Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Support Systems

There is so much progress that needs to be made in regard to how people “think” about animal behavior and training that it can seem overwhelming. But seven years ago I had to seek out and search for information regarding the most humane and effective ways to help dogs with fear based behavior challenges, whereas today it streams on my Facebook page and twitter account. Articles like this one, sharing the research done on how our intervention when a dog is scared can help alleviate their fear, is becoming mainstream. The science and research is being repackaged for mass consumption. It’s about time. But don’t think that everyone is buying it.

There are those who, due to an inconsistency in the terms we use to “talk” about behavior, will go on endless semantic journeys to dispute the claim that “comforting dogs does not reinforce fearfulness.” Comforting will be termed coddling and the methodology for applying either will be criticized. In one way it’s good. It means people are thinking, but when pieces of the puzzle don’t belong there, it’s difficult to come up with the right picture.

One such piece is the misunderstanding that people have regarding the use of the term “reinforcing” and how it is applied to behavior versus emotional responses. Behaviors that are reinforced can be expected to increase. Behaviors based on powerful emotional responses, if paired with what one might label a “reinforcer” (the same bit of cheese that increased the chances that a dog would sit when asked) cause a decrease in the emotional response, and subsequently we are likely to see a decrease in the behavior associated with the emotion. This is because we are counter conditioning the emotional response. Not all behavior is created equal.

Let’s use “hunger” as an example. Though not exactly an “emotion” if we feed an animal who is hungry, their hunger will decrease, and unless there is an eating disorder involved, the behavior associated with hunger, eating, will decrease. We do not reinforce hunger by feeding an animal. We do not reinforce fear when we comfort an animal. In both cases what constitutes food or comfort is dependent on the animal’s definition of them. One dog may find being stroked and held comforting, another might find it annoying. A hungry lion would not look at a bale of hay and see a meal, but a horse would. In either case if we know what a dog finds comforting or an animal thinks is tasty, and give it to them, we are likely to see a decrease in the behaviors associated with either being scared or hungry (after they’re done chewing of course).

I am going to propose that since the word “comfort” seems to be difficult for people to accept, even though it can be clearly defined-

1. To soothe in time of affliction or distress.
2. To ease physically; relieve.
1. A condition or feeling of pleasurable ease, well-being, and contentment.
2. Solace in time of grief or fear.
3. Help; assistance: gave comfort to the enemy.
4. One that brings or provides comfort.
5. The capacity to give physical ease and well-being: enjoying the comfort of my favorite chair.*

can be replaced by the term “to support.”

My aging border collie Finn was walking down a flight of stairs in our house when I could hear his nails scrambling on the wood. I got to him in time to prevent him from tumbling down. I helped him right himself and supported his hind end as he continued down. At the bottom I gave him a cheer and opened the door so he could go outside. I provided him with what he needed to get down the stairs unharmed. It is likely that he will avoid the stairs, and until I can put a runner down I would prefer that he did. But I did not want him to be injured to learn that lesson. Ultimately, when it is safe for him to do so, I want him to continue to go up and down the stairs on his own.

When we offer a stressed and scared animal our support we do so based on the needs of that animal. It does not make sense to state unequivocally that we should not attend to these needs because we may not be clear on what that support should look like. Or having provided that support inexpertly in the past it is proof that it doesn’t help. Our goal is to help a dog develop the skills and confidence they need so that continuing support becomes unnecessary, but until that happens it would be foolish to stop providing it.

Advising that supporting someone trying to learn to swim will keep them a life-long non-swimmer doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous. Someone may not need you to hold their hand as they walk into the waves, but someone else might lest, they be swept under and drown.



Save Your Breath

Every now and then a Cesar Millan fan will find my blog and do their darndest to convince me of the error of my ways and assessment of his. I have to give them credit for their efforts. They are right to accuse me of moderating many of their comments. I didn’t always but I decided that he has gotten enough airtime without my blog giving him more. My blog, my choice.

