Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Play hard, play fair, nobody hurt

This post is being written in conjunction with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign.

When I got out of university and participated in a year long outdoor leadership program playing New Games was all the rage. The motto of New Games is ‘Play hard, play fair, nobody hurt’. Games are designed so that people play with each other, not against each other. There is still plenty of action and consequences for being tagged, or caught out, but this usually means your role changes and doesn’t mean you can’t play anymore. We learned to use them with groups ranging from young children to corporate executives. I was not surprised that one of the games is played by dog trainers to help both trainers and owners to better understand their dogs.

The ‘modeling clay’ game goes like this-One or two people (the players) leave the room while the rest of the group comes up with a behavior, pose or action, they want the players to perform. When the players return to the room they are given only one piece of information; they are told ‘yes!’ when anything they do is close to what the group has decided they want from them. Clicker trainers will ‘mark’ any behavior that leads to the correct behavior with a click. It seems easy enough until you are one of the players trying to figure out even simple behaviors; stand and raise one foot. There tends to be lots of experimenting with movements and you can watch the wheels turn in players’ brains as they try to sort out which are earning them a ‘yes!’.

I have tweaked this game a bit by only marking inappropriate behaviors with a ‘no!’, just so pet owners can experience the results first hand. If you are playing this game and trying to figure out what to do by being told all the things you are doing wrong, it quickly becomes frustrating. Only the most committed players stick with it, shy, timid or reluctant players rarely get far. What you tend to see is lots of stillness broken up by deliberate movements; raise arm, ‘no’, raise other arm, ‘no’, turn head left, ‘no’. It’s not a very fun way to learn and the folks determining correct behaviors soon tire of the game themselves, they want to see the players succeed.

It’s not unusual for players to give up and stop. Herein lies the problem for pet owners. A dog that gives up trying to figure out what their owner wants of them may actually be behaving in a more acceptable way than they were. This is not a big problem if the only thing their owner wants of them is to have them sit down, lie down or stand still. Indeed most pet owners would be happy if their dogs performed these few behaviors on cue. But the behaviors that get oohs and aahs and compliments of ‘what a smart dog!’ are behaviors which were learned because the dog figured out what was wanted of them, or were shown what they needed to do and were rewarded for it, not because they gave up trying.

Dogs in general like to be able to predict outcomes. Not surprising, so do we. Scared dogs especially do better when they can predict what is going to happen next in their world. As obvious as something might be to us, it’s not fair and often not correct to assume that it’s also obvious to our dogs. Make the unpredictable thing unpleasant, scary or painful and you up the anxiety level of an already anxious dog. Until the dog is able to learn to predict what precedes the unpleasantness, and even then, their overall anxiety can increase. And since life is not a laboratory, what predicts the unpleasantness may not end up being the behavior you are focusing on but rather something else in their environment, something you may not be aware of or have control over. Heck it might even end up being you!

Fearful dogs have brains that are very efficient at being scared or feeling bad. Giving a fearful dog ANY reason to be scared or anxious just adds to this proficiency. Training methods that hurt or startle a dog can add to the already overloaded baggage these dogs are carrying around with them. If you’re frustrated or not sure how to change your fearful dog’s behavior find a trainer who plays hard, fair and doesn’t hurt.

Please visit the Never Shock a Puppy Donation Site.


What ever happened to a spoonful of sugar?

Mary Poppins with bird on her fingerWhen Julie Andrews sailed into the lives of the banker’s children as Mary Poppins I was so impressed that I practiced leaping off the top bunk with my own umbrella in preparation for more daring heights (luckily no hospital visits were required). And the idea that a ‘spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’ had me wishing that I had to take castor oil myself, whatever that was. Mary just gets it right. She makes tidying up rooms fun, shows respect and concern for her charges and understands that when one has to deal with nasty stuff, the addition of something sweet can make it more tolerable.

We know this. We say things like, ‘you catch more bees with honey than vinegar’, understanding that something positive is likely to achieve many goals more efficiently than something negative. The drill sargeant governesses in Mary Poppins caused children worldwide to cringe. No one wanted one of those in their lives, even if we didn’t know what a governess was.

