Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Force-Free Trainers! Just Keep Talking!

There are plenty of professionals who are routinely frustrated by the beliefs held by their clients or potential clients. Researchers studying climate change are likely among them. Humans are complicated creatures. On one hand we seem to be capable of stunning thoughts. Whether in the arts or sciences, we can come up with remarkable ideas. On the other hand, we are also bound by a brain that seems to have a mind of its own.

Ask a roomful of people if dogs need pack leaders and I’m going to guess you’ll see more hands raised than not. Why is this? Chances are that the only reason they believe this to be true is because they’ve heard it before. It turns out that we are inclined to believe a statement is true because we’ve heard it before, regardless of whether it is true.

Brain scientists call it the illusion of truth effect. In some cases it may be absolutely benign, believing that when you die you go to heaven doesn’t hurt anyone and likely provides comfort to many. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter (except of course once you’re dead). The problems arise when someone is repeatedly exposed to slogans or edicts which are not true, or should be questioned.

The ray of hope that force-free trainers should see from this is that so long as we keep talking, keep putting information out there about how animals, even snarling, aggressive ones, can be trained without persistent punishment or coercion, people will start to believe it. So don’t despair, just keep talking. We’ve got more than illusion to back us up.


It’s My Party, No Need To Bring Your Own Kool-Aid

don't drink the kool-aid crossed out image of drink jugA year or two back I posted a blog about Cesar Millan and discovered that there is a group of Dog Whisperer Ambassadors. They are either a fan club or a social media marketing arm of somebody invested in Mr. Millan’s success. They sniff out comments and articles criticizing him and go to work explaining why those who have not jumped on the whispering bandwagon are missing the point, a point, some point, his point I guess. There are also the devotees who participate in these attempts to enlighten the disbelieving masses for reasons of their own.

I created this blog to help people and the dogs they were struggling to live with or find homes for. This is a blog about helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges. Cesar Millan’s methods, whether a gift from god or a well-thought out strategy, are some of the most dangerous when it comes to provoking dogs to behave aggressively. This behavior leads to the death of dogs. Few want to live with dogs who bite people. Creating dogs who bite people is wrong. Fearful dogs are among the most susceptible to behaving aggressively when pressured.

I did not create this blog to provide a forum for fans of his or his methods to further his popularity, defend him or attempt to enlighten me about him. The idea that dogs learn differently or that there are differing opinions on how dogs do learn, is moot to me. Dogs are dogs. They learn the way other mammals and most other organisms learn, through the consequences of their behaviors. Do dogs learn not to perform certain behaviors because they are punished for those behaviors? They sure as heck do. Does that mean we should punish the heck out of them to get behaviors we want? Not as a matter of course we shouldn’t.

Using the excuse that a dog is in the redzone or a death row dog is just that, an excuse. That dogs end up on CM’s doorstep because an owner was unable or unwilling to find or follow the advice of a real trainer or behaviorists who knows how to change behavior without hurting a dog is not the dog’s fault, nor is it reason to champion CM’s methods. That he may not find fault with other trainers is not an indication that he is more magnanimous than the people pointing out the errors of his ways. That he doesn’t find fault with the trainers who eschew his methods is likely because it’s a discussion he doesn’t wants to be part of. Instead he employs the different strokes defense. It saves him from having to defend an indefensible position AND he scores brownie points by appearing to be tolerant of other points of view. It’s smoke and mirrors.

Writing and speaking about fear based behavior challenges is what I am motivated to do. Others are working on closing down puppymills where many of these fearful dogs are being produced. Still more people in rescue are making sure that unwitting adopters do not end up with a dog that is going to be more project than pet. The ranks of trainers who understand enough about animal behavior to implement protocols for helping owners with fearful dogs are growing.

We get to choose (how much choice we really have is a subject for a neuroscience blog) which fountain we are going to drink from. I am sipping my beverage from the same one that brought us vaccines for polio, heart transplants, space travel, digital cameras, and microwave ovens. That the first attempts at any of these were not unconditionally successful is only more reason why I’m at this fountain. Seeing fallout and failure for what it is is key to the scientific process and progress. We know from the failures of punishment how to train more effectively, more humanely.

I am not blindly gulping away. No, I am not. I pop the cork, pour out a taste, swirl it around, hold it up to the light, let the aroma waft into my brain, roll it around on my tongue and then decide whether or not to buy a case. So far what I’ve seen of CM has me spitting into a glass and waving the waiter over to take the bottle away.

