Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Their brains make them do it

I recently heard about a study that was done using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a type of specialized MRI scan, which measures the change in blood flow related to neural activity in the brain of humans or other animals. This technology makes it is possible to see which neurons are active in a brain when certain thoughts or emotions occur. The study looked at neurons in the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for emotional reactions, and visual cortex, which ‘sees’ objects. What they found was that when presented with photographs of images intended to induce positive or negative emotional responses in people, regardless of the content, it was the neurons in the amygdala which reacted first. What this indicates is that even before we ‘know’ what we are looking at, we have already had an emotional response and its accompanying physical reaction.

Since dogs and other animals share these same parts of the brain with us, it’s likely that their brains respond in a similar way to stimuli. And  it makes sense. A gazelle grazing on the plains that stops to think about whether or not an animal moving rapidly toward them is a lion, is probably not going to live to graze another day. In much the same way, without any practice at all most of us will leap back if we step off a curb before we noticed that a car was speeding toward us. We can thank our amygdalas for this.

Think about how this effects our fearful dogs and the way they are often handled. By the time a dog appears to ‘see’ whatever scares it, its brain has already had the opportunity to respond negatively to it. In many cases the negative emotional response is accompanied by a negative behavioral response like aggression. We know that dogs get better at any behavior they have the opportunity to repeat, whether we approve of it or not. So each time we put our fearful dogs into situations in which they are exposed to whatever scares them, enough to cause a response, they’re getting better at that response.

Trainers who use aversive techniques to stop or control inappropriate responses in these situations are in effect, closing the barn door after the horses are out. It’s not the behavior they need to stop, it’s the emotional response. Hurting, scaring or threatening a dog to stop it from feeling scared makes no sense. When the focus is on the aggressive display (or the animal’s reluctance to perform a particular behavior), they’ve missed the proverbial boat. This is why desensitization and counter conditioning do help fearful dogs, they change the emotional response an animal has to whatever scares it. The brain is changed so that the first reaction it has is a positive, rather than negative one.

Any of us who have tried or are trying to do this know how slow and tedious the process can be.  But the next time you see a trainer responding to a dog’s fear based behavior with the use of force or punishment I hope your own emotional response is a negative one.


Evolution anyone?

I watched a 28 second video yesterday of a trainer in Canada, doing some pretty rough stuff to a dog. The abuse that he inflicted on the dog included sharp collar jerks, pulling the dog off its front feet and slapping the dog on the face. It was unclear what the dog, a large breed, perhaps a vizla or Rhodesian, had done or was doing to provoke this kind of treatment. The setting appeared to be an outdoor training class with other people and their dogs circled around. The dog being abused was barely moving, which may have been the ‘problem’ in the trainer’s eyes, I don’t know. The creator of the film claims that the trainer was annoyed with the dog’s owner and took his ire out on the dog.

When I watched the clip I got that heart constricting feeling that occurs when my body has a physical reaction to seeing not only someone/thing suffering but also a response to the perpetrator of the violence. I prefer not to fantasize about being violent toward other people, but in this case I had flashes of what I would do had I been there to witness it. It was shocking to watch a group of pet owners, who no doubt care about their animals or else they wouldn’t be bothering with a training class, standing around while someone assaulted an animal. Whether anyone spoke out for the dog I couldn’t tell. It may have happened so quickly that there was little chance to react and while some may have been dumbstruck by the treatment, others may have assumed that it was justified.

In the clip I saw the film had been looped so that it looked like the dog was being yanked and hit several times. This was unfortunate since it was not explained that this editing had been done. But more unfortunate is the idea that yanking and hitting a dog once isn’t that bad and only if it happens repeatedly is there a problem.

Some may criticize me for using terms that are usually applied to violence against people, to an animal, but what else is it other than assault when someone has another being trapped by a chain around their neck and proceeds to hit and choke them? Oh wait, there is another name for it, it’s called TRAINING by folks like this trainer!

