Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

Origami & the art of folding behavior

origami flowers & craneWhen we fold a piece of paper, even if we return the paper to its original shape, the memory of that fold remains. When we are building different objects out of paper we might create a fold which we do not intend to use right away, but will return to it further along in the process of making our creation, using the memory of the fold to more easily mold the paper into the shape we want.

Anytime my dogs perform a behavior, whether I have encouraged it in one way or another, positively or negatively, I am forming creases that will either help or hinder me in the future when I try to create new objects of art; a dog that ‘folds’ into an alert ‘sit’ or a puppy that erupts into joy when a new person or dog appears on the scene. Or perhaps a dog that cringes with the memory of a thumbnail used too forcefully to sharpen a crease.

Puppies don’t enter the world blank sheets of paper. The stress and anxiety their mother experienced left imprints of folds on them. When we handle these puppies we risk running our thumbnail along those creases to sharpen them. Or alternately, as it seems more often to be the case with puppies, thankfully, the folds guide the pup into behaviors that cause our own creases to melt into shapes of compassion and joy. Or the folds may have been applied by the life our dogs lived or endured before they came to us.

Every interaction I have with a dog forms a crease, as does the behavior of the dog. What shape do I want those impressions of folds to take on? My role as leader, teacher, parent, trainer or owner is important not only because I am responsible for creating shapes but because I am also creating the patterns and cultures my dogs can expect and emulate. My goal for all my dogs is that even if I am not there to nudge them into behaviors that they effortless flow into the myriad of beautiful designs we’ve experimented with and practiced. For my fearful dog I hope that the imprints of his early experiences continue to fade and one day will be lost among the new folds of the shining star he is shaping out to be.


Feminism & the art of dog training

painting of early dog fightingIf when I was in university someone had suggested that my major of Women’s Studies would help me be a dog trainer I probably would have thought they were crazy. Majoring in Women’s Studies was like majoring in Philosophy or English Lit, it made for good late into the night conversations with housemates but the job market might be thin when it came to hiring someone with a degree in it, as a dog trainer or otherwise. But I think this course of study has helped me in the development of my skills as a dog trainer.

I will not be the first person to make the correlation between the way women and animals are viewed and treated in our culture. In 1978 Woman and Nature written by Susan Griffin included this introduction-

“These words are written for those of us whose language is not heard, whose words have been stolen or erased, those robbed of language, who are called voiceless or mute, even the earthworms, even the shellfish and the sponges, for those of us who speak our own language…”

She goes on to assemble documentation from textbooks, manuals and scientific theory detailing attitudes, practices and beliefs regarding nature and women that have been disseminated over the centuries. They range from silly to barbaric. That masturbation caused blindness may have been distressing news to many teenagers but that animals did not experience pain in the same way that humans did, and that their shrieking was merely an automatic response, led to practices in animal husbandry that can only be described as obscene.

Theories and edicts exist to support the status quo and provide excuses for the inhumane treatment of both people and animals. Between god, science and country there have been no shortage of excuses for inflicting pain and bondage on, as John Muir calls them, “our fellow mortals.”

For me feminism was about discovering the untold stories, the stories of those rendered voiceless. History is not just about wars and the acquisition of land & wealth. It’s about how women, children and people of color lived, dreamed and created. It’s about art, music, health care, education, community development.

When Suzanne Clothier suggests that even dogs have prayers to be answered in Bones Would Rain From The Sky, I read her words and felt the same kind of euphoria I experienced when I discovered that my experience as a woman in our culture was not a singular event. My feelings of inferiority and fear had been cultivated by a society which held stock in keeping me compliant and shopping (literally!) for ways to alleviate them. That I might consider what a dog wanted- was not an indication of a weakness of character or softness of countenance, but was instead a valuable approach to changing a dog’s behavior- was validation for me as a trainer.

I couldn’t help having my BS radar go off when a television personality came up with the explanation that dogs need ‘pack leaders’ to excuse and explain his physical control and intimidation of them. That this was also a man who could explain that women, being what they are, give affection first, at the expense of attaining control over a dog, did not surprise me (women have been blamed for the problems of their children, and the ways we choose to interact with people has often been said to be inferior to the ways of men). What surprised me most was how easily this was swallowed by so many dog owners and trainers.

