I am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.
When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.
What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.
There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.
That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.
-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.
-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.
-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.
One of the primary goals I have for this blog, the seminars and webinars, and consults I do for folks living or working with fearful dogs is to help them understand how to think about fear based behaviors. When I am contracted to help someone train their dog I can directly and specifically tell them what to do. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the number of dogs out there that need someone to help them. If people have good information to use to come up with reasonable ways to respond to their dog, they are more likely to do so, and that is what needs to happen–dogs need to be responded to appropriately.
Risk management is an important consideration in many industries. It should be in the dog training industry as well. The most obvious reason is that when people get bitten, dogs get put down. But there are other risks. A dog’s quality of life is at risk when they are not handled properly. One of the most high risk activities we engage in is when we expose dogs to objects or events that scare them. This tactic is fueled by a variety of notions espoused by trainers; dogs need to be exposed to things or else they’ll never learn to not be afraid of them, dogs are empowered by being able to choose to investigate something, if something doesn’t hurt them a dog will learn that it’s not something they need to be afraid of, dogs won’t be afraid if you are the pack leader. Each of these, among others not mentioned, can lead people to making high risk decisions about how to manage their dog.
I am not saying that exposing a dog to things, or allowing them to roam around and make choices as to how they will respond to something that might scare them doesn’t ever work. I am suggesting that it is a high risk approach to take with a fearful, shy, anxious or reactive dog. Existing fears can become worse and new ones can be added. We can and should minimize and manage the risks we are willing to take when a dog’s life and the lives of those around that dog are at stake.
- Keep the dog feeling safe.
- Be prepared to make anything that already scares, or might scare, the dog a predictor of something fabulous. Use food. Fabulous food.
- Train the dog to do exactly what you’d like them to do when in the presence of something that does or might scare them. When we use high rates of positive reinforcement to train appropriate behaviors we don’t need to worry about them making bad choices.
My first career as a younger adult was in the outdoor recreation industry. It was fun and there was a certain caché to being paid, as minimal as it may have been, to do something others paid to do. Though there was no obligation to do so, many of us felt the need to advocate for the wild places, the rivers, mountains, deserts and oceans we floated, climbed, skied, sailed, worked and played in and on. We shared information about legislation effecting our environment with adults and provided opportunities for children to find delight in a world that didn’t run out of batteries.
Animal trainers are also in the unique position to provide educational opportunities in ways that may be more impactful than books or classrooms. The same sweeping wave of delight that led one person to work with exotic animals in zoos can be fostered in the troops of children that routinely visit zoos to see the animals, who without advocates, may cease to exist in their natural environments across the globe. It may be less an indoctrination than it is a call to our own self-preservation.
Dog trainers can model the ways we teach without threats, force, intimidation or pain. Children can learn how we can shape and change behavior without bullying or creating fear in an animal whose life is quite literally in our hands. We may not be the only eyes of the miracle that is our world, but we may be the only voices that can protect the vulnerable.
Dog trainers are no strangers to fake news and the wealth of misinformation and mythology available to us via the variety of sources for information. It’s been years since we mourned our loss of respect for National Geographic with its enabling of Cesar Millan and his dangerous dog whispering. Regardless and despite the warnings from veterinary behaviorists and other professionals in the field of canine behavior, NatGeo continued with its lucrative programming presenting lies about dogs and how they should be trained and handled. Professional trainers today (those who bless their hearts actually got an education in behavior and training) are routinely presented with behavior challenges that either could have been avoided or easily addressed, had the owner not fallen for the BS they saw on television.
If that was the only source of nonsense, maybe, just maybe we might have managed to get a leg up on helping owners learn how to get what they needed from their dogs without resorting to force, fear or pain. But the dog training industry continues to fill lecture halls, sell DVDs, books and webinars, by marketing half-truths, misrepresentations and fiction to those of us interested in learning a thing or two about training dogs.
Years ago when becoming a dog trainer was still only a twinkle in my mind’s eye, I attended a 3 day seminar on aggressive behavior is dogs. Aggressive behavior in dogs is something to take seriously since it’s more likely to lead to a dog being re-homed, relinquished or euthanized, compared to routine ‘doesn’t come when called’ or ‘steals food off the counter’ annoying behaviors. This is of course in addition to the harm they can cause other dogs or people. The seminar was being hosted by a company that promotes educational opportunities for dog trainers who don’t rely on shock, prong or choke collars. I trusted it would be worth my time and money and by the looks of the diligent note taking going on in the room by other attendees, I assume they did as well.
Among the red flags that started waving was one that was planted when I dared question a statement the presenter made. I had learned that the application of a consequence for a dog’s behavior should follow as closely to the behavior as possible, but this trainer claimed that dogs could learn that they did something wrong when the punishment followed after a longer duration. I’m not talking about the difference between 3 seconds and 4.8, he was claiming over a minute. Even as a neophyte this seemed like it made room for a lot of additional behaviors besides the one being punished. After rehearsing the question in my head, I screwed up the courage and asked where I could access the information that lead to his conclusion? “I just gave it to you,” was his straight-faced and somewhat stern reply.