Why is it that we are drawn to watching people who gain control of other creatures through the use of intimidation and physical violence? Is it because we don’t define what we are seeing as violence? Is getting what we want when we want it, exactly as we want it, enough to justify the means we use to get it? Who finds these people and then popularizes them by giving them TV programs and guest appearances on talk shows and why do they do it other than to make a buck (or millions of them)? We are sickened when we watch programs that advocate the teaching of violence to young children (yes Virginia there are people who do this) yet tune in weekly to learn how to bully, threaten, scare and hurt dogs, without the bat of an eye. It surprises me how many otherwise intelligent, thoughtful people do not see violence against animals as what it is, violence, period.

I have four dogs and board others at my home. I understand what it’s like to feel frustrated and angered by their behavior. It seems that in the spectrum of human behavioral responses to being frustrated and angry, violence comes more easily than thoughtfulness and patience. There is probably an evolutionary reason for this, but it seems a poor excuse when with instruction and practice we are capable of measured, productive, non-violent responses. As a species we find reasons to justify our bad behavior whether we are enslaving other people, beating them up for being different than us, or eating a piece of cheesecake and although they are not comparable, they are evidence that we can delude ourselves about minor to major things.

Isn’t it time to move up on the evolutionary ladder rather than slide down a few rungs?

Check out this video clip with a group of OFF LEASH puppies paying attention to their handlers and learning new behaviors without a slap, collar jerk or shout.

Drop these D’s

Shy Stella

I am constantly trying to eliminate the belief and the feelings I get when I assume that dogs’ failures to respond to my requests are due to their choosing to be; disobedient, defiant or dominant. Not that dogs don’t necessarily have those as motivations for behaving inappropriately but most dogs, and especially fearful dogs, likely have other things going on.

Staying with me for the next ten days is lovely little Stella, possibly a corgi/beagle mix. When I first met Stella she was unable to approach me and needed to drag a leash so I could get her to go in and out of the house as I needed her to. Her owners have done great work with her and although her first reaction to new people is to be startled, she recovers quickly and has become one of those lucky, fearful dogs that ‘once they get to know you’ is playful and happy.

Today as we headed out for our daily woods walk all the dogs eagerly scampered out of the house, except for Stella. Stella lagged behind, looking out of the open door but not moving through it. I admit that my initial response to this behavior was a tinge of impatience and frustration, ‘geesh come on already’. I had to remind myself that Stella was probably uncomfortable either going through the door and/or going past me, not uncommon problems for fearful dogs.

As with any behavior we are after with our dogs, there are different ways to get them. We can be sure that the dog knows how to perform the behavior and understands our cue for it. I could have put a leash on Stella and had her walk in and out of the door, with big rewards as we did so. I could teach Stella to target my hand or something in my hand and use that behavior to help her move through doorways.

Since Stella has gone in and out doorways before without hesitation I decided that there was something about the way I was asking for the behavior that caused her reluctance to follow the other dogs. Even if her owners used a different cue it doesn’t take much thought for a dog to follow a gang of excited dogs out the door. She wasn’t afraid of the other dogs, so I assumed I was the problem. I changed how I was standing at the door, turning my body slightly and avoiding direct eye contact as I invited her out. I waited a few seconds and when she didn’t comply I shut the door and moved away for another few seconds. I tried it again and on the third offer she came right out the door when asked.

It’s easy to become frustrated and impatient with a dog, especially if we think that they are behaving in ways that are meant to defy or confront us. Keep in the front of your mind that it’s often not a dog’s unwillingness to comply, but their inability to do so, that prevents them from doing what is being asked of them.

No, YOU get over it!

When people talk about their fearful dogs I often hear the questions, how do I get him ‘passed his fears’ or ‘over his fears’? It’s as though fear is a location that a dog just needs to journey through. Although it makes a nice metaphor, the image of a path from a place of anxiety to one of confidence, I think it also leads people to envision forward movement. And if a dog is unwilling or incapable of making that movement on his own, all we need to do as his owners, is make him move. Afraid of; a flight of stairs, walking on a new surface, getting into the car, little kids? Here, let me help you by dragging you by the neck. Unfortunately for dogs, this can work for some, leaving trainers and owners to believe that it’s the route to take for getting a dog ‘passed’ his fear. Movement can help dogs in many ways but it doesn’t have to be forced marches.

