Archive for the ‘shelter dogs’ Tag

Changing The Faces of Dog Training

In May I’ll be traveling to the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques with a group to contribute our energy to the cause of changing how people handle and train their dogs. No doubt there will be people who will embrace the information we’ll be sharing about force-free and coercion-free training with the enthusiasm of someone who has been adrift at sea waiting for the life raft to show up. Others may be at a different stage in the process of changing their understanding of animal behavior, how animals learn and their relationship with their pet.people holding dogs

I don’t know what they’ll look like or how I’ll tell them apart. I don’t know how old or which gender they’ll be. I don’t know what they’ll be wearing or how they will be behaving. I do know for some we will be sharing ideas and information that will be new to them, they may also conflict with ideas they already are holding onto firmly and been practicing for years. It may be behavior they have been rehearsing not only with dogs but also with the people in their life. We may only be able to loosen the grasp some have on the myths and misinformation which have been available about dogs and why they do what they do. Though I trust that for many people they will gladly discard the advice they’d been given to punish in any of the myriad ways people have devised to punish dogs. They’ll need direction and demonstrations of the equally numerous ways we can provide a dog with information and reinforcement without scaring or hurting them to get the behaviors we need or want from them.

I’m very excited about this trip, not only are these islands filled with environmental gems, we’ll meet people who are involved in different aspects of animal welfare. We’ll spend time with children who are passionate about treating animals with kindness and are role models for their community. We’ll visit shelters and sanctuaries where people take on the challenging and often disheartening task of making life better for animals, knowing there will always be more tomorrow needing their help. We may be separated by distance, oceans, age and culture, but it quickly becomes obvious that our hearts overlap.

To find out more about the trip visit this webpage.

Got Change?

cocker spaniel sleeping on lounge chair outside

Nothing to worry about here!

When we are training our fearful dogs we are facilitating a change in how they respond to events or objects (including us and other animals) they are exposed to. There is likely an endless array of ways we can come up with to do this, but ultimately what we are doing is making the scary stuff either neutral or good enough so that the dog can continue to seek out rewarding, reinforcing activities while in its presence. The ways that this can be done are based on how a nervous system reacts to stimulus.

Habituation occurs when constant exposure to something stops producing a response and in a sense becomes a non-event. When a collar is first put around a puppy’s neck it can be a big event. The puppy feels the collar and may be upset about it, some more, some less. Eventually, like us and a watch strapped around our wrist, the puppy doesn’t notice the collar, they habituate to wearing it. The challenge with using this approach with something that has scared a dog is that animals don’t habituate easily to things that they felt threatened by in the past. It doesn’t make sense for this to happen. What didn’t kill and eat you yesterday might just get you tomorrow. This makes our efforts to change how dogs feel about things very challenging and why simply exposing a dog to the scary thing is often not successful.

We can use a process called desensitization to increase the amount of the scary thing that is required to produce a fearful response. By starting off with small doses of it, and gradually increasing how much of a trigger a dog is exposed to, how long they are exposed to it, how many they are exposed to, how close they are to it, we can change the dog’s tolerance of it. This can be very effective but as you might guess, sorting out and controlling the “dose” of the trigger can be tricky. A big risk, and not one to be taken lightly is that if we go over the amount necessary to build tolerance and cause the dog to have a negative reaction we can increase the dog’s sensitivity to the trigger. This means that in the future less of the trigger will be required to produce the fearful response. If yesterday you fled from the monster when it was 10 feet away and you survived to tell about it, tomorrow when you notice that monster you will up the odds of getting away if you flee when it is 15 feet away. Now the reaction you had yesterday at 10 feet away from the trigger is occurring at 15 feet and as the monster gets closer your negative response to it increases so that at 10 feet away today you may be more afraid than you were yesterday at the same distance. Ooops. We didn’t mean for that to happen!

Counterconditioning is changing what the dog has learned the trigger predicts. For most of our dogs triggers predict feeling scared. That alone is enough to kick in the dog’s automatic responses so they behave in ways that might ensure their survival. They may run, they may hide, they may fight, they may beg for their life. It’s not easy to change this. It’s better to leap away from a stick and have it turn out not to be a snake then to bend over to pick up a rattler to use as a cane. The most effective way to countercondition is to combine it with desensitization, but if we make a mistake with the desensitization piece and the trigger causes a negative response from the dog we can still attempt to countercondition and maybe get the point across. And the point we are trying to get across is that men with hats and beards predict that fabulous things are going to happen. For most dogs some kind of smelly, greasy, real, food will do the trick. It may take numerous repetitions for the dog to make the association that it’s the scary monster man that is the heads-up notice that cheese is on its way, but when it does you can see it by the way the dog reacts. Instead of the trigger predicting fear is on its way, he now predicts that something good is going to happen and the dog behaves in a way that demonstrates they are anticipating the good thing. At our house when the scary monster man comes home Sunny runs and picks up a frisbee because the monster now predicts that games will be played. Sunny likes games.