“Look!” they will say, “See how the dog complies and is cured of their desire to do something of their own choosing.” (Women needed husbands, slaves needed owners-how else were they to survive and know how to ‘behave’?). But it’s a benevolent control, they will argue, the dog not only needs it, they want it, it’s in their blood. The proof most often heralded, wolf pack hierarchy, was shown to be faulty, yet the belief that dogs live in packs with a defined leader persists. As if without a ‘pack leader’, canine or human, all hell will break loose among a group of dogs.

Indeed hell does break loose but too often it’s a hell which we have created and then fault and punish our dogs for struggling to climb out of it.

It’s not just about being nice to your dog

I often say to people that I can talk about dogs anywhere, with anyone. Friends who asked me to officiate their wedding may have thought I was joking when I suggested that weddings were not excluded. I was not joking. As a dog trainer I had learned something about animal behavior that applied to people as well and that is that it’s not ‘stuff’ that makes us feel so good, it’s the work we do to get it, that gives our brain’s reward system the biggest hit of ‘feel good’.

What does this have to do with marriage? It means that even though we have goals in our lives and things we want to acquire, the process we go through to achieve what we want, has the potential to be even more rewarding than the goal itself. The relationships we have as we go through this process are integrated into it, and can be strengthened and improved because of it. So if you ask me to officiate your wedding, yes, I will talk about dogs.

Trainers who think that using food or other rewards is merely the mark of a trainer who is too concerned about being ‘nice’ to dogs are missing the point. The work, or training, we do with our dogs has the potential to trigger a dog’s reward system, which means that whatever we are using as a ‘reward’ is secondary to the enjoyment the dog is experiencing while learning new skills and behaviors. If you’ve ever seen a dog that has been trained using a mark and reward system (such as clicker training) you know what I’m talking about. The enthusiasm they show for performing or offering behaviors can at times be overwhelming! When I pick up a clicker my cocker Annie fairly dances around the room. Her response seems over the top in relation to the small food reward she’s going to gain. And indeed it is, because what is really making her gleeful is figuring out what she has to do to get the treat.

When working with fearful dogs if we become part of what triggers the dog’s reward system, using play and food rewards, we become one of the stimuli that causes the dog to feel good. Take this and apply it to whatever people, objects or situations cause a dog to be afraid and, you will change the dog’s emotional response along with its accompanying behavior.

It’s not necessarily easy to accomplish, which may be why many trainers resort to force and intimidation to get dogs to perform behaviors. But fear and pain change the equation. The stress and anticipation of punishment affects the brain differently than does the anticipation of reward. We are more likely to provoke aggressive responses in a dog if they feel threatened, or, create a dog who ceases to offer behaviors for fear of reprisal or has just plain given up trying.

Thanks to the wonderful trainers at Canines in Action for sharing this blog post with accompanying video by Dr. Robert Sapolsky. You can also watch the complete TED lecture here on The Uniqueness of Humans.

woman hitting dog cowering in cornerWe have the ability to define the culture of our relationships with our pets. Being nice to them may be the place to begin.

Stop your dog’s problem behaviors instantly!

Lose weight easily! No diets or exercise necessary! Increase your bust by inches overnight! Clearer skin in minutes! Get longer more luxurious hair!

Gotta face it, we want what we want, fast.

Many of the claims being made about dog training ‘devices’ and training methods remind me of these claims that range from the silly to dangerous.

Trainers who use reward based training techniques to teach dogs new behaviors or change their emotional response to triggers are often faced with a dilemma. An owner comes to them looking for a solution to their dog’s behavior challenge, and the trainer knows that without the owner also changing their behavior, the dog’s behavior is not likely to change either. The dilemma occurs when that owner, unwilling or unable to do things differently, throws up their hands and looks for someone or something that can cure what they believe ails their dog, with a minimum of fuss and bother.