I consider myself fortunate that I have not had a life which was filled with constant fear and dread. I find it hard to imagine what that must be like. Perhaps an inadequate substitute that I can imagine, is being cold, the kind of cold that keeps your muscles tensed and your breath short and rapid. When I’m cold like that, as it seems I have been a lot this winter, what I notice the most is the comfort of warmth. My shoulders relax, my chest loosens and I sigh audibly. It feels so good not to be cold. I don’t think I will ever get over or passed being cold.

Rather than trying to think of ways to get my dog over his fear I begin by thinking of how I can help him find relief from his fear. Often it’s management and the control of his triggers or his proximity to them, but it also includes giving him the training and skills to make safe and appropriate choices when he’s around a trigger. Sunny can find relief in moving away from people who scare him, or sitting and waiting for me to decide what our next move will be. After four years together I think that Sunny is able to predict that my next move is going to be one that provides him with relief, and doesn’t force him to get passed or over anything.

Forget The Force

The highlight of my day is the walk I take in the woods with my dogs and any boarders staying with me. The route takes us past three houses, one where the owner routinely comes out with treats for the dogs. Yesterday it was left over sausages. Beyond these houses are hundreds of acres of New England woods with old carriage, and logging roads that have been whittled down to trails by the encroaching forest. Remnants of stone walls provide chipmunks and squirrels the opportunity to play hide & seek with the dogs and the old apple orchard has been tracked and marked by all varieties of wildlife; coyotes, deer, raccoons, fisher cats and beer. The place is a veritable scent smorgasbord.

The loop we walk includes two shallow stream crossings. I manage to keep my feet dry by taking advantage of a couple of stepping stones, the dogs either leap or wade. This time of year a sheet of ice covers the streams and is in many places thick enough to support both the weight of dogs and humans. I have had dogs that when we’ve come to the streams have been reluctant to cross (the most surprising being a labrador retriever). Some find an alternate route, a log spanning the stream perhaps. Others have worked up the courage to join me and the other dogs on the opposite side. On the rare occasion a dog will be so frightened by the prospect of crossing the stream that they’ll turn tail and head back the way we’ve just come.

Today my guest, BooBoo, a sweet, timid lab/bassett mix, was afraid to step onto the ice to cross the streams. Not only is the ice slippery, it cracks and squeaks, and although if it was to break would only land the dog in ankle deep water, it’s a scary prospect to an inexperienced or anxious dog. With some cajoling BooBoo made it across the first stream, following me as I shuffled across. The second crossing was not as easy for her. The small stream we were crossing had frozen over unevenly and fed into a larger stream which rumbled and rushed under the ice with frozen, sparkling shelves surrounding open areas where the current could be seen.

When I’ve had small dogs that were comfortable being picked up, I gave them a lift the two or three steps it takes me to get across, depositing them down on the opposite bank. BooBoo was too big for picking up and she’s a timid dog, so I avoid doing any handling of her that might be scary. My first tactic was to just keep walking, with the hope that her desire to be with us would outweigh her fear of crossing the ice. I got just out of sight so that she couldn’t see me but I had a view of the trail in case she decided to high tail it back the way we came. Since we were near the end of our loop I was not interested in having to retrace our route to get her back home. BooBoo didn’t turn around but instead I could hear her whining, and I did not want her anxiety to grow so I returned to see if I could encourage her to cross.