By using our big brains we can come up with all kinds of ways to take advantage of how animals can change their response to stimuli they are exposed to. We can talk about what is going on for the dog in any number of ways as well; the dog is gaining confidence, learning they have control, making choices, learning skills, etc., but at the end of the day they are habituating, desensitizing or being counterconditioned to the trigger.

My goal for a fearful dog is straightforward, I want them to be able to function in their world easily enough that they can seek out positive reinforcement. I want them to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (or out of their crate or the corner they’ve hunkered down in). I want them to be able to enter new environments and be capable of looking for ways to feel good, to do something fun and rewarding, or to find a good spot for a nap. I want changes in their environment to elicit curiosity or the anticipation of something good, including the opportunity to do something they’ve been taught and get a treat for it, not terror or worry. We have our jobs cut out for us with our dogs that’s for sure, but by taking advantage of desensitization, counterconditioning and using positive reinforcement to train we are using our time, and our dog’s time wisely.

Trust Counts

Trust is a central theme of soap operas, TV dramas and political relationships. It’s lauded as being the keystone of good marriages and partnerships. Teenagers are reminded that they will not be allowed to stay home on their own, or out late, or have the keys to the car until they can be trusted. For many people the realization that trust has been “broken” can lead to a lengthy or impossible reconciliation.

If one was inclined to look at the importance we place on trust in a marriage from a biological point of view, the risk of raising someone else’s offspring, or losing the support of a good partner to someone else, could impact the long-term success of one’s own off-spring. But mostly, when someone discovers that their partner was not “faithful,” babies aside, it feels really bad- poem-writing, sad song singing bad.

Dogs are among the few species on the planet who allow us to break trust with them, and not make us pay for it, consistently. Yell at or physically reprimand a cat and you might not see them again, or are at least likely to have to clean out the scratches you received in return. Few believe that the lions in the cage being kept under control with a whip are to be trusted to safely snuggle on the couch with their “tamer.”

We can and do break the trust with our dogs routinely and there is a price. It’s bad enough to wonder if your partner is trustworthy when they call claiming another late night at the office. It’s another to wonder if the person approaching you is going to physically restrain, hurt or scare you. Being at risk physically, even if it’s done leaving no marks, is not something one forgets or puts aside easily.

The risk of losing trust with a dog is greater the shorter the relationship or the smaller the existing trust account. If we, from the moment we meet and handle a dog demonstrate that we are safe and worthy of their trust, and should we have to withdraw from the trust account we’ve built, we are less likely to lose it all. We are less likely to get bitten, or growled at by a dog and more likely to have them come when we call them. A dog’s behavior can tell us as much about our relationship with them as it tells us about them. Trust counts.

 

Use Protection

I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.

Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.

The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.

It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.

History Matters

I’ll be at my vet’s office tonight running a class called “Vet Ready!” to help owners and dogs feel more comfortable coming to the clinic. Few things are as clear as how they respond to handling to give you an idea of what they have learned to expect from you. For some owners the way their dog responds is….well….history. The dog has learned that visits to the vet are not happy events. Their behavior will reflect this and both dog and owner are likely to be upset and stressed.

Today my 15lb dog Nibbles got a bit of wood stuck in his teeth. It wasn’t dangerous but it was annoying. Initially I wasn’t sure what he had in his mouth and thought that it was a bit of food that he’d easily dislodge. But when he began to paw at his muzzle and become more upset I thought I better have a look.

Years ago I had a dog get a stick stuck between his teeth on the roof of his mouth. When I saw him his fur was tinged pink from the blood his pawing to get it out had caused. I didn’t know this at the time and feared he’d been in a fight with a critter. Off we went to the vet. Because he was not comfortable with me handling his muzzle and looking into his mouth he resisted my efforts and I called the small piece of wood the vet removed his $40 root canal (this was back in the days when a vet visit and sedation only cost $40!). Had I been able to get a better look into his mouth I could have popped it out myself.

Nibbles came to me a dog afraid of being handled by people but I have put time and energy into changing this. He let me run my fingers along the sides of his teeth to find out what the problem was. I was able to flick the splinter out from between his teeth and with a few licks he’d spit it out. I didn’t have time to teach Nibbles to let me do this, but our history of gentle handling and my efforts to teach him what to do instead of using force and restraint paid off. This video by Chirag Patel shows how simple it can be to create a positive history of handling with your dog. If you are fostering a dog consider working on both restraint and restraint-free handling with your charges. Show them that their bad history will not repeat itself.

Giving My Dog A Life

lifeGiving My Dog A Life

Please feel free to “like” my latest Facebook page and post your own pictures of the good life you give your dogs. Let’s stop shaming dogs and give them a life!

Fostering Success: Do No Harm

black dog playing with a plastic food toy

Food toys are a great way to show a dog a good time

The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people.

Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so. Some will have had enough positive experiences with people that they are able to withstand a few minor bumps and bruises and not be worse for it. There will be others whose background with people is spotty. Some people have been kind and gentle with them, obviously some have cared enough to get the dog into a foster home. But other people have been less than kind. This lack of kindness may have manifested in neglect, in other cases abuse. When these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens. They may be disproportionally prepared for the worst. A foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.

