leads people with fearful dogs to obedience classes and to the recommendation that the person the dog most fears, does the training.
It is the case that when positive reinforcement training is used to teach behaviors that a dog is likely to feel good about performing those behaviors, but it would be an overstatement to say that they always do. In the case of NILF a dog learns that the food bowl doesn’t get put on the floor, or the door doesn’t open until they put their butt on the floor. This alone is a useful behavior for most owners, if left at that. But behavior, even with a reward, can become rote to the dog while remaining beneficial to us.
Kathy Sdao in her book Plenty in Life is Free encourages owners to look for behaviors to reinforce, rather than require behaviors be performed to earn a reward. It’s a beautiful system and once you get in the habit of it, it hardly feels like “training” at all. Instead it’s an ongoing conversation with your pet, “Hey that is awesome, I like it when you do that, have a bit of cheese.” One day you notice that your dog is performing that behavior with more frequency and you no longer need to block them from rushing out the door because they sit and wait for you to tell them how fabulous they are, and if you happen to have a bit of cheese, that would be nice too.
This is a great technique to apply to your interactions with any dog, but especially a fearful dog. Not only does the dog learn to repeat the behaviors you like, life changes for them. Most of our fearful dogs are very good at feeling scared, anxious and worried. By finding ways to provide them with rewards frequently throughout the day you can help them to develop what in a person might be considered, hopeful anticipation for life ahead. Help your fearful dog learn that plenty in life is awesome.
*Also called Learn To Earn, which removes some of the “I’m the boss around here,” sensibility of the practice.
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.
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.
It would seem that it is too much to expect that people who decide to make a living from “working” with dogs, actually spent some time learning about them. There are plenty of jobs out there that don’t require any education for someone to excel at them. If you want your lawn mowed and raked hiring a neighborhood kid with the tools is probably not a big risk. But if you want your fruit trees pruned you’d better be careful before you give that kid a pair of clippers.
Awhile back I caught grief for suggesting that as admirable as her intentions might be, having a 15 year old run an animal rescue might not be the greatest thing in the world to happen to animals. A similar thing happened when I suggested that stopping to let a newly freed group of rescued laboratory beagles out of their crates to explore the great outdoors, might not be the best choice. That any animal copes and thrives when handled inexpertly is not an excuse for the handling method.
The pet industry is booming. Anyone can label themselves a trainer or behaviorist. Log on to any chat board and it’s apparent that many of these so-called trainers base their understanding of dog behavior on what they’ve seen on television. There’s a saying that if you can’t “dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” One of the problems is that many of the bafflers have no idea that they’re doing it (some do and are laughing all the way to the bank).
I was asked to go through the hand-outs that a vet gave to new clients with puppies. The information came from another vet who made the rounds on the speaking circuit. I was aghast at what I read. Despite the lack of evidence that dogs form rigid social hierarchies or live in packs, the literature was full of advice for owners on how to securely position themselves at the top of said hierarchy. The methods for doing so ranged from cruel to absurd. This came from a vet who, like the rest of us, has access to information about animal behavior and the science of learning. That they were unaware of this information, or chose to ignore it in favor of their own, scientifically unfounded hypotheses on behavior, is inexcusable.
Anyone can start a day care center, dog walking or sitting service. These are people who will be in direct contact with an animal, or numerous animals. If you’ve got a happy dog who only needs to get out for walks, finding someone who enjoys being with dogs may not be a bad decision. But once someone sets themselves up in business they should be held to a higher standard of behavior. I recently heard about a day care center that employed one of the most misunderstood forms of punishment, the time-out. A dog who became overly aroused and did not play well with others was removed from the group and isolated in an area where he could see, but not get to the group of dogs continuing to play. Did the staff expect that by doing this the dog would come to the conclusion that he needed to play more appropriately?
Since I brought it up, the time-out is a tool that is used to end a dog’s ability to continue to perform an inappropriate behavior and then set them up so they can be rewarded for performing the right one. Putting a dog into a time-out and expecting that they’ll come out when they decide to apologize is as silly as it sounds, but yet, it is not far off from what people think is going to happen.
Someone who labeled themselves the “top behaviorist” in their country (I discovered that it’s crowded up there at the top with other self-appointed “tops”) called me an idiot for suggesting that comforting a fearful dog did not tell them they were correct in being afraid. Though they had an impressive history working with and training dogs, they held no certification or credentials as a “behaviorist.” This is not uncommon in the dog world and pet owners would be wise to cotton on to it.
When someone decides to label themselves a surgeon, and goes on to perform surgeries, they end up in jail when they are finally caught. And within the medical industry a surgeon who practices psychiatry, without first taking (and passing) the requisite courses is also frowned upon. If you are inclined to suggest that performing surgery and training dogs are completely different things, maybe you should think about it from the dog’s side of the equation. Screw up a gall bladder operation and you might end up with a dead patient. Screw up teaching a dog to stop resource guarding and there’s a good chance you end up with a dead dog. As someone who takes animal behavior and training very seriously, this thought is never far from my mind.
If we truly love and care about our pets as much as we claim to, we have to put our money where our mouth is. The hope I hold in my heart is that when the art and science of dog training and behavior modification is respected for what it is, and people who put the time, effort and money into learning about it, are both respected and compensated for it, one day the knowledge that we have will filter out into the general population. It will replace the misinformation and myths currently touted and adopted as truth, and dog trainers will have fewer behavior “issues” to deal with and can focus on teaching dogs to open the refrigerator and get their owner a can of soda.