I’m never sure why anyone shows reluctance to the practice of making something easier or more pleasant for someone or something else, whether it involves showing support, offering a reward, or providing medications to ease suffering. We have sayings for this as well-‘spare the rod spoil the child’, ‘don’t sugarcoat it’, ‘no pain no gain’. Sure we get stronger by pushing our limits, learn more by being accountable for the quality of our responses, but since when it is ok to watch someone drowning and not throw them a lifeline because we think that struggling will improve their swimming skills?

Scared dogs are struggling. Attempting to flee, hide or being aggressive are indications that they are drowning. They are figuratively ‘in over their heads’. In the same way I wouldn’t hesitate to pull someone into shallow water, I don’t hesitate to get my scared dog to a place where he can at least reach the bottom with his tippy toes and catch his breath while I dig in my pockets for that spoon.

The gift is in the giving

dog with stuffed catepillar in his mouthChanging how we think about our relationship with dogs can be one of the hardest leaps for many people to make. The whole ‘pack leader’, ‘alpha dog’, ‘I’m the boss of you’, mentality has been around long enough to have permeated many of our thoughts about why dogs behave the way they do and how we should respond to them. And although we will never know exactly what dogs are thinking or experiencing, because we share the same parts of the brain that deal with fear, we can make some pretty good guesses about how it feels for them to be scared. However most of us, thankfully, rarely have the opportunity to experience the level of fear that some of our fearful dogs experience routinely. Think about that for awhile.

When we deal with scared humans, whether they are children or adults, we often offer them something. In some cases we offer solace, words of encouragement and support. In other cases we offer them something tangible, a pacifier, a sheet of Mickey Mouse stickers, lollipops or a hand to hold. When we interact with our scared dogs we can also offer them something rather than make them give things up. Scared dogs are often forced into situations, made to deal with interactions with their triggers which they would rather avoid. We take away their autonomy and control of their lives. We take away their opportunities to feel safe and less stressed and pressured.

Next time you are faced with a scared dog think about what you can give them. One way to know what that is to figure out what they are asking for.

Crimes of passion

As humans, despite the incredible ability to think about more than the obvious, we tend to focus on what we see. In the case of our dogs it’s their behavior. We are able to accept that there are some behaviors performed by humans, many which cross the line and are crimes, which if not forgivable, at least we understand and offer a degree of leniency to the offender. Steal a flat screen TV and you’re a thief. Steal food to feed your kids and you may still be a thief but only the hard-hearted (and completely literal) will send you to jail for it. Shoot your spouse to benefit from an insurance policy and not only does the possibility exist that it will become a made-for-TV movie, but here in the U.S. we may kill you for it. Shoot your spouse because they beat you or you stumble upon them in the arms of your best friend, and you may spend your life in jail or not (depending on the skill of your lawyer and the size of your bank account), but a jury of your peers may find it in their hearts and minds to spare you the electric chair (or whatever method of killing people is currently in vogue). We call them ‘mitigating circumstances‘.

I received an email from a woman with a 100lb dog who would drag her home at the sight of a small dog. The trainer working with the woman suggested she sit with the dog while small dogs passed and ignore her until the dog offered a ‘calm behavior’ and then reward her for it. The suggestion makes sense when you focus on behavior, but in my opinion the best part of the suggestion was that the woman sit down, being dragged from a sitting position is probably a wee bit safer than being pulled down while standing.

Imagine being in a room and noticing smoke beginning to pour out of an electrical outlet. Despite your efforts to express your desire to flee, the person you are tied to ignores you. Can anyone blame you if you decide that to save your own hide you need to drag your oblivious companion along with you? Maybe this person knows that smoke routinely comes out of this outlet and has learned that it is irrelevant to both your well beings but the dog has no way of knowing this. We can teach young humans to; ‘say please’, ‘ask to be excused’, ‘use your words’, but it’s not so simple with a dog, especially a dog that believes he’s about to become toast.

Even if the woman was able to control the dog, I wondered how long she would be willing to wait for the dog to calm down. Imagine telling a kid that you’re going to sit at the table with them until they like broccoli. Get comfortable, you may be there for years.