The Beautiful Flow of Experimentation

marbles of different sizes and colorsWhen we are living with any dog, but especially a fearful dog, we need to be prepared, at any moment, to reinforce behaviors we like. This is what behavior modification is all about.

If you sat two children down, one with a pile of marbles, the other with a bucket of tennis balls and gave each the task to put these objects into a milk jug, what do you think is likely to happen? Start off with- which child is more likely to be successful? Assuming that the marbles are all small enough to fit into the jug and the child has the dexterity and hand/eye coordination, the child with the marbles will be. What about the child with the tennis balls? Even if they have the ability to try to perform the task, how many attempts do you think they will make before they give up altogether when they discover that tennis balls don’t fit into milk jugs? I’m going to guess, not many. Why bother?

If we were to bring in another child and give them a variety of different sized marbles, some which will fit, some just barely, others not at all, how many attempts do you think they will make before they stop? Let’s assume that putting marbles in jugs is fun for the child or that we’ve promised them their special treat for doing it, and I’m guessing that they will keep trying until they have put all the marbles that fit into the jug and have a pile of those that don’t. If we asked them to do this a second time they might even do it more quickly if there were easy ways for them to differentiate between the sizes of the marbles; all the red ones fit, blue ones don’t.

When our dogs are interacting with us and their environment there is a continuous flow of experimentation of behavior. Each behavior provides the dog with information as to whether they should do it again or not based on what outcome the behavior produces. Does the behavior fit? If we always provide our dogs with information that tells them that a behavior is the right one, they can be prepared to use that behavior again in the future. If we resort to punishment too often, which for a fearful dog may be just once, they may, like the child with the tennis balls, stop bothering to experiment to come up with the behavior that fits.

We don’t need to hit them over the head to let them know that a behavior isn’t fitting. If they have learned a variety of ways that tell them that a behavior does fit; food treats, praise, smiles, cheers of approval, a click, the word YES, when one of these does not occur, they are prepared to experiment with another response until they are successful.

In life, on rivers, or when training a dog, there are advantages to going with the flow.

Do You Have Any Business Punishing a Dog?

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallHow would you justify going to a surgeon who claimed to be really good at cutting out tumors but had flunked out of classes on physiology and biology? Maybe some of their patients survived the surgery and went on to live full lives without a tumor, but what about the others? What about that nerve bundle that the surgeon nicked because they didn’t realize how important it was to walking? Or that the tests ordered prior to surgery were read incorrectly and the wrong blood type was requested? If someone was desperate and grasping at straws I could understand how they might use this surgeon. But how does that surgeon explain putting themselves out there as a professional?

At a seminar I was attending a young trainer described how she explains to potential clients how she trains dogs. It was along the lines of; All dogs are different and I do whatever works. It’s a statement I could even make about myself. I had the opportunity to watch this trainer handle a rambunctious, young, male, Labrador Retriever. She had been unable to provide a rate of reinforcement that was high enough to get the behavior she wanted from the dog. She was also unable to explain to the owners how to do this and instead the dog wore a shock collar and was subjected to repeated collar corrections in order to get him to ‘calm down’. I realized that she wasn’t doing what worked, she was doing what she could do.

I understand how challenging high energy dogs can be, but I was stunned. The foundation reward-based trainers build with a dog is finding rewards that are reinforcing enough to the dog they will repeat behaviors to get them. Sometimes this can take some exploring, but with a lab? A lab!? Labs are the poster children for food and play as reinforcers.

Unless you have the skills to teach behaviors without inflicting pain, yelling, or threatening a dog, with a level of proficiency that demonstrates knowledge of how the various types & schedules of reinforcement get behavior, you have no business, as a professional, resorting to punishment as a solution to a behavior challenge. Even if you can demonstrate that skill and knowledge you should also be able to identify the potential risks and fallout of using punishment, should you decide to use it, so you are prepared to identify them should they occur. Knowing how to punish a dog to stop behaviors is not enough, you should be well versed in all the reasons why you shouldn’t.

Are We Their Best Friends?

I was asked by a newspaper to write a review for the film One Nation Under Dog which will be showing at a local film festival. Here it is.

One Nation Under Dog is a documentary divided into three segments exploring the complicated and often eccentric relationships people have with dogs. Though some of the scenes are not appropriate for young children, whether you are an avowed dog lover or have merely found yourself smiling at the antics of a puppy, it’s a film worth seeing. It attempts to address the consequences of our actions and those of our lack of action in regard to the treatment of animals along with what the implications of thousands of years of co-evolution have meant for us and dogs.