I weighed my options. I didn’t want her becoming more and more agitated so debated as to whether I should put a leash on her and force her to cross (keep in mind we’re talking about all of a four foot span). Since I don’t have a long time relationship with BooBoo I worried that approaching her might cause her to startle and move away from me. The last thing I wanted to do was put a leash on her and drag her, but how long was I going to wait for courage that might never materialize? I had only a few treats left in my pocket but I crunched them up and began tossing them to BooBoo who despite being too short for a lab has a lab’s interest in food. She was perched on a slope leading down to the stream so had to follow the treats as they rolled down toward the ice. I placed more treats where she had to take steps to get them and took the opportunity while she was distracted to take a hold of her collar. I snapped a leash on her but noticed that her collar was so loose that if I were to try pulling her she’d likely just slip out of it, along with losing any trust she was developing in me.

Fortunately I didn’t have to make the difficult choice of forcing her or not, once I was beside her and gave her a few words of encouragement she raced across the ice and we celebrated on the other side with treats and a quick game of stick wars with the other dogs. As expeditious as force may seem at times, if learning and confidence is what you’re after there’s nothing like experiential education. Think about learning to play the piano. Someone could push down on your fingers to get you to play the correct notes, but how effective is this likely to be when they take their fingers and the force away? Any physical behavior requires learning and practice to perfect. Each step a dog makes on its own is a step learned and accessible to them the next time they need it.

Had I forced BooBoo to cross the stream today she may well have become more comfortable crossing it again in the future, but the excitement we both felt when she managed it on her own would have been lost. I won’t go so far as to say that dogs feel proud of themselves but I know I sure felt proud of her.

Here is an excerpt from John Muir’s story of Stickeen, a must read for dog lovers everywhere-

“Nothing in after years has dimmed that Alaska storm-day. As I write it all comes rushing and roaring to mind as if I were again in the heart of it. Again I see the gray flying clouds with their rain-floods and snow, the ice-cliffs towering above the shrinking forest, the majestic ice-cascade, the vast glacier outspread before its white mountain fountains, and in the heart of it the tremendous crevasse,—emblem of the valley of the shadow of death,—low clouds trailing over it, the snow falling into it; and on its brink I see little Stickeen, and I hear his cries for help and his shouts of joy. I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.”


Not much to worry about from this human!

We’d be foolish handing chunks of carrot to a baby with no teeth. If we want young children to eat vegetables it makes sense to start them off with those which are less bitter and easy to chew. When we invite people over for dinner we try to prepare a meal that they will enjoy. Salt & pepper shakers are commonly found on tables so diners can season their food to their own liking. Routinely we assess situations and decide what will make them more pleasant, enjoyable and safe for the people we care about.

When dealing with a fearful dog it can help to think about ways to make the things which scare them, more palatable. Instead of subjecting a dog who is afraid of other dogs to the attentions of a rambunctious dog, find an older, social adept dog who will ignore the dog. Walking on a crowded city sidewalk may be less daunting during the early morning or late evening hours. Car rides might become less stressful if at first they are short and include a trip through a drive-thru window for a burger.

Sunny is more comfortable around people when he is off leash and has the option to move away from them, however he can also gain enough confidence to approach and bark at people. In those situations we practice the behaviors I’d rather he perform, namely moving away from what scares him and sitting quietly. I try to add his favorite spice to any interactions he has with people, either frisbee tossing or running in the woods.

Think about the ways you can make the things and situations that scare your dog more palatable. Lower your expectations and be satisfied if your dog just has ‘a taste’ of what they’re afraid of, not literally of course!

Training Samantha

girl sitting on floor with dog jumping over her legThis spring I made plans to meet friends from junior high school who I had not seen for years. I went through collections of old photographs to look for images of our youthful faces back in the seventies to help us reminisce. I found a number of poorly composed, out of focus, faded pictures that only the people featured in them could enjoy and appreciate. There was one that stood out from the rest, a sharp, clear, black and white photo snapped by my father, of me and our smooth haired fox terrier, Samantha.

At age thirteen I am sitting on the floor in our kitchen, my back against the cupboards with one leg raised and slightly bent with my bare foot pressing against the stove door opposite me. My dark hair is long, and my bespectacled, smiling gaze is aimed downward at Sam as she sails over my raised leg. Sam had been captured in mid flight, heading toward the camera, her ears alert, her physique still relatively lean.

