Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Belly Button Rule

blond haired baby smiling in bathtub

Creating positive associations with water in a safe place

When I was a young child and our family visited a body of water to swim in my parents instituted the the belly button rule. The older, more proficient swimmers could swim out to rafts in the middle of the lake or play in the waves, but the little kids could go no deeper than their belly buttons. If we lost our footing we would be safe and it was deep enough for us to pretend to be swimming. With our hands on the bottom of the lake we could kick our feet, put our faces in the water, blow bubbles, all the skills that one needs in order to swim, for real.

People living with fearful, shy or reactive dogs are often reluctant to limit their dog’s opportunity to go out into the world, for walks or car rides because they feel as though they are depriving their dog of exercise or variety. It’s thoughtful to take a dog’s needs in these areas into consideration, but not if they routinely end up over their belly buttons and have a bad experience because of it.

I remember wanting so badly to be able to swim with the big kids. My father shot Super 8 movies of me putting my entire face into the water and then coming up, wiping the hair and water from my eyes triumphantly. This was a milestone enroute to becoming a swimmer. My parents did not feel guilty that they were limiting my exposure to deeper water. They did not impede my ability to learn when they called me in when I went too deep or my lips turned blue and my fingers wrinkled.

Until a dog has the skills to come into contact with the things that cause them to react negatively, don’t risk them getting in over their heads. I didn’t have to almost drown to learn to learn to swim.


Grab Em By the Dopamine Not the Neck

cartoon of brainI realize it’s a simplistic way of looking at a brain’s reward system, and that’s because of my limitations, not yours dear readers. But if we can sneak our way into our dog’s brain’s reward system we can grab a hold as tenacious as any baseball fan’s in the stands who manages to snatch a foul ball.

It’s glaringly obvious that brains have people and animals doing all sorts of things to feel good, negative consequences be damned. You know that 3pm cup of coffee may keep you up at night, but it tastes so darn good. The credit card is maxed out but whatever you’ve found to buy is so fabulous and you’ve wanted it for so long, and the price is too good to pass up on, so you buy it. The doctor and every magazine you read has encouraged you to eat less fat, sugar and salt, and you know it’s time you did, but somehow you just don’t seem to ever be able to. Rewards are powerful things.

When brains (and I say brains because this is true of so many brains currently on the planet, not just ours or dogs’) anticipate something good is about to happen there’s a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It causes that ‘oh goodie!’ feeling. Then when we get the anticipated reward we get another hit of dopamine, this time it’s not quite as big as the ‘oh goodie!’ hit, but it’s still worth working for. Over and over again. There are ways we can manipulate this process, taking advantage of when and how often rewards are received, and how good they are, to get consistent and reliable behaviors from dogs. That’s what trainers do to get the behaviors they want dogs to perform, over and over again.

There is no shortage of misinformation and controversy about how dogs learn and the most humane and effective ways to train them. One of the most frustrating comments made during the numerous debates on the subject is that the trainers who eschew force, pain and coercion based training are merely jealous of the financial success and notoriety achieved by some of the trainers who don’t. And though I can’t speak for every trainer, my own feelings and experience with other trainers indicate that there’s not much that could be further from the truth.

Professional dog trainers are like professionals in any field. When we see talent and skill we seek to emulate it, and learn from it. We support the trainers who can painlessly teach a range of simple to complex behaviors- whether it’s to an aggressive dog, a tiger, cockatoo or goldfish- by attending their seminars and lectures and purchasing their books and DVDs. We eagerly share their websites and videos with each other and with our clients. We applaud trainers who make the very scientific and ordered mechanics of training look like magic, not combat.

In The Second Sex in which Simone de Beauvoir addresses human history from a feminist perspective she wrote, “All oppression creates a state of war.” Professional dog trainers, the ones who I cheer for, understand that when we use force, pain or the threat of it, to control an animal’s behavior we are not only setting up a very specific dynamic of struggle between us, we are significantly and possibly forever, effecting what a dog can learn. It doesn’t matter if the animal we are interacting with is happily wagging their tail or trying to bite us.

Somewhere along the line many trainers and pet owners have gotten it into their heads that because a dog’s behavior is aggressive it must be taught differently than a dog whose behavior is tolerant and compliant, as though the organism itself no longer works according to what we know about how animals learn. What great trainers understand is that we work with behavior, however that happens to look at the time. We either like it or we don’t, and we know the key to maintaining or eliminating it lies in our ability to keep our hands on the switch controlling the rewards.

The Behavior Sandwich

hamburgerPeople often think of a dog’s behavior in much the same way as they think about a sandwich. It’s usually the meat in the middle that they are most concerned with. But behavior, like a sandwich has more going on than just the filling. What’s around the filling can matter a lot. Imagine going into a deli and ordering ham & cheese on rye and being handed ham & cheese on a sundried tomato wrap. It may not seem like a big deal to some but for others, thanks, but no thanks, it’s not what was ordered.