The first segment titled “Fear” could have just as easily been labeled “Failure”. Focusing on a dog bite case in Connecticut, it’s apparent that both the bite victims and the dogs were failed, the former by a legal system that should have done more to protect them, and the latter by owners who didn’t do enough to manage and train them. Of note, and something which is not discussed in the film, is that research has shown that there is a correlation between the methods used to train dogs and their level of aggressiveness. The more force and pain used to train, the more aggression displayed. That the dogs with bite histories in the film are seen wearing both shock and choke collars is likely no mere coincidence.

The second segment “Loss” looks at the intense emotional responses owners have to their pets. The extremes of a culture which produces people who can, without a second thought, spend $155,000 to clone a beloved pet and at the same time allows conditions to exist which lead to the killing of millions of a dogs a year will provide fodder for anthropologists and psychologists for decades to come.

“Betrayal” the final segment of the film, confronts with brutal honesty, the realities of dog overpopulation. This, as a public service announcement, should be required watching before anyone steps into a pet shop or goes online, to buy a puppy.

The film highlights the contradiction of dogs being the recipients of our best intentions and also the victims of our worst inclinations. How we think about the animals lauded as our best friends may be best described in this quote by Henry Beston-

“We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

It is up to us to determine the shape and quality of the nets we are entwined in together. Animals’ lives and of our humanity may very well be defined by how we choose to do this.

Think Like A Human

Pet owners are often encouraged to think like a dog when faced with behavior challenges. I can’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort when I hear it. Attempts to think like a dog are often accompanied by fables of why a dog is behaving as they are. They’re jealous or angry, we need to be their leader, or treat them as a mother dog treats her pups, to name a few of the cringe worthy whys people come up with. I prefer to try to see things from their point of view.

A great example of this presented itself recently. A pet owner who had done a fantastic job of helping a dog decrease the aggression she displayed toward other dogs when food was around, described that the dog still would try to grab food from her hand, even if it was being offered to another dog. As with any behavior we perceive in our dogs we may make a value judgement about it, the dog is being greedy, impatient or a bully. Or the behavior may be flat out annoying. Warning bells should go off in your head whenever this is the case. It’s a good time to spend some extra moments thinking like a human and using more of the extra grey matter stuffed into your skull.

This food snatching behavior is not uncommon, and when I try to see it from the dog’s perspective it makes perfect sense. For the lucky dog who knows that a hand reaching out often has a piece of food for their mouth, it may not be obvious to them when it’s not for theirs. They may not understand the concept of waiting their turn, especially if there is no clear signal indicating when it’s their turn or not.

It’s not unusual to see this behavior in a dog who is the only dog in a household. How would they know that when other dogs are around the hand reaching out with food, which has only ever been for their mouth, now is not? If a dog is very excited about the prospect of getting a treat their level of arousal can effect how quickly they respond to the hand-reaching-out signal.

Even if a dog is greedy or a bully or extremely competitive, we can help them learn to wait until it’s their turn for food or to perform any other behavior. If trying to women giving treats to two dogs while outside in the forestsnatch a treat being offered to another dog fails, which hopefully is the case, or they are reprimanded for doing it, which I hope I can convince you doesn’t need to be the case, by making it clear to them when trying to get the treat is more likely to be successful, the snatching behavior can be eliminated.

Add cues that help the dog discriminate between a hand reaching for their mouth or another dog’s. The cues? The dogs’ names! By saying a dog’s name and immediately following it with a treat popped into their mouth and with practice a dog can learn to sort out which cue means time to open their mouth and which means no treat will follow. It takes less energy for a dog to sit until the food is for them, than it is for them to jump up and jostle other dogs for it. If the food is only available after hearing “Rover” and not after hearing “Tinkerbell” (or vice versa for Tinkerbell) the dog’s energy is better spent listening for the right cue.

Dogs, much like humans, will try to find the easiest road to success. When we think things through the way a human can, we help our dogs learn, because even if I don’t know what my dog is thinking, I know they are.

Train em, Don’t restrain em

Last night when I should have been doing other things or at least heading off to bed I was looking at Facebook. A friend had posted a plea for information about how to get ointment into the eye of her resistant little dog. Almost all of the suggestions included using some form of restraint, including wrapping him in a towel, which would create the level of helplessness the owner would need to do what she needed to. lili chin's poster about training wild animals force freeThe hypocrisy of it was that I suspected had she asked for suggestions as to how to get him to stop pulling on the leash, and had someone recommended a prong or ecollar, fireworks would have followed. It was topped off with a healthy dose of irony as yesterday Lili Chin’s fabulous poster about force-free training had been making the rounds.