The arguments presented by these folks are at once amusing and stomach churning. One commenter suggested that I edify myself by visiting the websites of trainers who were open-minded and informed trainers (and who of course agreed with his methods). I got as far on one webpage to where the trainer states they used both “rewards and consequences” to train, when I had to just stop. This is akin to someone saying, “I speaks english real good.” Ummm….no you don’t. Rewards ARE consequences. I know what they are trying to say, but their inability to say it properly belies their lack of understanding of learning theory. Oh and in regard to “learning theory,” I was told I could keep my “science psycho babble.” Honestly.

There seems to be the misunderstanding among these people who call themselves trainers that anyone who actually bothers to learn about animal behavior and training, cannot provide practical advice for pet owners. They misrepresent rewards-based training as “purely positive” and that what they do is “balanced.” Again this only indicates how little the trainer understands about….well about “learning theory,” oh here I go again, muddying the waters with scientific psycho babble. Meanwhile they go on about “dog psychology.” Sorry. I give up.

One of the aspects about dog training that I love so much has been the opening up of worlds I didn’t realize existed. There’s the history of Skinner and Pavlov, the practical application of skills by Bob Bailey, the insights of trainers who I don’t even dare try to list for fear of leaving someone deserving out. I am tickled pink that I am able to rub shoulders with and learn from people with more education, skill and empathy than I can hope to attain in whatever time I have left on this planet.

I have come to terms with the fact that having a conversation about dog training with someone who quotes Cesar Millan is like trying to discuss civil rights with someone who recites passages of the bible. Don’t bother.

Tell Me A Story

fairytalesPeople like stories. We like bedtime stories, scary stories told around a campfire, stories in books, on television, in movie theaters, and on blogs. Every culture has its stories. Every religious holiday we celebrate is based on a story.

What we don’t like are stories that we’re told that we are led to believe are true, but aren’t. It was certainly a believable story when Mike Daisy detailed his experience visiting an industrial complex in China where Apple products were manufactured. There is no shortage of stories about workers who are taken advantage of so it was not a stretch for a major radio broadcaster to believe this one, except they shouldn’t have. That parts of the story could be true, does not change the fact that the story was told unequivocally as the truth, and it wasn’t. When James Frey admitted that his riveting, autobiographical story of drug abuse, was fiction he had to face the wrath of Oprah who had endorsed his book.

Some stories, told as truth, but having no evidence supporting their validity, may be harmless. That George Washington did not actually chop down a cherry tree, does not necessarily lessen the value of the parable for children, future presidents own up to their actions, even when they’re kids. However that this is fiction should matter to us as adults. The poignant words and sentiment of Chief Seattle’s famous speech have moved generations of environmentalists. That he did not actual make the speech does not make it any less stirring, unless you care about historical facts.

One of the best storytellers in the world of dogs is Cesar Millan. He and his whispering proteges have concocted complete works of fiction when it comes to dog behavior and rehabilitation that it’s surprising Oprah hasn’t called him onto the carpet to own up. But even Oprah likes a good story. It’s even more challenging to see through the guise of a piece of fiction being passed along as non-fiction when some parts of the story mesh with our own experience. A good lie always has elements of the truth in it, any teenager or politician knows that.

But lies matter. Some maybe not so much- maybe orange isn’t really your color but no sense making you feel bad about it now that you’re already at the party- but others matter more than you may realize. They may seem innocuous but they gather debris as they roll along, attaching implications that affect the way you think and behave. That growl, a plea for space, becomes tainted with the fiction that it’s a step toward control and domination of the household. Instead of being given information to help a dog learn new skills people are fed the empty calories of “calm assertiveness” and “wolf energy,” leaving them starving as they struggle with creating permanent, positive behavior change in their dogs.

Bite Me!

woman standing with wolfI recently had the unfortunate, albeit educational experience of being on a radio show with three other dog trainers. When asked if we’d ever been bitten I recounted the story of being bitten when I was a kid, another trainer spoke of his experience with sharp puppy teeth and his nose, but it was the last trainer whose response was most disturbing.