Among the strategies presented for dealing with aggressive behavior in dogs (which included a variety of creative ways to scare the sh*t out of dogs sans shock collars) was this gem of reasoning: Some dogs who are aggressive toward people who come into your home are so because they see these intruders consuming household resources, they get cups of tea and cookies. The solution was to hand guests something to bring into the house, the dogs seeing this, would then be more inclined to feel kindly toward them. And not because they brought something for the dog, a can of soda would do. By the time this pearl of nonsense was presented I had learned my lesson and my notes consisted mainly of the equivalent of “WTF?”
The insidious thing about fake news is that it sounds real and often confirms something you think is true or would like to think is true. A few examples include; functional reinforcers are always better than alternates available to us, you must first bond with a dog in order to train them, choice is a reasonable reinforcer to consider using in training, toys and play are a superior form of reinforcement, dogs need markers (clicker or verbal) to be trained.
If there is a lesson in any of this it’s not that we can’t believe anything we hear, read or watch, it’s that we should be willing to think our way to conclusions and support each other in doing so. Friends don’t let friends believe fake dog news.
Hitting a dog is a bad idea. Even one of those “Oh it didn’t hurt them,” swats is a bad idea. And here’s why. Dogs notice what things predict. If a hand has ever predicted getting grabbed, scruffed, swatted or worse, the dog learns that sometimes hands do unpleasant things to them. Puppies will learn this quickly, and even older dogs who were never routinely hit will learn quickly that some hands are not to be trusted should they ever be hit. The question for dogs will be to know which hands they need to be worried about. That’s where the danger lies, they may decide that being safe is better than being sorry, and will avoid or even bite any hand reaching for them.
Think about what many people do the first time they meet a dog. Think about what little kids do. They reach out their hand for the dog to get a sniff or give a pet, except that dogs are not mind readers and they don’t know their intentions. A dog who has been reprimanded or corrected by hands, or by something in a hand, may be more inclined to bite hands. Any trainer who suggests that someone uses their hands to do something scary or painful to a dog, whether it’s suppose to imitate another dog’s mouth (which is frankly a load of malarky) or to forcibly restrain or punish the dog, is behaving in a way that as a professional constitutes gross negligence. They should know better. They should know that the very last thing in the world we want is for a dog to have to worry about what a hand is going to do to them.
I’ve been away from this blog, not because I didn’t have things to share, I took a break because I feared I was becoming a grump. Every day the dog community, retailers, trainers and other professionals put out information and products that at best are just a waste of our time and money, and at worst contributors to the failure of an owner to find a solution to the problems impacting their willingness to continue living with a dog. I’ve been called close-minded because I refuse to suggest and endorse products and training methods that have provided no evidence, other than anecdotal, that they work. Some have even been tested and found not to work, yet remain in the mainstream of dog medical and behavioral health.
I understand how hard it is to know what the right thing is to do, the right path to be on. We put our trust into the supposed professionals and experts in the training and medical fields to guide us. Unfortunately this has turned out to be, in too many cases, like trusting the banking industry to do what’s best for your bottom-line. It’s not easy to live life as a skeptic, to be constantly questioning and trying to follow the logic of those who are content to keep repeating their misinformed ideas, and supporting it with bad arguments.
The goal of this blog has always been to provide information to help us work with the most vulnerable dogs among us, the fearful, the anxious, the shy, the abused, the neglected. Along the way I’ve made missteps. I bought into the arguments made by nice (and some not so nice) people, for products and techniques that did not provide what they said they did. I learned and continue to learn more about how behavior works and know that we have the information we need to help our dogs, we just need to get really good at doing what we need to do. That is my goal, not to just complain and vent about the daily nonsense the dog blogging community tweets and posts on Facebook (though some is so spectacularly silly it’s hard to resist). I am not arrogant, I am tired. I am angry at the years I wasted filling my head with incorrect information and making rubbish make sense. I am embarrassed by what I fell for.
What I am proud to do is offer seminars, workshops, consultations and webinars to help further the use of evidence-based training methods for all dogs. Join me in New Orleans at the Louisiana SPCA on October 15, 2016 to learn more about how fear impacts behavior and the most humane and effective ways to help dogs.
Don’t expect to hear any of these comments from a professional animal trainer.
“I don’t feed the dolphins fish when they jump through the hoop, they should do it because they respect me.”
“We never use food to train our lions to stand for injections, that would only make them think they’ll get food every time they did it for us.”
“The seals at our facility do what we train them to do because they love us.”
“If we gave the pelicans food for letting us handle them they’d think they were dominant.”
“Using food to train elephants only spoils them.”
“We can’t be bothered always having food available for training.”
“I’d rather hurt or scare an animal to get them to do what I want instead of using food.”
You don’t have to look hard to find animals being trained to perform all kinds of useful and fun behaviors, using food. You can train your dog like a professional animal trainer. Use food.
This blog post is part of the #Train4Rewards blog party. Enjoy other interesting blogs at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog.
