Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

Sunny & The Kid

boy playing with black dog in a pondSunny is my dog with the most fear based behavior challenges. For short I call him my ‘fearful’ dog. It’s not an accurate description of him, because he is so much more than just fearful, in good ways and bad, but when managing him around people, it’s the easiest label to slap on him. It’s either that or, ‘he’s not right in the head’, which is also true, but I like even less.

There are few people that Sunny sees and doesn’t feel frightened by. I can count them on one hand, and not need to include my thumb. This summer we added one more friend to the list, soon I’ll need that thumb.

I have spent the past two months in Plymouth MA at a lovely lake where the dogs and I have had a blast, as we say around here. The biggest challenge, other than dirty, wet dogs messing up the carpet in someone else’s home, has been their barking. At our home in Vermont there are no neighbors to worry about bothering, and not many people going by to cause the dogs to bark. It’s been a different story here. Next year I’ll have a better fence system.

One afternoon I noticed that their barking was instigated by a young boy who lives across the road. He barked, they barked. I was not pleased, but I’d rather have good relations with people who live near me, especially those whose prefrontal cortices are still developing (there’s no telling what kids will do when they are upset with someone), so I headed to the gate with clicker and treats in hand. Spying me the boy stopped barking, anticipating that I was going to tell him off, but I called out to him to keep it up. “Bark again!” I shouted. Boy barked, I clicked and treated the dogs. “Again!” Soon the barking boy was all but ignored for the click and treats. Realizing he wasn’t ‘in trouble’ he came over and asked if he could play with the dogs. I had reservations, primarily about Sunny, but invited him in.

I handed the boy my treat pouch and instructed him to toss treats to the dogs. Soon he was encouraging them to do their tricks and was thrilled when any of them came up and took a treat from his hand. Finn had a new frisbee tosser and Annie was beside herself having the opportunity to throw out all of her tricks for treats. The boy’s visits became daily events and long story short, as they say, Sunny is happily excited to see him. Here’s why I think it’s gone as well as it has-

1. The boy respects Sunny’s space. I was very clear about this and explained how he should behave with Sunny. During one of his early visits Sunny scared him, doing exactly what I was worried he’d do, one of those charging BOOFS! that makes your heart skip a beat. I wish it could have been avoided but it may have been a good thing. Sunny can seem like a playful, happy dog and many people do not appreciate how easily startled he can be. The boy saw this and became more thoughtful in regard to his interactions with him. My admonishments to this effect were not enough to get the point across, it was something he needed to ‘feel’ was important in order to comply. His own amygdala sorted that one out for me.

2. There was a lot of good stuff going on. Along with tossing treats and asking for tricks, the boy threw frisbees, balls, sticks, stones into the water and generally provided a fun diversion for the dogs whenever he came over.

3. It happened a lot. Sunny needs lots of positive interactions with things that scare him to change that feeling. The boy’s daily visits lasted on average for an hour. During that hour there were countless playful interactions between the two of them. Sometimes Sunny moved away from the boy, but mostly he moved toward him. Sunny was visibly let down when the boy headed out of the gate for home each day.

4. Other than for vetting and grooming Sunny has not had people try to touch him. He can predict that strangers are not likelyboy playing with dogs in a pond to do the thing he is most afraid of- making contact with him. He can relax around people, to a degree.

5. Play is hugely rewarding to Sunny. Scared dogs brains can become very efficient at ‘feeling’ fear. I wanted to help his brain get better at feeling good. To do this I used food and play. The pleasure Sunny gets from chasing balls outweighs the concern he feels about the person tossing them.

We’ll be leaving here in a few days and I’ll miss my daily swims in the lake and I know Sunny is going to miss the kid.


A Rose By Any Other Name?

Is this a dominance hierarchy or bunk bed?

They say a rose by any other name is still a rose, unless if you’re naming it ‘tulip’ I won’t know what you are describing. We may both understand that you are talking about a flower, but if you are ordering a dozen roses and ask for tulips you’ll be in for a big surprise when they arrive.

We look at animals and come up with ways to describe and define what we observe. It’s important and helpful work. When we look at wolves and then at dogs we come to conclusions about what is going on among them. The terms we use and the conclusions we come to may be right on, or not. We may be talking about behavior between animals, but if we label something ‘dominance’ and it’s actually ‘fear’ our response to the animal’s behavior may get us a result that surprises us. Or worse, angers us.