It is possible to see that I am holding my hand, with a treat, on the side of my leg I want Sam to leap toward. I had, without any instruction discovered lure training, having initially tossed treats over my leg to get her jump my personal agility element. I was  ‘fading’ out the lure by using my hand with the treat to cue her to jump. At the time I had no understanding of ‘how’ I was training my dog. I just knew that it was fun to get her to do ‘tricks’ which I proudly showed off to my family.

Despite their applause I knew that I was not ‘really’ training her. It was just too easy, and I was using treats, surely ‘real’ dog trainers didn’t use food rewards to get dogs to do things. Getting a terrier to jump through a hula hoop or over a leg to reach the treat on the other side seemed like such a no-brainer and so easy that I couldn’t feel any pride in the achievement. There must other ways that trainers got dogs to perform tricks, ways that a kid like me knew nothing about.

At that time indeed there were. Trainers were instructing owners on the variety of different chains and collars to use to control and manage their dogs along with the size and material best suited for use as a truncheon to beat a dog that didn’t follow commands. These methods had percolated through our culture and were incorporated into some of the relationships I had with dogs. I once jammed my knee into a dog’s chest so forcefully when it jumped on me that when I re-entered the house and the dog cowered away from me I felt only embarrassment and regret when his owner complimented me for ‘training’ him to stop jumping.

On my sixteenth birthday I was given a puppy and could not have been happier. This eight week old ball of fluff and I were as inseparable as a dog and young teenager could be, and more than we should have been. I would regularly skip classes so I could sneak home and cuddle and play with her. I named her Treble and she was by anyone’s account a beautiful dog. She looked like a small, reddish-gold Belgian Malinois with feathers on her legs and tail. When questioned about her breed I responded that she was a ‘golden shepherd’, but she was just pure mongrel.

Though I never thought about training Treble she learned to sit, lie down, and would turn on a dime when I called her name, even if she was in pursuit of a squirrel, an activity which I encouraged during our visits to the Boston Common. Treble rode on the subway and wandered the streets of the city with me. I strolled on the beach while she tormented sea gulls pecking at debris along the tide line. I adored her and her seeming adoration of me. She was a dog, my precious dog, and nothing that she did ever seemed to me to be a punishable offense. Rather it was me that sneaked her into rooms, allowed her on beds, and into cars that had been designated off-limits to dogs, the tell tale fur left on bedspreads and upholstery earning me frowns and rebukes from my family.

When asked, as children often are, what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not know how to respond. The only jobs that I was aware of that would have allowed me to spend time with dogs, which is what I would have preferred, were dog catcher (as they were called back them) or veterinarian. ‘Dog catcher’ was loaded with too many negative connotations, though today I have high regard for people who choose a career in animal control. I was allergic to cats and not interested in medicine. Dog training was limited to the military, police and ‘seeing eye’ dogs and ‘dog trainer’ had not made it into aptitude tests or onto the lists of high school guidance counselors.

Recently I discovered a film produced by a seventeen year old trainer by the name of Devi Stewart showing how she taught her dog Chaos to submerge its nose in a bowl of water and blow bubbles. To accomplish this she used a clicker and treats. I was impressed by and envious of this young trainer. More than thirty years after the thrill of getting a dog to jump over my legs, Devi was getting her dog to perform a ‘trick’ which would inspire professional trainers. I could not have begun to imagine how to teach a dog to do this when I was that age, but by applying the principles of positive reinforcement, i.e., dogs will repeat behaviors they get rewarded for, she made it look easy.

While I was living my life, accompanied by dogs, there had been an evolution in dog training. I envy Devi, and the young trainers like her, the years they have ahead of them during which they can hone and perfect their training skills and the pleasure they and their dogs will derive from it. As for me, I’m looking forward to learning a few new tricks myself in the years to come.