Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Does this feel good?

black and white dog with basketballMy preference is not to use physical manipulation when working with dogs, but I will gladly employ emotional manipulation. One of the things a fearful, anxious or shy dog’s brain is good at is reacting in a fearful way. The practice of bullying or punishing a dog for inappropriate fearful behavior only helps their already adept-at-feeling-scared brains, keep feeling scared or aggressive. By tapping into their brain’s reward system we not only help them learn new behaviors, we can begin to manipulate them emotionally. We start helping their brains get better at feeling good.

Our brain’s reward system has so much control over our behavior that we can end up doing too much of a good thing. Eating, drinking, smoking, exercising, sex, even working can all be rewarding to people and taken to unhealthy extremes. When working with dogs the most obvious reward we can start with is food and no need to worry about them raiding the refrigerator at night for that last piece of cheesecake. When we control the rewards that our dogs value, we become part of the ‘chain of feel good’ that we use to train and modify behavior.

By systematically creating conditioned reinforcers (reinforcers increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated) we have a grab bag full of ways to change how our dogs feel. A conditioned reinforcer is anything that has been associated with a primary reinforcer (food and play are both primary reinforcers). I like to start with a clicker with dogs that are not sensitive to the sound. Click/food, click/food, click/food. Down the line the clicker morphs into a great training tool, but to begin with it helps to change how a dog feels. Saying a dog’s name and tossing them a treat turns their name into a conditioned reinforcer. Praising a dog and tossing a ball, makes praise a conditioned reinforcer. Studies have shown that the ‘anticipation’ of a reward causes more dopamine (our brain’s ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) to be released than the reward itself. That’s pretty cool beans if you ask me.

If you are adverse to using food when working with fearful dogs, or any dog for that matter, I recommend that you read The End of Overeating, by David Kessler. The first half of the book looks at studies done with animals regarding food, motivation and performance. Written to address weight loss, the book makes a case for just how powerful food is for controlling our behavior. If we control our dog’s food, we control the behavior.

There is a new book out called The Compass of Pleasure which looks at the neurobiology of our brain’s reward system. I’m looking forward to reading it, which is pretty rewarding. You help fearful dogs by giving them things to look forward to, rather than worry about.


Crates: A good thing gone bad

black and white dog in a crate

Sunny crated after knee surgery

You might wonder why I am choosing to go on a rant about crates (this is a warning that a bit of a rant is headed your way). In an attempt for full disclosure- I have a wire crate with the door closed, behind me with a puppy snoozing in it. Crates can help with housetraining and transporting dogs. They can keep our houses safe when we aren’t around to manage a destructive dog. A crate can provide a refuge for a fearful dog. My crate was providing a place where the pup could chew on a bone without having a bigger, bone stealing dog, bother him.

What I wonder is when did it become acceptable to confine an animal for most of a day, and why do we think they’d be happy with it? “My dog loves his crate!” you say, and so he should, but it is my contention that the overuse or misuse of crates is contributing to many of the behavioral problems owners and trainers are experiencing. Want a puppy? Be sure you have a crate! Work 12 hours a day? No problem, get a crate! Have a young, developing dog who is exploring his world with his mouth? No worries, get a crate! Need some time to relax and not deal with a dog seeking attention? Stick him in a crate! Housetraining a puppy and don’t want to risk your carpets? Confine her to a crate!

Young dogs can suffer the most from excessive confinement. While their brains are developing, instead of exploring and learning lessons from the world and other dogs, they are stuck in a crate. One of the most frustrating questions I am asked is how to stop a dog from barking while left alone in a crate, especially when they are left for far too long. Dogs are social animals and being left alone can be scary. I realize that it is flippant and unrealistic in many cases telling someone that not leaving a dog in a crate is a good way to stop them from barking when they’re in it. People have chosen a dog and do not have the time needed to adequately address their needs, and have a houseful of shoes and table legs they prefer not to have chewed. So now what? Let the punishment begin! Spray the dog, put a bark collar on it, throw things at the crate, yell at the dog. It’s the beginning of a downward spiral.

As for loving their crates-I love curling up in my bed with a good book, but not for 16 hours out of 24. I’d especially be unhappy about not being able to do more than just stand up and turn around while I was in it for that much time. If there were other dogs or people in the kitchen or playing games in the living room, I’d probably want out. If I heard a spooky noise coming from the basement I’d probably want the option to either check it out or get the heck out of the house. To make it worse if I had no way of knowing (as young, inexperienced dogs don’t) that my confinement was limited I might begin to become stressed and anxious when I had moments of really wanting OUT and had no idea when or if that was going to happen soon enough for my liking. The alternatives of being tied up outside or left alone in a fenced in yard is not much better and can lead to an array of behavioral problems.