Different cultures perceive things differently. This is most obvious when it comes to food preferences. Offer a Nepali a cup of salty tea made with yak milk and chances are good their brains will register that something good is on its way. Hand a steaming cup to someone from the UK and they’ll be challenged to suppress a grimace at first sip. These differences do not end with food. Brains learn to prefer all kinds of things over other things. There are studies which found that American brains register ideas of ‘dominance’ more rewarding than do the brains of people from Japan. Their brains register concepts of ‘submission’ more rewarding. It’s difficult to read about this and not come up with value judgements about which, dominance or submission, is ‘best’. And the culture you come from is likely to affect that conclusion.

Following is a not so uncommon occurrence in our home:

My most fearful dog Sunny is asleep on the floor, somewhere in the path of where I need to travel. As I approach he merely opens his eyes to follow my movement. He does not make any attempt to move out of my way. I step around him.

Is his behavior an indication that he thinks he is dominant to me and doesn’t have to get out of my way or has he simply learned that he doesn’t have to move because I’ve never stepped on him, tripped on him, kicked him or yelled at him in the past when he’s been lying somewhere and I walk toward him?

What if instead of thinking of the social structures among dogs in ways that cause us to feel threatened, as many do when told that their dog is trying to ‘dominate’ them, we thought about each individual within the group having their own traits and inclinations which cause them to behave particular ways. Some are more willing to assert themselves, others more willing to compromise. Some are afraid and behaving aggressively because of it. Others are so excited about something that the last thing on their mind is that you want to go out the door in front of them.

One of the most damaging concepts to come out of pop dog training is the idea of ‘dominance’ being a primary motivator for dogs. Dogs, like other animals, do what works for them. I’m going to guess that few have the same kinds of dreams of power and influence that some people have. Heaven help the dogs who get in their way.

Join me in Santa Cruz CA on September 9, 2012 for a seminar on helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges.

Nibbles Makes A Friend

boy getting a dog to stand on its hind legsIt’s been awhile since I’ve given any updates on Nibbles, so here’s a quickie. Nibs is doing great! He’s still not 100% comfortable with people, and he likes to bark at them too much, but we continue to work on it, and he continues to improve.

This week the dogs made a new friend, a neighbor boy had started barking at the dogs, causing them to go nuts in return. I would simply call the dogs back to the house to end the game. One day I decided to grab my treat pouch and go up and encourage the boy to keep barking while I tossed treats to the dog, decreasing their barking, until the kid could bark and the dogs would just look at me.

boy in a paddleboat splashing a black dogThe boy asked if he could play with the dogs and I let my border collie out of the yard to play frisbee with him, which both loved. The next day I had the boy come into the yard and showed him how to toss treats to the scared dogs, and reward Annie for doing tricks. Later that day the boy returned with some of his left over chicken pot pie to share with the dogs. Today we headed to the waterfront for more games and a good time was had by all. boy rewarding a cocker spaniel standing on a bucket

When you use positive reinforcement for training dogs, especially dogs with any amount of fear of people, you do more than teach them tricks. The dog learns that by offering behaviors to people good things happen. This helps them reframe how they feel about being around people. In this case the human is learning about how to get behaviors from dogs without needing to say a thing.boy with a small black dog bowing at him

Think You’ve Tried Everything To Train Your Dog? Doubt it.

cocker spaniel standing on wooden dog looking down at water

Looking for fish is rewarding to Annie. The fish reinforce this behavior.

Dog trainers hear it all the time- pet owners who have ‘tried everything’ or declare that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work because they’ve tried giving their dog treats and still have not been able to get the behavior they’re after. I can say with 100% certainty that if you are among those ranks that you have NOT tried everything. Everything you have tried might not have worked, but that’s different. It can feel as if you’ve tried everything, but take my word for it, you haven’t. ‘Everything’ is a tall order. You might have tried everything you can think of or have readily at hand.

The use of force, coercion or punishment is often justified because someone has ‘tried’ using positive reinforcement and been unsuccessful. Positive reinforcement works when you find something that is positively reinforcing to the dog. That you have not found what it is, does not negate the method. Even if your dog likes something, finds it rewarding, it may not be reinforcing. For something to be used as reinforcement is has to increase the likelihood that a dog will repeat a behavior in order to get it or make it happen. I may find painting my deck rewarding, it looks good when I’m done, but I do not find painting my deck positively reinforcing. I will only paint it again when faced with the possibility (threat) of having it rot, the embarrassment of having guests see an unattractive, peeling deck or the prospect of paying someone else to do it. I wish I found it positively reinforcing, it might get done more often.