I recently had someone ask me about getting her young dog to stop barking in her crate when left in it for up to 8 hours (or more) a day. As it turns out the dog did pretty well in the crate most of the day, but as the afternoon wore on the dog would begin barking nonstop. The dog was taken out for toileting during the day but had only been provided with leash walks. The dog happily slept in a crate at night. Someone had lent the owner a shock collar to try to deal with the ‘problem’ barking.

Problem barking? I’d be worrying about a young dog that didn’t try to change what they were experiencing in that situation. Here’s a young dog who is not getting enough exercise during the day and several times a week is required to spend what must seem like an eternity, in a cage. Dogs, being crepuscular animals, they have their highest energy levels early and later in the day, rouse from their midday siesta and are ready for action, just about the time this pup had 2 more caged hours ahead of her. Annoying to the owner, but a problem? For the dog there sure was!

The idea that by using punishment we can change a dog’s behavior more efficiently than by using reward based methods is hard to refute when you are seeing only a sound bite of behavior. Scaring, hurting or intimidating a dog into stopping what they are doing isn’t that difficult; shock them, spray them, yank them, choke them, hit them, throw them to the ground, or scream at them. But stopping unwanted behaviors is merely Part 1 of Step 1. We need to replace unwanted behaviors with appropriate ones. In some cases it may be easy and in others, not so easy. It’s harder to move through the steps of change when the first step we’ve taken has caused a dog to worry, become afraid or is hurting. How well do you think and learn new skills if you are nervous, scared, hurting or worried about being hurt? If you say, “Pretty well,” you are among the minority (or lying).

How about a show of hands of those of you who have been trying to change your own ‘problem’ behaviors. Maybe you need to lose a few pounds or get your cholesterol level down. You’ve been thinking about that gym membership which you’ve been meaning to buy, or have already purchased but never get there to take advantage of it. Those after dinner cigarettes still taste pretty good, even though you’ve been meaning to quit. A cold beer is good on a hot summer day but the empties are piling up. That mountain of stuff that’s been collecting on the table, in the closet or spare room is destined for the dumpster or Goodwill, when you finally get around to sorting through it. Every year you pledge not to let so and so bug you with their nasty comments but here you are dreading that family gathering again. OK you can put your hands down now.

It’s not easy to change behaviors, but it can be done, and changing a dog’s behavior often turns out to be easier than changing our own! But if you believe in the claims that some electronic device is going fix all that you find troublesome with your dog, please give me a call, I have this bridge for sale you might be interested in.

This post is written in connection with the Never Shock A Puppy campaign which is raising money to provide shelter dogs with training collars and harnesses that don’t hurt to work. You can donate a few bucks and know that it’s going to a good, and reputable cause. Did I mention that there are lots of great thank you gifts you can receive for you donation? Well there are!

Be wary of this critical m.a.s.s.

border collie looking uncomfortableWhen I first got out of college I had the good fortune to work for Susan Herman, who along with her husband at the time, ran a progressive summer camp that also offered summer student travel programs. I was hired to lead 4 week travel adventures with 12 teenagers and a co-leader. We worked 24/7, organizing and preparing 3 meals a day, driving hours to hiking trails, setting up tents, navigating teen angst and drama, and cajoling 14 year olds into carrying heavy packs up hills.

During an extensive orientation Susan shared one missive with us that I have never forgotten, “Assume goodwill, no ill will intended.” It is all too easy, when confronted by someone’s behavior, or the results of that behavior (dirty dishes left in the sink, laundry languishing in the dryer, or a gas tank needle pointing precariously toward empty, for example) to think the worst. How selfish! Lazy! Inconsiderate! And when we think this way, our own behavior is affected. We may become angry, short tempered or frustrated, and it shows.

It’s not unusual for dog owners to ‘assume ill will’ when it comes to challenging behaviors in their dogs. When describing their fearful dog these adjectives are often used; mean, aggressive, stupid & stubborn. The first time I heard someone describe their fearful dog as ‘stupid’ I was flabbergasted. Because the dog had not learned not to be afraid of things, the owner assumed it was due to a lack of intelligence on their dog’s part. Just because public speaking isn’t your ‘thing’ doesn’t make you an idiot.

