Archive for the ‘shelter dogs’ Tag
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.