When we are trying to get a dog to change their behavior, what happens before and after the behavior plays a role in what the behavior looks like. There are some who treat behavior like an open-faced sandwich; the behavior and what follows it. If they can figure out a way to either reward or punish the dog, they’ll get the behavior to increase or stop.

Thinking about what comes before the behavior occurs is often overlooked, or misunderstood by us. It may appear one way to us but what matters most is how it is perceived by the dog. There are many behaviors which would change if we were able to adjust what happens before they occur. And there are many ways we can do this, if we only took a moment or two to think about it. We can adapt the dog’s environment to make it easier for them to do the right thing, and make the wrong behavior require more effort. We can do this without ever having to hurt, scare or startle a dog.

Whether we are trying to get a dog to perform a behavior, or get one to stop, if we think, just stop and think, we will discover that there’s a lot more to choose from than just white or whole wheat.

Words that make me go hmmmmm….

Dogs trainers are veterans when it comes to hearing- “I tried that, it didn’t work.” This is often spoken by a client or potential client who after finally contacting a rewards based trainer explains why they don’t use food rewards. Their immediate assumption is that because they handed a few treats to their dog, and didn’t see an immediate change in the dog’s behavior, using food, or any kind of reward to train, doesn’t work. Clicker trainers also hear it when after picking up a clicker at a pet shop, aiming it at their dog and not getting an appreciable change in their dog’s behavior, an owner declares clicker training to be ineffective. Unfortunately, and disturbingly, there are even trainers who say the same thing.

Are there dogs who are not highly motivated by food? Sure there are, but there are very few so unmotivated that they’ll starve themselves to death. And there may be dogs who are too overwhelmed and scared to either play or eat, but that’s because they are overwhelmed, not because they lack a reward system in their brain. Even if a dog is afraid of the sound a clicker makes, the principles of clicker training can still be applied.

If the underlying principles, in our case, how dogs learn, are sound, then we should be able to take advantage of them. If we can’t, it’s telling us something other than that the principles are wrong. We know that we can make it more likely that a behavior will be repeated, or not, and we know that we can respond in ways to a dog that will either cause an emotional response to become more less intense. Depending on whether we want more or less of a behavior, or the emotion which drives the behavior, we behave i.e., train, accordingly. Good trainers also understand that dogs learn behaviors faster when they are rewarded for doing something right, compared to being punished for doing something wrong.

If you hand someone your keys so they can borrow your car and they return, hand you your keys and say, “Keys don’t work to start cars,” what are the chances you’d nod your head and agree? Not likely I’m guessing. There’s the chance they used the wrong key, or went to the wrong car, or there was no gas in the car or the starter was on the fritz. Or perhaps you have a replacement key that doesn’t fit quite right and requires a ‘special touch’ to get it to work. I rented a car and whenever I left it parked for any length of time it then wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. I wanted a different car, or at least a new battery put in it. It turned out that in this particular car it was possible to remove the key from the ignition when it was in the position that kept the alternator on. Unaware of this I thought I was turning the car off, but was in fact leaving the alternator on and it was draining the battery. I thought I knew how to turn off a car, but in this instance I didn’t.

People try different techniques to change behavior in their dogs. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, how infrequently they question how well they are performing those techniques before claim they don’t work. Don’t throw out the baby, or the treats, with the bathwater.

Grasping the basics

cartoon warrior slaying bowling balls

The clip art I could find to illustrate gladiators were of bulky men slaying bowling balls. Go figure.

Understanding the physiological effects of fear on a dog’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) is not just a bunch of big words tossed out to make me feel smart. Truth be told, it’s sentences like that that make me grateful for spell check.

Fear can cause a dog to become more or LESS aggressive. When frightened, some animals will experience an increase in heart rate, others a decrease. It can vary within species based on the threat. Being less aggressive when frightened has proved to be such an effective response that some animals take it to an extreme. Some will display what is called ‘tonic immobility’- think possums. That ‘calm’ or ‘submissive’ behavior is based less on animal’s psychology and more on an immediate and dire response to a perceived life-threatening situation.

If your own psychology is making you feel proud every time you manage to get an animal to stop trying to escape or defend itself by using force or intimidation you are reveling in the fact that you’ve managed to scare them so thoroughly that another possible life-saving, out of their cognitive control, response has kicked in. Let this sink in for awhile. When we applaud trainers who proudly display this approach, whether on television, youtube or in person, we are not unlike spectators at the arena who cheered on gladiators as they slaughtered unarmed opponents or wild animals.

When I think of it that way, bowling seems like a better option all around.

Would you get on that bus?

cartoon of bus driver in busProfessional dog trainers often seem like a touchy bunch. There’s little we don’t have an opinion on, and a strong one at that. When someone seeks advice on the best way to market themselves as a ‘dog trainer’ boasting of little experience other than growing up with a dog or training their own family pets, it might be best to either step away or put on your flack jacket. But seriously, who can blame us?