Snarling dogs can look mean and aggressive, but when you understand the underlying emotion, their behavior can be assessed in a very different light. If every time you had politely asked to be left alone, and you weren’t, should you be faulted for raising your voice? What is viewed as ‘stubborness’ in a dog may be an indication of the lack of skills to perform certain behaviors, or the inability to perform them because fear prevents them. Imagine being labeled ‘stubborn’ because you refused to lie down amidst a writhing mass of snakes (even non-poisonous ones!).

The next time you find yourself upset or frustrated with a dog (or even a human!), changing the way you think about their behavior will change the way you behave, and sometimes that’s what really needs to happen.

Be the change!

cartoon televison

Does your town have a local cable or community access channel? If so you may be able to produce films for it! I created a short film about Daphne a dog that has spent too much time at our local shelter. She needs a home and this happy and clever dog deserves to be seen!

Here’s Daphne’s video which will be airing in Brattleboro, Vermont and surrounding towns.

These video shorts also make great additions to a shelter’s website. They’re easy and fun to make, and may change an animal’s life.

When in doubt, bail out!

man paddling a yellow kayak in white waterOver the years I have instructed people in a variety of skills. I was a life guard and swim instructor and have taught white water canoeing and how to roll a whitewater kayak. I’ve introduced people to the joys of cross-country skiing and rock climbing. Several of my young relatives learned to drive a stick shift in my vehicles.

The instruction for each of these activities began in situations in which the student was most likely to be successful, and if they were not, their safety and the safety of those around them was ensured. It makes little sense to put a new driver behind the wheel and send them onto the highway, when an empty parking lot is available.

As skills are mastered the conditions for performance change. After someone is comfortable rolling their kayak in a heated pool we’d head out to a pond, or flat stretch of river. Psychologically this has an impact on a student, even if the level of difficulty has not changed. They can keep on their mask and nose clip if they prefer for comfort’s sake, but the shock of cold water, and just being in water that seems less predictable (there may be fish or rocks to contend with) will raise their level of stress. If the additional stress they experience is still tolerable, their learning curve should continue to climb. If not, they may not be able to perform whatever skills they already learned, and would not be expected to learn any new ones.

Before I even teach someone how to roll a kayak or paddle a canoe, the first skill students learn is one which is easy to perform and will be their ‘fall back’ skill in the event they are unable to perform the rolling or paddling skills they are practicing. People learning to swim will be able to grab on to the side of the pool, or put their feet down. Drivers learn how to brake.

Should they find themselves in literally ‘over their head’ a kayak paddler has the option of popping their spray skirt and floating out of their boat and swimming to shore (hopefully while hanging on to both their boat and paddle). Up until now the spray skirt has kept water out of the kayak and the paddler from sliding out of the boat. By grabbing hold of a loop at the front of the skirt and pulling, the spray skirt disconnects from around the cockpit and the paddler can lean forward and push themselves out of an upside down boat. It’s a skill that requires very little practice for a boater to become proficient at. The inclination to get out of a boat that is tipped upside down is about as natural a response as you can get. In fact learning to hang out upside down is a skill that needs to be practiced in order to roll efficiently.

When working with a fearful dog, a ‘bail out’ move should be among some of the first behaviors they learn. Our goal is usually to get our dogs to be able to move toward or interact with their triggers, but they need to be prepared to respond to situations in which they are too stressed or over their skill level. Practicing moving away from triggers can be like popping out of a kayak, since it’s something that many fearful dogs want to do anyway, it’s easy for them to learn and when super stressed, can perform with little thought.

Practice bail out moves with your dog before they find themselves struggling and too stressed to think.

Cause I said so!

2 black dogs holding the same frisbeeOne of my favorite podcasts is the Brain Science Podcast hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell an emergency room doctor in Alabama. Described as the show for ‘everyone with a brain’, Dr. Campbell interviews authors of books on neuroscience. Of special interest to me was her interview of Jaak Panksepp on affective neuroscience. Dog lovers will appreciate her interview with Kyla Duffy of Happy Tails Books, in her other podcast, Books & Ideas. Kyla is a circus arts performer who takes her high flying act on the road to raise awareness and money for animal rescue, as well as publishing books with stories about rescued dogs.