The dog training industry may be among the few professions in which people with a lack of understanding and limited or no education are glorified, even given their own TV shows, while those who have chosen to become educated are held up for ridicule. Heaven forbid you know a few big words and have the temerity (temerity: excessive confidence or boldness; audacity) to use them. Chefs probably have a deeper and broader understanding of the science of cooking than many dog trainers have of learning.
Imagine sitting around with a group of pilots and one saying with a sneer, “I don’t know what all this wind sheer and lift is you’re all going on about, I just fly the damn plane,” and the other pilots raising their glasses in a toast and high fiving. Or a physician boasting that they’re not even sure what blood pressure is, they just take out the damn appendix. How about hiring an electrician who admits to not fully comprehending (comprehending: understanding) what amps and voltage refer to and just wires the damn house.
Over a decade ago when I first began my search in earnest to try to find out how to train an extremely fearful dog I was discouraged to find how limited, and too often wrong, the information was. The discovery that dog training is based on a science, with principles and laws that are supported by mathematical formulas, and decades of research, came as a relief. Finally I could quit mucking around and could get down to the business of helping a vulnerable dog learn to navigate the world he was living in.
Dogs who do not do what someone wants them to do are called disobedient, stubborn, or even stupid. They are labeled as “lacking in impulse control.” Instead of trainers looking at what they are doing and realizing that they are not making it clear to the dog what they should do, when they should do it, how long they should do it and why they should do it, trainers blame the animal. They don’t know there is a big picture and that the laws of behavior and principles of learning, when applied properly, can make it more likely the dog will be successful, along with feeling less fear, stress or anxiety. I assume these trainers don’t know there is a big picture, a science to refer to, because what professional would turn their nose up at learning more about what they do or would go out of their way to criticize those who do? Apparently that would be some dog training professionals, who revert to the tactics of the cool kids in high school finding ways to disparage (disparage: regard or represent as being of little worth) the kids who read, knowing that the rest of the herd will look on, nod their head and snicker.
Ignorance is only useful when it compels us to seek more information. Otherwise it’s just stupidity, and there’s nothing admirable about that. Dogs deserve better. All animals deserve better from us. The next time someone boasts of their ignorance and their proud refusal to do anything to change it, don’t turn them into heroes, and you don’t have to give them your damn money.
Somehow last week, while walking between the kitchen and living room I managed to misplace my wallet. After spending hours looking, clearly not everyplace, I gave up and cancelled the credit cars and headed off this morning to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a new license. It was during this early morning drive that I passed a couple walking a young cattle dog. As I am prone to do when I see children and dogs off leash, I slowed to a crawl and watched as the couple stepped to the side of the road, called their dog and proceeded to feed her treats while she sat as I passed. Along with the big grin I found on my face, I noticed that I was also getting a bit misty-eyed.
I don’t know how they knew to handle their dog this way. Maybe a trainer showed them. Perhaps a friend read something on the internet and told them. Somehow they knew the right thing to do. Before anyone goes off on the dog being off leash to begin with, I live on a single lane, dirt road, cars are few and far between, there’s plenty of warning when they’re coming, and most drivers are prepared to stop and talk to strollers about the weather or how many gallons of sap they brought in this spring. Dogs where I live belong off leash if you ask me.
Years ago after traveling to New Zealand for a job that fell through, and being disinclined to return home, I took a position selling timeshares. Despite getting spitting distance to actually making a sale, I didn’t last long. The original plan was to work as a river guide and timeshare sales was not suiting me, but I stayed long enough to participate in mandatory morning sales meetings, conducted by a fellow American (not that it matters other than you should have the accent right in your head).
“What would you do,” he asked us with a degree of seriousness that barely hid the fact that the question was rhetorical, “If you were at a party and someone started to throw up on you?”
“MOVE!” responded someone versed in the morning meeting ritual that resembled both a tent revival and rallying of the troops.
“Damn right you would! You wouldn’t sit there and let someone puke all over you, so why will you sit there when someone starts pissing and moaning and complaining about how bad things are, how everything sucks?” the head of sales asked incredulously.
Though I remember little else about my few days selling timeshares, I have never forgotten the message the head of sales was trying to get across to us, don’t let other people get you down. Extricate yourself as quickly and politely as you can, but don’t let them chip away at your resolve to do something you think is worth doing. I didn’t think that selling timeshares was worth doing, but I do think that helping people learn about the most humane and effective ways to train dogs, especially the most vulnerable among them, is.
It’s easy in the dog care industry, whether we’re into training, grooming, vetting or rescue, to be convinced that people suck, that things are horrible, and that nothing is going to ever improve. We need to be on the look out for the spew, or the chisel that many wield, it’s selfish purpose, intentional or otherwise, contributing to our losing heart in our work, and being part of the change that IS happening all around us. Something someone said or did made it possible for that young, active, herding dog to run and sniff to their heart’s and nose’s delight, and learn without being hurt, scared or intimidated.
It was a good start to the day. Now I am fully prepared for it to continue and though am not inclined to superstition, will be happy to find my wallet since I’ve gone to the trouble of replacing everything in it.