A dog may happily gobble down a treat, wag their tail when you scratch their ears or tell them how marvelous they are, or gladly chase a ball, but not find any of these to be reinforcement for the behavior you are after. Or they might. My own dogs will perform some behaviors, but not all, for a food treat. And this is always subject to change. Anyone who has decided to join a gym may have had to play all kinds of tricks with themselves to get the habit started. These tricks often include some kind of reward, a favorite coffee drink after a workout or a new pair of sneakers or clothing. If the ‘going to the gym’ behavior is repeated often enough you might discover that you no longer need the reward to perform the behavior. You go for the sake of going and the workout has become rewarding, and reinforcing, in and of itself. Or whatever you were using to reward yourself no longer is enough and you need to change it in order to keep up the ‘going to the gym’ behavior.

Dog trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement techniques to build, shape or create behaviors think of themselves as detectives. We know, like someone investigating a murder that even though we don’t know who the murderer is, one exists. We know that if a behavior continues to be repeated, ‘something’ is reinforcing it. We also know that if we are having trouble getting a behavior to be repeated, we have not discovered what is reinforcing to the dog. If we decide to use a form of punishment to stop a behavior we are aware that unless we give the dog something else to do to replace the unwanted behavior we are likely to either get the unwanted behavior again, or end up with a stressed out dog who doesn’t know what to do for fear of being punished. When this happens we can see all kinds of bad behavior emerge, and unfortunately it’s a downward spiral if more punishment is applied to end these as well.

The next time you find yourself throwing up your hands in frustration, believing that you’ve tried everything, try contacting a trainer with experience in positive reinforcement and behavior modification. Good trainers see problem behaviors as puzzles to be solved, not confrontations to be won.


Of Wolves and Women

black wolf standing in front of a kneeling womanBack in the early 1980’s I was intent on finding ways to get university credits without actually sitting in a classroom. I discovered study programs which were taught ‘in the field’ and awarded credits toward graduation. I spent months hiking in the Sierra Nevada in California, weeks canoeing rivers in Montana and sweating in Death Valley. My biggest regret to date is that I didn’t participate in a wolf study program because someone told me all you ended up seeing was wolf scat.

On a reading list for one course was Barry Lopez‘s Of Wolves and Men which followed the histories of people’s relationship to and mythology about wolves, and made a case for the conversation of the species. It seemed long overdue that I would visit a place like Wolf Park where I could actually meet, and interact with wolves. A 3-day seminar contrasting the behaviors of wolves and dogs, and the agreement of a friend to join me, tipped the scales, and I sent off a check and booked a flight.

As a dog trainer focusing on fear based behavior challenges I’ve had to consider how current popular attitudes about wolves and their relationships with each other have impacted how dogs are being handled and trained. Notions of ‘pack leaders’ and  ‘alphas’ have been questioned and redefined but for a variety of reasons have been slow to percolate through to the cultural knowledge of the general population.

What I observed at Wolf Park was not only educational, it raised my opinion of dogs, which says a lot since I already hold them in the highest of esteem. This was not because my opinion of wolves was lowered. Never having seen a natural pack of wolves interacting with each other, I didn’t have an opinion. My opinion of dogs went up because of their connection to this extraordinary animal.

The sophistication and fluidity of the emotional responses of wolves was awe inspiring. The wolves appeared to rely on a spectrum of emotions that changed smoothly and rapidly to communicate preference and intent. I was reminded of the difference between our sense of smell and that of canines. With more scent receptors to work with they can detect scents and levels of scents that we cannot even fathom the sensitivity of this ability. Their social interactions seemed to include a constantly changing emotional kaleidoscope, which made human interactions seem bland by comparison.

If our dogs have retained even a fraction of the emotional sensitivity of wolves they must think us brutes in our interactions with them. We ascribe them limited variability in personality, pulling labels from a short list of attributes. And as a trainer friend commented, then we insult them by asserting that they are merely reflections of their almighty human handlers. Certainly our behavior affects theirs, but they have their own ‘souls’ as my friend said, or unique identity, if the religious implication of ‘soul’ is off-putting.

Many of us have been fortunate enough that we are able to take certain things in our lives for granted. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time watching wolves. I am even more fortunate to be able to spend time with dogs who prod me into opening my eyes and mind wider. And who also never fail to remind me to pay attention to what both my heart and gut have to say, even if I’m not listening to anything else.