The lack of exposure to novelty is one of the leading causes of fear based behaviors in dogs. It is during their early months when this exposure is key to the development of tolerance and resiliency. Puppies who do not have the opportunity to have social interactions with other dogs, children, men with beards and hats, can become fearful or aggressive.

Keep your crate but use it thoughtfully. Plan crate time for when a dog is most likely to appreciate it. Build a dog’s comfort with their crate by making it a place of good things and allow the dog the choice to leave BEFORE they become upset and have bad associations with it. Most of all, be realistic in your expectations for these fabulous, sensitive creatures we choose to share our lives with and who don’t have much choice in the matter themselves.

Kiss it and make it better

small black dog with 3 quills in his nose

Sometimes you run into porcupines but it's still worth running

Have you ever stopped to think about the totally unhygienic practice parents have of kissing boo-boos to make them better? Ever thought about how a little TLC can turn a tight-fisted, red-faced, teary-eyed toddler into a pouty, head nodding, ice cream eating miniature human again? If you live with a fearful dog you should.

I have been living with a 4 month old puppy for the past two weeks. Tooie is a fabulous little dog, showing all the resiliency, tolerance and confidence that make a good puppy a great dog. My dog Sunny, an adult male who grew up in an enclosed area with numerous dogs has a set of rules for young dogs that at times I marvel at and other times cringe about. Overall Sunny enjoys other dogs, he likes to play and after any ritualized displays of just how tough he could be, he switches to Mr. Hyde in a blink of an eye and begs to be chased. Sunny teaches young dogs to take no for an answer and to learn to pay attention to what other dogs are saying-

“I really mean it, you should not come any closer while I chew this bone.”

Sometimes his rebukes are a bit harsh for a small pup and when this happens puppy runs off whimpering and seeks me out. Many social animals seek solace and comfort with trusted friends or relatives when they have been scared or stressed. Humans hug, we pat backs, we whisper soothing words. This ‘social buffering’ does more than just provide momentary relief. By helping to reduce the fear and anxiety the dog is feeling, stress hormone levels decrease. Tooie is learning that sometimes other dogs do things that hurt or scare him and it’s not all that bad. Life goes on. I’m not suggesting that we should allow other dogs to hurt or scare our dogs, but when something happens that frightens a dog it’s ok to offer them comfort and support. It may even make it easier for them to deal with scary things in the future.

When something scares your fearful dog, don’t leave them flapping in the breeze. Do what you need to to get them back to an emotional comfort level. Getting back on the horse is easier when you know you have someone there to give you a leg up.

No, I am NOT OK

Despite thousands of years of coexistence humans are, for the most part, surprisingly inept at understanding their dogs’ language, a language which is largely physical. Dogs, for the most part, are whizzes at knowing when they need to wag and suck up, or turn tail and get the heck out of dodge when it comes to interacting with people. Problems arise when the cultures clash and what a person means is not what they say or what a person hears is not what their dog is shouting at them. Often the problems are minor and easily corrected. Others are not so minor and the dog usually suffers the brunt of the solution.

My nephew and his wife were visiting, I was hoping bells would ring and birds would sing when they met Tooie, my current foster dog. Both dog lovers, I knew Tooie would be in a good home were they to want him. Tooie is a sturdy, resilient pup of 5 months or so. During a walk my nephew called him and Tooie raced up next to him looking up expectantly. My nephew reached down and gave him nice head tussling in return. The next time he called Tooie, the dog did not race up to him. That head rub was not something the little dog wanted to repeat. Obvious to me as I watched it all play out, but perhaps not so obvious to a pet owner who thinks they are doing one thing, but in the dog’s eyes, it’s another.

I was briefly involved with a group of chihuahuas who were rescued from a breeder. A number of the dogs were shy and fearful. One, a black, long-haired cutie, who showed promise for picking up skills, was being fostered in a home with a mom and two young daughters. When questioned about how the dog was doing after her arrival in their home, the mom responded that she thought the dog was doing well. The next day the dog fled through an open window and has not been seen since.