The latest Brain Science Podcast (BSP 70) is an interview with Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, co-author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. The conversation focused on the fact that scientific reasoning and critical thinking do NOT come naturally. Instead, we all tend to make similar errors, such as mistaking correlation for causation.

Those of working with dogs would do well to make note of this tendency since it happens all the time when we are trying to change behaviors in dogs, as well as trying to figure out why something is successful, or not. I am reminded of a comment made by John Rogerson, a well known trainer from the U.K., who said, “We have all the theories, dogs have all the facts.”

When we are able to stop or change a behavior, it is easy to assume that whatever we did, just prior to the change is responsible for it. However dogs often learn despite what we do, not because of what we do. For example, the unfortunate practice of ‘dominating’ a dog with the use of physical force, is often heralded for producing miraculous changes in a dog’s behavior because of its relation to how wolves and dogs communicate within their own social groups. Yet when we look at the research that has been done, we find that the norm for dogs and wolves is not a social hierarchy maintained through the use of force or aggression. This is not to say that they don’t behave aggressively or that fights over resources do not occur, but that social order is, for the most part, maintained through social conduct which is cooperative rather than competitive.

When we assume that a dog changes their behavior to suit our preference because in the course of ‘dominating’ them we have gained their respect as leader of the pack, we need to consider that what we might have accomplished instead was to have caused the dog to fear us. While fear of retribution or punishment is a popular way of maintaining social order, governments and gangs use it quite effectively, is it really the relationship we want to have with our dogs? Dr. Robert Zapolsky documents how living with constant stress contributes to illness, and that stress can be psychological, as well as physical. The threat of punishment, especially if it is used routinely to manage or control behavior can add to the stress a dog is already experiencing.

We’d expect a chuckle if we were to claim that our dog’s ability to perform well on an agility course was due to the ‘lucky’ red undies we were wearing. Yet again and again we hear theories on why dogs perform behaviors, theories which have no basis in fact. While there are vast areas of animal behavior that we do not have science-based research on, there are many areas in which we do.

While this is not a call for solely using rigid science-based techniques when training dogs, it should be a reminder that interacting with our dogs in ways that we perceive to be the same as the ways they communicate with each other, may not work for the reasons we think they do. Wearing our lucky red undies when training may be the safer bet.

Fear & anger are shocking enough!

timid dog grinning at vet

Do you know what this dog is saying? Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe KS

The use of punishment, of any kind, for cases of fear and aggression is contraindicated, meaning the risk of making the situation worse is greater than potential benefit. The idea that you can slap someone across the face and have them come to their senses is the stuff of old movies. Try it with a person and then be ready to duck while you’re waiting to hear, “Gee thanks I needed that,” when instead they take swing back at you.

If a shock collar or other means of punishment is needed to interrupt a commonly occurring problem behavior the solution begins by keeping a dog out of any situation in which the behavior is likely to be displayed. Changing responses, especially responses that are the result of an overwhelming emotion, is slow going. So while it is possible to manage a dog’s behavior using punishment*, the emotional response does not go away and may intensify. A dog that has been managed with positive punishment around its triggers** often will, when given the chance (and these chances occur more than we’d like), revert back to his original response to the trigger.

Studies that looked at anger and violent behavior in children found that kids exposed to violence or trauma themselves are more prone to angry outbursts or have what we’d call ‘short fuses’. The reason lies in the very real changes that occur in brains that have to process fear, pain and trauma.

Few would argue that it makes sense to punish a dog that is cowering and hiding. The problem arises when the dog’s response looks less like fear and more like anger. While we may never know exactly how a dog might discriminate between their emotions, punishing a dog that is behaving aggressively because they are afraid, doesn’t make sense either.

I know how it feels to be on the other end of the leash with a dog that is doing its best to imitate Cujo, and the emotional rush I get does little to help me remain calm and think rationally. I want the behavior to stop and may also be scared or angry and my ‘gut’ response is to just get the dog to ‘KNOCK IT OFF!’. This is only a stop gap measure, for permanent positive change to occur I have to work with the dog, get the dog to draw on her own resources and internal controls, rather than continually having to control her outbursts myself.