This self-proclaimed dog whisperer boasted- there was no disguising how proud she was- that she has been bitten countless number of times with varying levels of damage sustained. She considered being bitten a badge of honor and her creds for working with aggressive dogs. “Unless you’re willing to get bitten you shouldn’t work with them,” she declared. This I realized was what she thought separated her from other trainers, what made her better than other trainers, but to my ears it rang out incompetence. It was teenage boy bravado.

Imagine a trainer of wild animals, most of which will display some form of aggression toward people if they feel threatened, bragging about the number of times the lion bit them. If you work with wild animals these are not the kind of stories you necessarily live to tell. Most dog trainers do survive bites but that has more to do with the dog’s intentions, not the trainer’s skill. That being bitten by a dog poses less risk to us is no excuse for shoddy training. “Why,” I wanted to ask her, “If someone can train wild animals without being bitten, can’t you do it with a dog!?”

Her cavalier attitude toward being bitten also belied either naivete or ignorance about what happens when a dog, who might otherwise not have bitten if handled properly, does bite. Anyone adopting out a dog, is obligated to share a dog’s bite history with potential adopters. To not do so sets them up for being found liable for gross negligence should the dog bite someone in the future and the dog’s bite history becomes known. Imagine you’re visiting a shelter and all things being equal you can choose from Fluffy who has never bitten anyone and Lassie who bit his previous owners and the trainer brought in to work with him. How convincing will the guarantees of Lassie’s successful rehabilitation be? I am not saying that Lassie can’t be rehabilitated or that even nice dogs don’t have good reasons for biting sometimes. There are shelters with a policy of simply not adopting out dogs with bite histories, period.

We know that all dogs have the capability to bite. Depending on either inclination or size, one dog might do more damage than another. Simply putting their teeth on a person is not necessarily the only piece of information we have to decide whether or not they’d make a good pet for someone. Early on in our relationship I grabbed Sunny’s harness and he spun around and bit me. My hand was in his mouth and his teeth were on my hand. I sustained no injury, not even a dent or bruise. I was relieved for that reason, and also because it showed me that he had a high level of bite inhibition, meaning, he could control how hard he bit. He was giving me information, not picking a fight. From his point of view, I was probably the one doing that. Some dogs don’t have good bite inhibition and this is very difficult, if not impossible to change.

This trainer’s attitude was distressing and frankly, warped. Imagining that being bitten by dogs gives you some kind of caché, that you speak about it proudly on the air, says loads about your skills and relationship with dogs. Why brag about making a dog feel so threatened that they bite you? What does this prove? That you’re tough? That you’re in charge? That you don’t take any crap from a dog, a dog who is most likely reacting out of fear? Thinking that you have to be able to accept being bitten as a part of the process of training and rehabilitation indicates a lack of understanding about that process. Expecting that bragging about it should raise people’s opinions of you is pathetic. Sometimes I can’t help wishing that instead of whispering these trainers would just stop talking.

Relationship Capital

When I was in my 20’s I worked as a guide on the Wanganui River in NZ. One day during a hike, one of the participants on the trip, a woman in her 60’s commented to me that she thought I “weighed too much for a girl my age” and went on to give me dietary advice which consisted primarily of switching from butter to margarine on my toast. She boasted about being a “straight shooter” a speaker of the truth which was suppose to absolve her of responsibility for how her comments made me feel. It was as though the value of her advice to me, far outweighed (sorry for the pun) how bad it made me feel.

We spent five days together paddling down the river and from that time the only conversation I remember having with her was this one. I can recall it, not because her dietary advice to me changed my eating habits and my life was inexplicably improved beyond measure, no, it was because it made me feel bad, really bad. There is no doubt in mind that were I to meet her again, almost 30 years later, I would remember this conversation and feel bad again. But this time my bad feelings would be directed toward her, not my thighs.