While being afraid of other dogs and not liking the taste of a particular food are not the same thing, we can work with them in a similar way. First we can acknowledge that a preference exists. The dog does not want to be around other dogs (or whatever they’re afraid of) and the kid does not like broccoli. For whatever reason we’ve decided that both the dog and kid must interact, in a positive manner, with whatever they hope to avoid. We can chop up the broccoli and hide it in pasta sauce, which the kids likes, or smother it with cheese to make it more palatable. This is not that dissimilar to how we can help our dogs feel better about what they currently don’t want to deal with. Cut it up into tiny pieces and smother it with cheese. Keep the scary thing far enough away not to matter and add something that the dog likes to the equation. Even if neither dog nor child learns to love what is triggering their reaction, they can learn an appropriate response when faced with it. Little Timmy can learn not to make gagging noises when grandma puts spinach on his plate and Rex can learn not to behave like other dogs are serial killers in disguise.

Getting and rewarding the desired behaviors can work. The training technique called BAT focuses on this, as does CAT, but the challenge for most owners of fearful dogs is recognizing what is a rewardable behavior and making sure that the broccoli is cut up small enough. Many fearful dogs will ‘shut down’ or offer what looks like a calm behavior, but are displaying what is often called ‘learned helplessness’. Similarly a dog’s behavior can be suppressed and this also can appear to many as ‘calmness’. In today’s pop dog training jargon it is often called ‘calm submission’.

When dealing with a fearful behavior accept that your dog feels passionately about something and then smother it with cheese, a ball toss or a game of tug. And until your dog understands that smoke doesn’t always mean there’s a fire, get up and leave the room.

When in doubt, smile!

In my P.E.T. (play, exercise, training) triad for working with fearful dogs, training is not third on the list because it is any less important than play and exercise. But I think that it shouldn’t necessarily be the primary focus when working with a dog, especially a new, fearful one. Besides the fact that E.P.T or T.E.P don’t have the same ring to them, I try to focus on discovering what kinds of playful behaviors dogs engage in because even the most dog friendly training, using the least aversive techniques available can still put too much pressure on a dog. I’ve seen plenty of non-fearful dogs in stressful situations tune-out their owners who are trying to teach them new behaviors or get them to perform those already acquired. Fearful dogs are often always experiencing too much stress.

Two reasons for putting play first on the list are:

1. Fear manifests in both the brain and body. A fearful dog often moves stiffly and in a stilted manner. Their breathing is shallow and rapid. Their brain and body have become very good at ‘being scared’. Play provides them the opportunity to experience positive feelings and move more fluidly and loosely, breathe more deeply, get their brains and bodies better at feeling good.

2. Play, often more than food, can be highly motivating and rewarding to a dog. When we as handlers control or can moderate rewards we are more likely to get and keep the dog’s attention and benefit from the association.

But training is important as well. It stands to reason that if dogs are learning all the time, and I believe they are, then we are training all the time. Most of the time we’re just not aware of what it is we’re training! When I talk about ‘training’ I am referring to the process of teaching particular behaviors to be performed on cue. Behaviors and cues that we have decided upon. Training a fearful dog is like handing them a dictionary with which to understand the language of the humans around them.

It is helpful to teach a dog a neutral behavior which they perform in a variety of situations. Standing and waiting could be one of them. However few people appreciate a dog’s ability to just stand there, whereas a dog that plops down into a sit gains 30 IQ points in their eyes. Get the dog to raise a front paw and they’re a veritable genius. This doesn’t matter for most owned dogs, they certainly don’t care how smart people perceive them to be, but shelter dogs and foster dogs that are ‘on the market’ can benefit from it. It is also beneficial for a fearful dog to have a behavior which they can perform which predicts nothing negative or scary. Many dogs do not enjoy being patted on the head or leaned over so when teaching a fearful or shy dog to sit calmly around people, be sure to control the people they come in contact with until the dog is able to enjoy being interacted with in this way.

Teaching a dog to sit when they meet people is sort of like smiling when you’re traveling somewhere you don’t speak the language. It’s a default behavior that makes others feel more comfortable with you and when you don’t really understand what is being said, is not likely to get you into trouble (though women traveling on their own should use discretion when employing this technique!).