What can look ‘ok’ to a person might be a dog who when given the chance would choose to jump off a bridge to escape from their suffering. Shut-down and scared can look a lot like calm and submissive if you get your dog reading information from bad TV programs. A dog may be able and willing to explore and sniff but still not be happy being where they are. When Sunny finally was able to get himself off the floor of the backseat of the car and stick his head out the window I was sure he was relishing the breeze until he stepped on the window control and jumped out. Had he been plotting an escape the whole time I thought he was enjoying himself?

A scared, shy dog who does not behave aggressively is often forced to do more than a dog who has long since learned to put his foot down (and bare his teeth) and insist to be left alone. This doesn’t mean they are prepared for more. Dogs’ body language can be subtle, but when you know what to look for, it’s clear and obvious. Learn to read your dog and when you do, believe what they are telling you.

Give them a life

small black dog with 3 porcupine quills in his nose

Tooie learns about porcupines

During a recent trip to Puerto Rico with a group of students I was asked if I would take home a small, black, stray dog, named Tooie. Tooie had been found wandering on Highway 200 (hence the name) on the island of Vieques. At approximately 4 months of age and weighing 16lbs Tooie is a classic ‘sato’. My initial hesitation to bring back a dog changed to willingness once I met Tooie. Even when surrounded by a group of cooing teenagers Tooie behaved with the right amount of wariness, appeasement, interest and enthusiasm. This was not a dog with ‘issues’ that I would feel uncomfortable asking someone to ‘deal’ with.

My guess is that Tooie was born to a family pet and not long before he was found wandering, the litter, and maybe mom along with them, was abandoned to fend for themselves. It happens a lot. At some point during his early life he had learned that people were worth hanging around and he showed no reluctance to being handled. He did show a remarkable ability to adjust to situations. He was excited to engage when played with, but when the playing stopped would plop himself down and rest quietly or head off in pursuit of a leaf or lizard.

Here in my home in Vermont Tooie is proving to be a delight of a puppy, even if he does manage to find every pair of shoes in the house to trot around with and chew. He’s easily distracted, just as happy with a piece of kindling as a shoe, and takes his licks from Sunny the resident ‘older male’ who is teaching Tooie to mind his manners with other dogs. Despite having a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ early life, Tooie is no worse for the wear.

My friend Deb T. says that every trainer should have a puppy to be reminded of what their clients are going through. And although I now understand the value of having countless chew toys in the house, even bigger lessons for me have been, 1) to quote Pat Miller, “the power of positive training” and 2) the benefits of having a life. People often say that street dogs are wonderful dogs to live with because they ‘are grateful’. They may feel gratitude, but what I think contributes more to their ability to be such good pets is that they have been problem solving from a young age. They have not spent hours a day confined to a crate or kennel during the most important stages of development. They have had to negotiate with other dogs and they have perfected the skill of separating a person from their sandwich.

The idea that someone would feel the need or desire to put an electronic (shock) collar on a puppy mystifies and distresses me. That anyone would resort to corporal punishment to train a creature evolved to live in close contact with us, work for and with us, is equally distressing. It’s understandable, but nonetheless distressing. Puppies can be a nuisance, their joie de vivre is often only endearing to a point. Teaching a dog which behaviors we need from them often requires more patience and skill than many of us have, or are willing to devote to the process of rearing a puppy. Our homes are full of ‘valuables’ that look like playthings to a puppy and our days are full of obligations. We can be satisfied with simply stopping a dog from doing something we don’t like, however the consequences of how we do that inevitably show up down the road. The lack of training and the use of inappropriate training techniques provide the mainstay of many dog trainers’ businesses.

During an earlier visit to Puerto Rico I was asked to take a dog back home with me but seeing that he was shy I declined. The dog was living on the grounds of a hotel whose owner was involved in animal rescue. He was not tied or confined. He had other dogs and cats to interact with. There were people coming and going who he could choose, or not, to greet. He may not have had a couch to curl up on at night, but he had a life and I was not inclined to take that away from him in exchange for a crate and a tie-out.

Deal with the dread

worried looking boxer dog

Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

William James, a 19th century psychologist described his anxiety in this way:

“A horrible dread at the pit of my stomach….a sense of the insecurity of life.”

We cannot know for sure if dogs experience dread but anyone walking into a vet clinic with a dog who would rather not be there has surely seen what could be described as a dog anticipating something unpleasant, dreading what is to come.