I directed her to Canines in Action’s fabulous clicker training video Tucker’s Nail Trim, which remains my all time favorite for showing people how dogs can be trained to ‘be good’ even when being asked to do something they are not comfortable with. In many cases the bigger problem is the restraint, not the task that needs to be accomplished.

It was timely for me because for months a bottle of tartar removing tooth goop had been sitting on the counter, unused. I confess I do not brush my dogs’ teeth and we pay for it at the vet clinic with routine cleanings. When I had tried to squirt some in Annie’s mouth she was not pleased at all. The next time I picked up the bottle of tooth goop she promptly ducked her head and fled the scene. So I didn’t bother with it. But my friend’s request for info prompted me to grab my camera and see if I could show how I’d get a dog used to having something done ‘to them’.

The following video was a slap dash effort, warts, stupid chatter and all, it’s not been edited and professional trainers can find things to criticize but I hope the point is made that what I am doing is something ANY pet owner can do. Annie is very food motivated and we play ‘training’ games all the time, so she’s comfortable with how ‘you do this, I do that’ works. If a dog is not food motivated enough to want to engage in training games then pet owners would do well to come up with other reinforcers for their dog’s behavior. Play, ear rubs, butt scratches, tug, something. You need to have something that your dog finds rewarding enough to do things for. If there is nothing than before you start trying to get your dog to do stuff or change their behavior you need to work on that!

Just because I can forcibly restrain a dog doesn’t mean I have to. In the long run I’d rather not have to deal with the frustration and struggle that using force perpetuates and often escalates. And if I truly care about an animal why would I settle for forcing them to ‘give up’? I was a little sister and remember well the way it felt when someone bigger held me down and demanded that I ‘say uncle’. Sometimes it was funny but other times I ran off to ‘tell mom’. I’m the one policing my behavior when it comes to my interactions with my animals. I try to let the grown up in my head make the decisions.

Stockholm Syndrome?

I was reading a post in The Crossover Trainer Blog and was struck by the implications of this comment made about her observation of Cesar Millan at his ‘Dog Psychology Center’.

“……..He walked in with me and one could definitely sense he had an effect on the dogs. I concede he does have “something” about him that effects the dogs. ”

Not sure why there is an implied apology in ‘conceding’ he has an effect on dogs. There is no doubt he does and the Orwellian irony of what it is seems lost on many, including him, with his talk about ‘unstable’ pack leaders.

Dogs, even dogs with behavioral challenges are not stupid. Many are hypervigilant and extra sensitive to anything they perceive threatens their safety. Anyone, man or beast, who comes into their environment is immediately assessed for their potential threat to the dog’s safety. Even if a particular dog was not physically restrained, alpha rolled, choked, shocked or poked (all main techniques of Mr. Millan’s ‘rehabilitation’ repertoire) they will respond to his ‘presence’ and the reaction of those dogs who have been ‘dominated’ by him. It’s not unlike sitting on a subway and having a young thug get on the car and giving you one of those, ‘I WILL kick your ass bitch’ stares. They too will have an ‘effect’ on the pack of riders.

The Stockholm Syndrome is a real and well documented psychological response to fearing for your life. One need not even be submitted to constant abuse in order to ‘give up’ trying to fight or flee. The random threats of violence are enough to keep kidnap victims sitting in cars while their abductor runs into the gas station for a cup of coffee. Some victims even fall in love with their captors. Take away a dog’s control, an easy thing to do with choke chains, muzzles, shocks and prongs, and it’s easy to get the same kind of ‘compliance’.

cesar millan taking away choice and control from a dog

What choice does this dog have?

A dog subjected to repeated acts of ‘dominance’ by their handler, acts which likely seem as random and unreasonable as those portrayed in movies by the bad guy who pistol whips the hero for looking at his shoe laces, can also be adversely effected by this treatment. That Cesar Millan repeatedly misreads signals and cues from dogs is no secret. That he, and trainers of his ilk manage to convince pet owners that their mythologies of dog ‘psychology’ are accurate and justify their abusive treatment- the more upset and needing special attention the dog, the more abused they are- is no surprise. But I will leave it to the therapists to determine if there is a form of pathology in it and our willingness to watch and pay for it.

One day when our consciousness evolves there may be a tribunal and people who abuse animals, in the name of training or rehabilitation, will be called to task for it. And seats should be saved for the TV producers who seek these people out to make a profit off of the recorded and televised abuse of dogs.