I am grateful to all of you for your continued readership. Your comments and feedback provide me with the reinforcement I need to continue to learn and share information about how we can make life easier and better for our beloved, anxious and fearful dogs.
As a pragmatic New Englander whose views on life & the universe were tempered by years of living in northern California I am able to admit that with this work I feel I have found my calling or bliss, take your pick. It certainly took long enough!
In lieu of resolutions, the following are the ideas I have, in varying stages of development, for 2013 and beyond.
1. Fearful Dogs’ Blog- keep posting!
2. Get more people to ‘like’ the Fearfuldogs.com Facebook page. I want more people to have access to information about how fearful dogs learn and Facebook seems to be a good vehicle for that. Plus, I confess, I am envious of people who have thousands of ‘likes’.
3. Publish Does My Dog Need Prozac?, a collection of posts from this blog. It is currently being edited!
4. Continue writing the next book on my list detailing the steps that can be taken, from first meeting to rehoming, to help fearful dogs become happy pets. It will pick up where A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog leaves off.
5. Offer high quality webinars for people learning to handle fearful dogs. The first one is scheduled for February 19, 2013! I will be joined by Dr. Linda Aronson who will talk about the use of behavioral medications to help dogs suffering from fear, phobias and anxiety. Pretty darn excited about this one.
6. Be available for seminars and presentations about fear based behavior challenges. I am especially interested in getting information out to pet owners, foster care givers, rescue groups and shelters. I know that the information I share will increase the chances of adoption success for many fearful dogs.
7. Create a fun and informative program about animal training and behavior for our local community access television station. I’ve got the go-ahead from the station and have lined up some fabulous folks for interviews.
8. Travel to Puerto Rico with a group of trainers and dog lovers to share information about reward based training methods. I’ve made more progress with this after speaking at an animal protection symposium in San Juan. Any readers in Puerto Rico who are interested in helping with this, let me know!
9. Publish A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog in Spanish and German. Translations are on their way!
10. Don’t start smoking, drinking too much or making a habit of eating maple walnut pie for breakfast.
11. Late breaking opportunity! I have been invited to host a radio show about dogs.
I have also set-up a page where you can purchase a discounted hard copy of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. It will be live until January 31, 2013. Happy New Year to you and yours!
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?
A year or two back I posted a blog about Cesar Millan and discovered that there is a group of Dog Whisperer Ambassadors. They are either a fan club or a social media marketing arm of somebody invested in Mr. Millan’s success. They sniff out comments and articles criticizing him and go to work explaining why those who have not jumped on the whispering bandwagon are missing the point, a point, some point, his point I guess. There are also the devotees who participate in these attempts to enlighten the disbelieving masses for reasons of their own.
I created this blog to help people and the dogs they were struggling to live with or find homes for. This is a blog about helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges. Cesar Millan’s methods, whether a gift from god or a well-thought out strategy, are some of the most dangerous when it comes to provoking dogs to behave aggressively. This behavior leads to the death of dogs. Few want to live with dogs who bite people. Creating dogs who bite people is wrong. Fearful dogs are among the most susceptible to behaving aggressively when pressured.
I did not create this blog to provide a forum for fans of his or his methods to further his popularity, defend him or attempt to enlighten me about him. The idea that dogs learn differently or that there are differing opinions on how dogs do learn, is moot to me. Dogs are dogs. They learn the way other mammals and most other organisms learn, through the consequences of their behaviors. Do dogs learn not to perform certain behaviors because they are punished for those behaviors? They sure as heck do. Does that mean we should punish the heck out of them to get behaviors we want? Not as a matter of course we shouldn’t.
Using the excuse that a dog is in the redzone or a death row dog is just that, an excuse. That dogs end up on CM’s doorstep because an owner was unable or unwilling to find or follow the advice of a real trainer or behaviorists who knows how to change behavior without hurting a dog is not the dog’s fault, nor is it reason to champion CM’s methods. That he may not find fault with other trainers is not an indication that he is more magnanimous than the people pointing out the errors of his ways. That he doesn’t find fault with the trainers who eschew his methods is likely because it’s a discussion he doesn’t wants to be part of. Instead he employs the different strokes defense. It saves him from having to defend an indefensible position AND he scores brownie points by appearing to be tolerant of other points of view. It’s smoke and mirrors.
Writing and speaking about fear based behavior challenges is what I am motivated to do. Others are working on closing down puppymills where many of these fearful dogs are being produced. Still more people in rescue are making sure that unwitting adopters do not end up with a dog that is going to be more project than pet. The ranks of trainers who understand enough about animal behavior to implement protocols for helping owners with fearful dogs are growing.
We get to choose (how much choice we really have is a subject for a neuroscience blog) which fountain we are going to drink from. I am sipping my beverage from the same one that brought us vaccines for polio, heart transplants, space travel, digital cameras, and microwave ovens. That the first attempts at any of these were not unconditionally successful is only more reason why I’m at this fountain. Seeing fallout and failure for what it is is key to the scientific process and progress. We know from the failures of punishment how to train more effectively, more humanely.
I am not blindly gulping away. No, I am not. I pop the cork, pour out a taste, swirl it around, hold it up to the light, let the aroma waft into my brain, roll it around on my tongue and then decide whether or not to buy a case. So far what I’ve seen of CM has me spitting into a glass and waving the waiter over to take the bottle away.
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.