A dog who cowers and resists being put on leash may not be concerned about the leash itself, but what the leash predicts- exposure to things or situations the dog is afraid of. When people ask my fearful dog Sunny’s name I may tell them, but ask them not to use it. I have also told people his name is ‘Bosco’. For a people-fearful dog being spoken to predicts a social interaction with which the dog is not comfortable. When a dog hears their name they may begin to ‘dread’ what is going to happen next. In my dog’s case, ‘Bosco’ means nothing to him and if I suspect someone is not going to be able to follow my instructions regarding not talking to him, if they use Bosco, he is less likely to have a negative response on hearing it. It means nothing to him.

In order to help a dog learn to cope with and even feel good about something we have to address their fear and concern early on, when the dread begins, and then take a step back. Our ability to feel comfortable and confident improves as we learn to become proficient at a task or skill. A child won’t learn to swim if they are afraid to put their feet in the water. So we start by helping them to learn to do that. As they become proficient at entering the water we can slowly add to and increase the skills they need in order to swim. A dog who learns to put one foot on a step or take 2 steps up an a-frame may cease to dread approaching stairs or the agility obstacle. We allow the dog to practice just this simple behavior, moving away and returning to practice it again.

The challenge for most of us and our dogs is our sense of urgency for completing a behavior. We adopt a dog afraid of moving through hallways and because we live in an apartment building expect that the dog is going to learn to be comfortable immediately. We need them to be in order to take them outside. We bring home a puppy who has never been left on their own and plop them in a crate for hours at a time and expect they will quickly discover the joys of solitude because we have to go to work on Monday morning. We would not be foolish enough to assume that just because we’re going on holiday to the beach in two weeks that a non-swimmer is going to learn to become proficient enough at swimming so they’ll be comfortable and safe in the waves, just because WE need them to be.

When dealing with fears and anxiety follow the chain of experiences back and start by addressing the dread. We can’t force skills on a dog, but we can help them to want to learn them.

Who’s it working for?

small black dog

Toohey is a street dog from Vieques

When it comes to talking about dog training there is no shortage of debate regarding which methods ‘work’ best. Some people suggest that they all ‘work’ and that we should either take advantage of them all or at least stop arguing about them. I am referring to reward based training vs. what is being called ‘traditional’ training which incorporates punishment (positive punishment for the trainers in the audience), aka ‘corrections’. My biggest gripe with this discussion is that like the word ‘leader’ the word ‘work’ means nothing because it could mean anything. When someone tells me that a training method ‘works’ my question is, “For who?”

Some would say that so long as a technique keeps a dog in a home it ‘worked’. And although it’s an important gauge of success, it’s the lowest rung on the ladder as far as I’m concerned. It may be the first step and a necessary one but the foundation laid is going to determine whether more height is gained. Those gains should include a higher quality of life for both the owner and dog and being routinely subjected to reprimands and physical punishment is not on my list of quality of life goals.

In May of 2012 I hope to bring a group of dog trainers on a volunteer vacation to the islands of Puerto Rico and Vieques where we will offer free or low cost classes to local pet owners. I want the techniques we use to demonstrate TOTALLY force/intimidation-free, non-manipulative training techniques. Even if the use of corrections and physical manipulation ‘work’ to teach dogs new behaviors the more important behavior that needs to be changed is that of the handler.

As a species we humans seem to easily slide down the slope of excess. When given the bag we find it difficult to stop with just one potato chip. Giving the keys to a high tech racing car to a teenager would not be a good idea, the chance of the car being used inappropriately is great. Or because it is a race car, even if it is used as intended it would put the driver and others on the road at risk. We don’t hand sharp knives to toddlers either. The more risk a technique poses the less it should be used by unskilled handlers. It is far too easy for us to become angry or frustrated when faced with noncompliance in a dog. At that point it becomes a challenge to not speak too severely or tug a bit too forcefully.

Showing people how to properly use corrections assumes that the handler is able to correctly assess the reason for the lack of compliance, and I’m not sure many pet owners can do so accurately. Is a dog not sitting because they don’t understand the cue or because their hips ache? Are they peeing on the floor because they have a urinary track infection, are anxious, marking or because they are not housebroken?

Cultural attitudes toward animals are slow to change but I’d like to contribute to the process by showing pet owners in Puerto Rico that dogs learn faster when they are rewarded for doing the right things as opposed to being punished for doing the wrong ones. If you’d like to join me, please let me know. And as a reward you’ll also get to visit a few of my favorite locations including a funky rainforest reserve, Old San Juan, white sand beaches and one of the planet’s most awesome spectacles, a bioluminescent bay.