Archive for the ‘timid 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.
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.
I stood in front of the copy machine, not so silently cursing the manufacturer, the store where I purchased it, and the salesman who recommended it. The darn thing wasn’t working. I pressed the number of copies button, hit the start button and nothing. It didn’t work and if that wasn’t bad enough, after setting it up I was going to have to pack it back up again and return it.
The owner’s manual sat unopened on the desk next to the machine. I hadn’t bothered to read it. Why should I? I’ve been using copiers since they were called mimeographs. I practically grew up using them helping my father produce newsletters for his business. It was just a copy machine for heaven’s sake, how difficult could it be. Fortunately I didn’t embarrass myself by picking up the phone to complain to some poor tech support in India. Instead I read the manual. As it turns out the “start” button was not the same as the “power” button. Tucked behind the machine, out of my sight was the all important on/off button that changed the course of my day. This was nearly as bad as the time I called in an electrician to repair a light fixture because I hadn’t screwed in the bulb tight enough.
Many of us assume that because we have lived with dogs all of our lives that we know how they work, what makes them tick. And unfortunately for many of us if we picked up an owner’s manual written by someone without the requisite background and understanding themselves, we’ve been led astray and our lack of success in getting dogs to do what we want is seen as their flaw, not ours or the method we are employing. When this happens the labels start getting slapped on the dog. They’re dominant, submissive, red zone, vindictive, stubborn, lazy, stupid, etc., ad nauseam.
When we are trying to help fearful dogs not be so fearful the way we do this is through counter conditioning, which means we change how the dog feels about the stuff that scares them. It’s not easy and depending on what it is they are afraid of, we may have limited success, but at the end of the day, it’s what we’re doing. How we go about trying is important. The most important piece of this training puzzle is that the scary thing needs to predict a good thing, before the dog has a chance to experience the fear of it. Given how quickly brains and bodies respond to things that scared them in the past, this isn’t always easy or possible. Sometimes we can get away with having the scary thing be not so scary by keeping it further away from the dog, or making it go away sooner rather than later. But we have to quickly follow its appearance with whatever we are using to counter condition. This is usually some kind of yummy food or a toy the dog loves.
We know that we do not reinforce fear by providing a dog with comfort, food or a toy. This is because when we present something to the dog that they like, immediately after or while they are experiencing the scary thing, we are counter conditioning, not reinforcing. But this will only be the case so long as the scary thing is not so scary that the dog can’t begin to feel good about the treat or toy. If I was in a car crash and someone walked up to me, my knees shaking, tunnel vision setting in, heart racing and stomach turning, and they handed me my first Publisher’s Clearing House check for a million dollars, I’m still not likely to learn to love being in car crashes, even if I wasn’t killed or injured. We also know that the emotional response of being afraid can be made worse if we don’t intervene soon enough or do something that contributes to it, such as yelling at the dog, poking them, yanking on their collar or shocking them.
A common error that handlers make is not providing the treat or toy (the US or UCS) soon enough after the appearance of the trigger (the CS). One of the reasons this occurs is because they are waiting for an appropriate behavior to reinforce. This is not to say that rewarding a dog for an appropriate behavior is wrong, but that if you wait too long for that behavior you run the risk of the emotional response the dog is experiencing, becoming stronger or more intense so when you finally do introduce the reward its counter conditioning “power” is lost. This is the case whether you are using positive or negative reinforcement to create an alternate or incompatible behavior. For some dogs even waiting for them to turn and look at their handler takes too much time and their negative emotional response is too strong to change given where you are and what you are using as a reward.
Once the treat or toy has been paired with trigger it is often possible to switch to rewarding for behavior so long as the dog continues to feel happy and safe in the presence of the trigger. When this happens we can start to build duration in the dog’s ability to remain in proximity to the trigger, or to changes in the trigger’s behavior. When it comes to addressing fear in dogs, what are you waiting for?
On my book shelf is a CD by Wayne Dwyer on the power of intention. It’s an inspirational presentation. But as powerful as intentions are, given the right set of circumstances, habits will win out.
Recently I moved the app icons on my iPod around. I deleted a few and moved some off the main screen. In the process a couple of the ones I use regularly shifted their position. My finger moved to tap the icon for an app that was no longer in the lower left hand side of the screen, but to the right and up a row. I managed not to open the wrong app, and stopped my finger in time. My intention was to open an app, and my habit was to tap the lower left of the screen to do it. I still catch myself aiming for the old, now incorrect, location. Old habits are hard to break.
For up to a year after we moved from one house to another, about a mile down the road past the old house, I would on occasion discover that I was preparing to turn into the old driveway. One day I even made it up the driveway to the house before it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t that I was sleeping at the wheel, I’d not driven off the road into the river, so some part of my brain was doing its job. My intention had been to drive home, but an old habit kicked in.
We want to take advantage of the power of habits when we are working with our fearful dogs. If we can create behaviors that require little thought on the dog’s part, it will be easier for them to behave appropriately in scary situations. If we create those behaviors using positive reinforcement, performing those behaviors can include a positive emotional response at the same time- more bang for our buck.
Sitting and looking at me is a “trick” I’ve worked on with Sunny for years. He will plop his butt down and look at me with the slightest prompting on my part. When the pressure is on, he will do it. It’s become what we call a “default” behavior. If he’s not sure of what else to do, this is his fall-back behavior. I’ve rewarded him with food and praise, a lot, for doing it. It’s proven to be useful at the vet’s office and at the groomer’s. When we’re out and there are people around, he will do it and I can step in between him and the approaching monsters.
Consider helping your dog create the following habits:
- Look at you regularly for feedback
- Feel good when they hear their name
- Sit or lie down easily wherever they are
- Stay or wait when asked
- Come joyfully when called
- Play daily
- Become addicted to learning new tricks
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!