When upset or aroused, anything which adds stimulation to the dog’s experience can backfire.

Here’s a story about a man who killed another man because of their dogs’ tangled leashes. According to the story, what appears to have been the final trigger that led to the fatal stabbing occurred when the victim put his hand on the other man’s wife’s arm, in way, which as it is described, was nonviolent and nonthreatening. But the fellow with the knife was upset. He was angry and already aroused due to the previous interactions he had. Surely he ‘knew’ that using violence against someone was wrong, he’d been punished for it in the past (served jail time). Yet one man had his throat slashed and another was killed. Why? Because a couple of little dogs got their leashes tangled? Doesn’t make sense does it?

And that is the point. Sense was not involved.

In order for our dogs to learn what it is we are trying to teach them they need to be able to ‘make sense’ of what is happening to them. An upset, over threshold dog has a hard time seeing the dots we’ve laid out for them, never mind connecting them. But herein lies the beauty of working with dogs. If we don’t want our dogs out barhopping at midnight, it’s easy to control that.

If we are going to change behaviors which are based on powerful emotional responses we have to work on changing the emotional response in order to guarantee, with any kind of success, that the alternate behavior we want will be reliable. Classical counter conditioning and desensitization are effective and safe techniques to use for making this happen.

Having reasonable expectations for our dog’s behavior is important. The reasons for their fear may be such that they are not easily modified. Medication can help the process along with desensitization and counter conditioning, but in the end a dog might always prefer the life of a country mouse.

How much an owner is willing or able to modify their dog’s environment is a component of how successful a dog can become. A dog can be walked during quieter hours of the day or night and they don’t have to join their owner in the pet shop. Strangers or other dogs can be kept away.

It takes time and energy to change the behavior of a fearful or reactive dog. Just because we can put a device on a dog to control their behavior, doesn’t mean that we should. The best controller of a dog’s behavior is the dog herself. Together with our dogs we can help them gain the skills and confidence to navigate their world so we can both enjoy ourselves when we’re out in it.

*Punishment is any consequence that makes it less likely for a behavior to be repeated. Positive punishment refers to ‘adding’ something to the situation, like a collar jerk, a shout, or hit. Negative punishment refers to the ‘taking away’ of something to stop the unwanted behavior, for example a dog that resource guards its owner learns that the owner gets up and leave whenever the guarding behavior occurs.

**The things that cause the dog to behave in a way that appears to be fearful or aggressive

This post was written in connection with the Never Shock A Puppy Campaign which has some great prizes available this week. Check it out!

Nana’s purse

cartoon drawing of a purseWhen I was a kid my grandmother carried a purse with her, all the time. It may have been one of many but likely a huge vinyl affair that she could drop a gallon of milk into. It had a handle for dangling off her arm (shoulder bags had yet to make the scene) and a change purse clasp on the top, two metal balls that clicked together and apart in a satisfying way. Inside the purse were all kinds of bits and bobs that seemed mysterious and grown up to me. Lipstick tubes with round mirrors attached, pens embossed with the name of insurance companies, tiny vials of saccharine tablets with their own mini tweezers for dispensing, embroidered handkerchiefs and best of all, crackly, cellophane wrapped hard candies.

When I was with my grandmother, in the backseat of our car or at a table for a family function, I knew if I stared at it long enough my grandmother would open her purse and ask me if I wanted a ‘sucker’. After a minute of digging around her hand would appear out of the purse holding an oval butterscotch Brachs candy, twisted in a piece of yellow cellophane. Or it might have been a round ball of ice blue mint or red & white swirled peppermint, and rarely, but by far my favorite, was the root beer barrel that you had to be careful to suck the hard edges off so as not to cut the roof of your mouth. When there was little left to suck on I crunched them into my teeth ensuring that our dentist would be able to put another of his kids through college.

They say that in the end we all become our mothers (or fathers) but in regard to treats I may have become my grandmother. When out on our woods walks I am more than willing to dig around through the lint in my pockets for one last piece of kibble when a dog bounds up to me. I know they are still happy to be with me, even if all I can come up with is lint.