What might constitute too much pressure or punishment for one dog, may not for another. It’s best not to assume that any pressure put on a dog to engage socially or any punishment, even if only a raised voice, is tolerable for a dog. Behavior that might be ok with a dog you have developed a positive relationship, may not be with a dog newly introduced to your home. This is true for dog/dog relationships. Fear is unfortunately easy to install in animals and nearly impossible to remove. This is true of all kinds of fears; other dogs, people, cars, storms, etc. And you are not seeing the dog at their best. As addressed in my previous post Fostering Success, these dogs are stressed and stress can negatively impact them in a variety of ways.

Consider the first impression you will make with a dog. Will you be snapping on a leash and pressuring them to follow you with no other incentive other than because you say so? Will you be touching them or putting your face close to theirs without knowing if that is what they feel comfortable with? Are you immediately bringing them into your home and ordering them around; come here, get off of that, leave that alone, go this way? Do you have a pocket full of treats or a squeaky toy at the ready?

If you hold outdated beliefs about dogs and how they relate and interact with other dogs and people, it’s time for an upgrade. Dogs do not need pack leaders, they do not behave in ways to gain domination over the household. They do what works for them, like every other organism on the planet. If their behavior does not work for us, it’s up to us to teach them what does. If you are unfamiliar with the risks of using force, coercion and punishment when training dogs, it’s time you became familiar with those risks. If you do not know how to use positive reinforcement to teach dogs new behaviors you might want to brush up on those skills before you take on a dog whose life may be depending on that you do.

 

Is Food Really the Problem?

boy in chair and 4 dogs looking at him

Guess what these dogs are looking forward to getting?

From the comments I’ve been hearing and the stuff I’ve been reading on the internet one would be inclined to think that the use of food in training poses great problems or risks. I cannot think of one conversation I’ve had with a trainer who laments that their clients reinforce behaviors with food too much. Indeed it’s usually the opposite. Having trouble with the duration of a down/stay? I’d put money on that it’s because the behavior is not being reinforced with food soon or often enough, or in the right place. Dog won’t come when called? Put me down for a fiver for the same reason.

I’m not suggesting that there are not other reinforcers that can be as effective as food or that we don’t need to be aware of how we use food in training, but do we really need to be out there warning pet owners about the dangers of using food to train their dogs? Have we already won the battle of helping owners understand how positive reinforcement works and how to implement it in their relationship with their dog? And so what if a dog likes steak?

If you get dog as a pup it’s likely that you’ll have the opportunity to create hundreds, hopefully thousands, of positive associations between you and good things or events in the dog’s life. Well-handled young pups will often follow us around regardless of whether we have a treat in hand or pocket, our shoe laces may be the draw along with our companionship. We have become conditioned reinforcers to our dog through the lovely organic process of living gently and playfully with a social animal. It’s not so seamless with rehomed dogs, and even more challenging with scared dogs.

If we are lucky someone along the way has provided a dog with a reason for feeling good about people. My border collie, adopted at least 2 other times from what I know about his history, was given the gift of learning to love as only some dogs can, catching and retrieving frisbees. When life seems uncertain and perhaps a little scary, there’s always frisbee. That my dogs who are not 100% comfortable with people will perform behaviors in order to get a tidbit of treat is a blessing for all of us. Sure the vet smells funny and wields tools of ear and anal prodding capability, but there’s always gorgonzola to mitigate the discomfort.

Travel anywhere in the developing world and the most common relationship you’ll see between people and dogs is based on food. Dogs follow children who drop crumbs of bread, or they hang out at roadside food stands gobbling up discards. I am aware of those torturous studies done on baby monkeys that showed that they spent more time hanging onto a soft facsimile of mother monkey compared to the wire mother monkey who provided milk. I am not attempting to downplay the relationship we can create with our dogs that does not include food or that animals derive comfort and relief in a variety of physical ways other than through eating.

Can our relationships go beyond food? Of course they can, and do. But so what if food plays a major role in that relationship, at anytime during its creation? Try and tell a grandmother that her corned beef with carrots or key lime pie don’t matter in her relationship with her grandchildren. Try believing it yourself the next time you plan a party and decide that the food you serve doesn’t matter. It may not be just about the food, but the food is definitely part of the equation. Our social engagements don’t have to include food, but interestingly they often do.

If a dog is only responding to an owner because of the promise of food, the food is not the problem, and the relationship might not be the problem either. Advising pet owners to ditch the food treats and replace it with “relationship” may not be prudent. Food is a part of the relationship and may be the only salient reinforcer a new pet owner has to use with their dog. And I say, “So what?” By pairing interactions with their owner with food the “feel good” power of a primary reinforcer rubs off on them. Instead of warning owners off of food we should be instructing them on how to use it effectively for creating strong, reliable behaviors. That one can over-hydrate and die is not a reason to advise against drinking water. “Stop using food” is one of the most misguided pieces of advice I’ve heard today.

My I Have Your Attention Please

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.

Good Enough?

Scared dog at hoarding siteChildhood 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.

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