Imagine announcing to a group of professional truck or tour bus drivers that you were going to begin selling your services as a driver. You had after all been driving since you were 15 and had ridden in plenty of trucks and buses over the years. There is even the chance that you would be a great driver. But it’s a moot point, in the U.S. anyway, because you would not be allowed to drive without the proper license. No company is going to risk hiring someone without a license and few individuals have a truck or bus sitting around needing a driver. This is not the case for dog trainers. Anyone, and sometimes it seems like everyone, can claim to be a dog trainer, or dog psychologist, or behaviorist, if they are bold enough to stick it on a business card.

You might argue that it’s totally different, an unskilled driver could get someone killed. But it is not that different. When a pet owner contacts a dog trainer and is unsuccessful having their dog’s behavior accurately explained, and given the skills to change unwanted behaviors, dogs die. There are people who will go for a second or third opinion, early attempts at training not getting the desired results or having a trainer decline taking them on as a client (often wisely). Many others will give up or quickly tire of throwing money at the problem.

Certifications and licenses are not a guarantee that a dog trainer is a good one. There’s always going to be a surgeon who graduates at the head of their class, and the ones who don’t. There are dog trainers who hold no certification and are good at what they do. But when it’s time to board that bus, who do you want to see behind the wheel, someone who has proven themselves to have at the very least the minimum level of competency and skill to qualify for a license, or someone who just always enjoyed taking road trips?

Rites & Rituals

Cartoon of dog with party hat and birthday cakePeople like rituals. We have holiday rituals and religious rituals, seasonal rituals and daily hygiene rituals (hopefully). If my dogs are representative of the species in general, I’d say dogs like rituals too. Some rituals make our lives richer and easier, others can get us into trouble. That after dinner cigarette ritual can make quitting tough.

I have created a number of rituals that I practice with my dogs. And as with people, many of their favorite rituals involve food. We have door and gate rituals. When a door or gate is opened treats are passed around. After we’ve stepped out, treats are offered again. Most of the dogs are quick to remind me of this, watching me after I’ve taken a few steps to be sure I haven’t forgotten.

When leashes are taken off treats are handed around. When leashes are snapped on, treats are handed around. Early on in our woods walk there is the ‘hunt for tossed treats’ ritual which also happens to be where the dogs who need to be leashed up when we head off the trail, will be on our return. Dogs who don’t need to be put back on leash are welcome to join us for a bit of food. One of Sunny’s favorite rituals is the daily frisbee tossing my husband engages in on his return home from work. It almost balances out the fact that the scary monster man is back.

All of the rituals I create for my dogs make my life easier. Gathering up my dogs at the end of our woods walk is easy because most have stopped to give one more search to the area where treats were tossed at the start. If I need to leave the house to meet the UPS truck at the end of the driveway I can get out of the door without a crowd of dogs attempting to dash past me so they can tell the dreaded brown truck and driver to bid a hasty retreat.

Call it training if you like, but don’t tell my dogs.

Be here now

view of front of raft going down the Colorado RiverMeditation has never been a complete success or bust for me. I usually come away from attempts at it with a grocery list and the recollection of where I put those papers I need for filing taxes. Although ‘stillness’ is something I readily attain given a lawn chair and some sunshine, this ‘quieting’ the mind stuff isn’t so easy. Over the years I’ve discovered recreations which may not completely silence my inner chatterer, do slow her down.

White water paddling forces me into the moment in a way other activities do not. The attention that needs to be paid and necessity to make quick decisions, help me focus on what I am experiencing at that moment. There is also a soft gaze at the future, at what is ahead. Should I head left or right around that rock? Where will my choice put me? Should I slow down or find a place to stop and catch my breath and assess what’s coming up next? When on unknown waters or facing a challenging rapid, paddlers will stop and get out of their boats and scout the rapid. They’ll weigh their options, which route will be safest? The most fun? If something goes awry where will that put them? And then what?

I don’t get out on rivers as much as I used to and as much as miss the recreation, I miss the level of attention it forced me to practice. I’ve discovered that working with dogs, especially dogs who are not comfortable with people, require a similar kind of effort. It’s important that I accurately assess their behavior. If I make an error in judgment when paddling down a river, mistaking a ‘keeper hole‘ for a bit of white water we can easily float through, I, and my crew may end up having a swim. If I make an error in judgment when assessing a dog I may end up being bitten, or scaring the dog. As with paddling, I am constantly adjusting my responses as the conditions change. To do this effectively I need to 1) know what I am looking at and 2) know the proper response to keep everyone safe.

Entering into a conversation with a dog is exciting, challenging and potentially humbling. The effort put into understanding what I am being told was worth every minute and dollar spent. The energy required to remain present and flexible enough to quickly adapt to changing conditions is invigorating. When I am working with a dog I know that for that period of time I’m not going to be worrying about the mortgage or what’s next on my ‘to do’ list. If I am we may find ourselves somewhere we don’t want to be and there may not be a way to gather up all the pieces that end up floating downstream.