When people talk about using punishment with their dogs, the problem is not that it can’t work, though it often doesn’t, one serious concern is how the dog can end up feeling about the person doling out the punishment. Most pet owners want to have a good relationship with their dogs.

cocker spaniel looking at woman eating

It’s up to you. Their options are limited.

We want them to wake us up if there’s a fire and save our lives. We hope that if we were stuck in a well they’d go for help. Few mentally sound people want their dogs to be afraid of them. Maybe I could risk it and say no mentally sound person wants this.

The ease which the general population has let the nonsense of trainers like Cesar Millan slide down their gullets is a source of great interest to me. Is it because it gives people permission to be powerful, to assume the role of dictator in their private, small universe? It might be for some, but I suspect for others it’s because they do not comprehend the impact compulsion and punishment have on their relationship with their dog. They are told it will command respect, inspire their dog to follow them to the ends of the earth. That it’s the “natural order” of things. But professional trainers, animal behaviorists and real psychologists know better. Though there are pathologies that exist which cause some people to enjoy being pushed around and treated harshly, most animals will choose, at often huge cost to themselves, to avoid it.

The earlier and more often in a relationship one proves to be willing to do something that scares or makes their dog feel bad, the more difficult it will be to establish trust within that relationship. Training becomes more challenging as stress and uncertainty taint the dog’s ability to experiment with behaviors. If you for one minute believe that proving your dominance over a dog convinces them to respect you, watch your step. If you find yourself in a well, you may be there for awhile.

In The Zone

Have you ever exited the highway and entered a curve that changes the direction you were heading? A well designed curve requires very little steering. Once you adjust for it there are no sharp changes that require you to make abrupt movements of the steering wheel, you hold your position and wind along with the curve.

In the industry of outdoor recreation improvements are always being made to equipment so that man water skiingthe energy required to use it decreases. Downhill skis are shorter and shaped so that minor shifts in weight will cause them to carve out a turn. A huge improvement compared to the cumbersome wooden skis you see mounted as decoration on old barns or straight fiberglass skis cluttering garages.

Good athletes make their sports look easy, effortless. They don’t battle with gravity, they play with it. When a level of proficiency is established, even among novices, there’s a feeling described as “being in the zone.” It’s a feeling of flow and synchronicity. It’s a feeling of exhilaration.

People can also experience these feelings in relationships. We have best friends, lovers, soul mates. There’s an ease we feel in each other’s company. And like being in the “the zone” there’s a lack of fear.

When I spent more time hiking and backpacking I enjoyed crossing boulder fields. Unlike walking on an easily identified trail, boulder fields lack a single defined route. As you hop from boulder to boulder you are constantly scanning ahead so that each choice you make regarding where to put your foot is sure to provide you with another option for moving forward. It felt like playing a game with a mountain.

Good trainers of dogs make the work they do look effortless. There’s a flow to behavior and their sight is already set on the next behavior and what they need to do to get it, what subtle shift of weight is necessary to end up at their desired destination. No missteps to send them tumbling.

It is possible when climbing up a rock face or ledges to get “bluffed.” You were able to go up or down to get to a particular location but there is no safe, next step to take, and it’s impossible to back track. It can require a rescue by professionals, if you’re lucky to have them available to help.

We can find ourselves “bluffed” by some dogs. There’s a behavior, perhaps one we’ve created, and there seems to be no turning back, and we can’t see a route forward. It is possible for some people to muscle their way to the top of a rock or through a challenging rapid. It can be tempting to try to muscle our way to behavior changes in our dogs.

The athletes who are a joy to watch are the ones who use good technique and finesse to reach their goals. The skaters who fly on the ice and the gymnasts who soar as though physical laws don’t pertain to them. Their efforts are imperceptible but the results are obvious. The time and energy they put into honing their skills is apparent.

The same is true of dog trainers. Force and coercion often mask a lack of skill. The thrill the audience gets watching these trainers is different than the thrill one gets watching an artist. When you’ve experienced performance “in the zone” you want to stay there. When you bring your dog along with you, you’re less likely to find yourself on behavioral bluffs, hoping that both of you make it out alive.