If you sat two children down, one with a pile of marbles, the other with a bucket of tennis balls and gave each the task to put these objects into a milk jug, what do you think is likely to happen? Start off with- which child is more likely to be successful? Assuming that the marbles are all small enough to fit into the jug and the child has the dexterity and hand/eye coordination, the child with the marbles will be. What about the child with the tennis balls? Even if they have the ability to try to perform the task, how many attempts do you think they will make before they give up altogether when they discover that tennis balls don’t fit into milk jugs? I’m going to guess, not many. Why bother?
If we were to bring in another child and give them a variety of different sized marbles, some which will fit, some just barely, others not at all, how many attempts do you think they will make before they stop? Let’s assume that putting marbles in jugs is fun for the child or that we’ve promised them their special treat for doing it, and I’m guessing that they will keep trying until they have put all the marbles that fit into the jug and have a pile of those that don’t. If we asked them to do this a second time they might even do it more quickly if there were easy ways for them to differentiate between the sizes of the marbles; all the red ones fit, blue ones don’t.
When our dogs are interacting with us and their environment there is a continuous flow of experimentation of behavior. Each behavior provides the dog with information as to whether they should do it again or not based on what outcome the behavior produces. Does the behavior fit? If we always provide our dogs with information that tells them that a behavior is the right one, they can be prepared to use that behavior again in the future. If we resort to punishment too often, which for a fearful dog may be just once, they may, like the child with the tennis balls, stop bothering to experiment to come up with the behavior that fits.
We don’t need to hit them over the head to let them know that a behavior isn’t fitting. If they have learned a variety of ways that tell them that a behavior does fit; food treats, praise, smiles, cheers of approval, a click, the word YES, when one of these does not occur, they are prepared to experiment with another response until they are successful.
In life, on rivers, or when training a dog, there are advantages to going with the flow.
They say a rose by any other name is still a rose, unless if you’re naming it ‘tulip’ I won’t know what you are describing. We may both understand that you are talking about a flower, but if you are ordering a dozen roses and ask for tulips you’ll be in for a big surprise when they arrive.
We look at animals and come up with ways to describe and define what we observe. It’s important and helpful work. When we look at wolves and then at dogs we come to conclusions about what is going on among them. The terms we use and the conclusions we come to may be right on, or not. We may be talking about behavior between animals, but if we label something ‘dominance’ and it’s actually ‘fear’ our response to the animal’s behavior may get us a result that surprises us. Or worse, angers us.
Different cultures perceive things differently. This is most obvious when it comes to food preferences. Offer a Nepali a cup of salty tea made with yak milk and chances are good their brains will register that something good is on its way. Hand a steaming cup to someone from the UK and they’ll be challenged to suppress a grimace at first sip. These differences do not end with food. Brains learn to prefer all kinds of things over other things. There are studies which found that American brains register ideas of ‘dominance’ more rewarding than do the brains of people from Japan. Their brains register concepts of ‘submission’ more rewarding. It’s difficult to read about this and not come up with value judgements about which, dominance or submission, is ‘best’. And the culture you come from is likely to affect that conclusion.
Following is a not so uncommon occurrence in our home:
My most fearful dog Sunny is asleep on the floor, somewhere in the path of where I need to travel. As I approach he merely opens his eyes to follow my movement. He does not make any attempt to move out of my way. I step around him.
Is his behavior an indication that he thinks he is dominant to me and doesn’t have to get out of my way or has he simply learned that he doesn’t have to move because I’ve never stepped on him, tripped on him, kicked him or yelled at him in the past when he’s been lying somewhere and I walk toward him?
What if instead of thinking of the social structures among dogs in ways that cause us to feel threatened, as many do when told that their dog is trying to ‘dominate’ them, we thought about each individual within the group having their own traits and inclinations which cause them to behave particular ways. Some are more willing to assert themselves, others more willing to compromise. Some are afraid and behaving aggressively because of it. Others are so excited about something that the last thing on their mind is that you want to go out the door in front of them.
One of the most damaging concepts to come out of pop dog training is the idea of ‘dominance’ being a primary motivator for dogs. Dogs, like other animals, do what works for them. I’m going to guess that few have the same kinds of dreams of power and influence that some people have. Heaven help the dogs who get in their way.
Join me in Santa Cruz CA on September 9, 2012 for a seminar on helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges.
I have the opportunity to talk to many people about their fearful dogs. One thing almost all of them have in common is that they waited too long to get help for themselves and their dog. I’m not pointing a finger of blame at them, I understand the delay. Most of the dogs we’ve lived with have been adaptable, resilient and tolerant. Some have been shy at first but they quickly have ‘come around’. Others have retained some level of fearfulness but it wasn’t enough to impact our lives significantly.
It’s helpful to have a picture of what an emotionally healthy dog looks like. An emotionally healthy dog starts off looking like an emotionally healthy puppy. Puppies should be curious, they should be attracted to people and other dogs, they may startle and move away from something but so long as they are not hurt or scared again by it, should investigate it. Puppies follow people around, they greet other dogs, they pounce on toys and chew computer cables. Puppies lick your face and nibble your shoe laces.
Red flags should go up if a puppy repeatedly moves away or hides from people. An emotionally healthy puppy may display some timidness or wariness when in a new location with new people but this shouldn’t last long. Hours of this type of behavior is a warning sign, days of it should have alarm bells ringing. Don’t mistake aggressiveness based in fear for puppy bravado.
If you have any inkling that somethings isn’t ‘right’ with a puppy, run don’t walk to your nearest reward based trainer. The sooner a dog with fear based behavior challenges is handled properly the better their chance of learning skills to feel comfortable and safe in their world.
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.