Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Plenty in Life Should Be Awesome

img_1979In order to simplify training for pet owners, and to incorporate training into daily life, eliminating the need to set aside a specific time for it many trainers recommend the Nothing In Life is Free protocol (NILF)*. It has its merits, though an unfortunate name. Tagging along with the technique is a fuzzy notion of “we’re in charge here and the sooner you figure that out the better” or something like that. There is also an unfortunate misunderstanding among many that merely making a behavior a requirement will change how a dog feels about performing it. This leads people with fearful dogs to obedience classes and to the recommendation that the person the dog most fears, does the training.

It is the case that when positive reinforcement training is used to teach behaviors that a dog is likely to feel good about performing those behaviors, but it would be an overstatement to say that they always do. In the case of NILF a dog learns that the food bowl doesn’t get put on the floor, or the door doesn’t open until they put their butt on the floor. This alone is a useful behavior for most owners, if left at that. But behavior, even with a reward, can become rote to the dog while remaining beneficial to us.

Kathy Sdao in her book Plenty in Life is Free encourages owners to look for behaviors to reinforce, rather than require behaviors be performed to earn a reward. It’s a beautiful system and once you get in the habit of it, it hardly feels like “training” at all. Instead it’s an ongoing conversation with your pet, “Hey that is awesome, I like it when you do that, have a bit of cheese.” One day you notice that your dog is performing that behavior with more frequency and you no longer need to block them from rushing out the door because they sit and wait for you to tell them how fabulous they are, and if you happen to have a bit of cheese, that would be nice too.

This is a great technique to apply to your interactions with any dog, but especially a fearful dog. Not only does the dog learn to repeat the behaviors you like, life changes for them. Most of our fearful dogs are very good at feeling scared, anxious and worried. By finding ways to provide them with rewards frequently throughout the day you can help them to develop what in a person might be considered, hopeful anticipation for life ahead. Help your fearful dog learn that plenty in life is awesome.

*Also called Learn To Earn, which removes some of the “I’m the boss around here,” sensibility of the practice.


It’s A Shame

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallImagine creating a website where pet owners could commiserate about their sick dogs. They could post pictures of their dogs to share with others who were also dealing with life with a sick dog. Now imagine that people were also sharing advice about illness in dogs (you don’t have to imagine it, just go online) and someone posted in response to an image with the caption “My dog has swollen lymph nodes,” this reply, “Infection can cause a dog’s nodes to swell. Try adding echinacea and golden seal to your dog’s diet for a week. If you don’t see a decrease in the size of the nodes add flax seed oil and try warm compresses.” Now imagine you are a vet reading this and know that there are other reasons a dog may have swollen lymph nodes and that in the case of some diseases waiting even a week before starting treatment can impact whether or not it is successful.

At a recent conference I presented on behavior myths and misinformation and the responsibility of bloggers to make sure they are sharing accurate information about dogs. I gave the example of the site featuring owners’ images of their dogs with placards describing their dog’s transgressions. “I eat socks, I threw up, I shredded mom’s favorite shoes, etc.” Before I continue and come across as a completely humorless, I get the joke. I even find some of the images funny, the dog with what could be called “a shit eating grin” being labeled a “poop eater” pulls a smile from me. But most of the images show dogs looking worried or distressed. It may be that they are afraid of the camera, or their owner chastising them with “what did you do?” that is causing the response. These are not images of dogs who are experiencing guilt or shame because of their actions, they are displaying what are often called “appeasement” behaviors, which in a nutshell could be described as the dog saying, “Please don’t hurt me.” Why anyone would find that funny escapes me, unless they are unaware of what they are seeing.

As luck would have it the creator of this particular website was in my session (and to her credit for choosing to attend) and we also happened to sit next to each other at breakfast the next day. We chatted and she explained that she created the site so that other people who were living with dogs who were naughty could know they were not alone. She defended herself by saying that I had used old images and that she will make suggestions to pet owners, such as telling a pet owner to see a vet if their dog is being shamed for eating chocolate. The site is also being used to find homes for dogs (which I know is suppose to help buff up one’s halo, but it’s not that clear cut for me).

She went on to talk about the dog who was the inspiration for the site, a rescue dog who when left alone was destructive and was a compulsive eater of non-food objects (pica). Her conclusion was that this dog was simply “destructive.” As a dog trainer warning bells went off in my head. The dog might be bored and having a grand time racing around the house and shredding things, or he might be anxious and stressed and performing the same behaviors. Rather than posting images of the dog looking guilty to derive solace from others experiencing similar challenges with their pets, her dog’s behavior should be addressed by a vet or trainer, or both. Gut obstructions would be a serious concern for me.

To perpetuate the misunderstanding that dogs’ brains are sophisticated enough to sort out that chewing a computer cord is appropriate payback for being left home alone all day, is irresponsible. It impacts how people think about their dog’s behavior and subsequently how they respond to that behavior. It may be comforting to know that others are living with dogs who behave inappropriately, but it would be better for the dog if the owner understood that there is an underlying issue that should be addressed for the dog’s emotional or physical well-being. Behavior doesn’t occur for no reason and in the case of our dogs it does not happen out of spite. As sophisticated as their brains are, they’re not that sophisticated. This  does not take away from how amazing dogs and their brains are. Rarely are they ever simply being “bad” for the sake of it.

My goal in pointing this out to the website’s creator was not to “shame” her into changing her ways. The website is hugely popular, a book by a major publishing house is in the works. If our conversation did not encourage her to rethink the premise of her work, at the very least I hope she finds someone to help her out with her dog in between photo shoots.

I Could Be A Surgeon

puppetAlong with the most recent shipment of dog supplies was a flyer for a new service for pet owners. A website has been created as a portal to connect pet owners in need of overnight care for their dogs, with people who would provide the service in their home. No doubt there are people who have been happily connected with a caregiver for their dog. I decided to have a look at the folks who were listing their services, for a fee, to pet owners. It was rare to find a person who had any professional training in the dog care field though I did find a vet tech, guide dog puppy raiser, and even a CDPT.

Little was mentioned regarding how they managed or trained dogs. If you have a dog in your care, regardless of whether or not you call yourself a trainer, you are training that dog. How are behavioral challenges managed and dealt with? How many pack-leader wannabees are alpha-rolling a client’s dog without explaining that they’ll do it? There are home boarders who routinely put shock collars on their charges. A pet owner should know this, and understand the implications of it.

I have offered in-home dog boarding for 8 years. Unless I knew what to look for it is often easy to miss indications of stress in dogs. A dog has no way of knowing that the home they are being boarded in is not their new, forever home. They find themselves having to navigate new relationships with people and dogs and sort out what is ok, and what is not, to do. Most dogs sail along at this. But I have suggested to some owners that their dog would be happier and safer in a kennel, rather than in my home. Some dogs are not likely to find the multi-dog social scene fun and enjoyable after living for years on their own. Also not great candidates are dogs who do not have a reliable recall or are inclined to look for ways to escape into the big wide world, should they get lucky and find a door or gate they can bolt through. Owners may have sorted out how to cope with these behaviors, but a dog in a new “home” with new “owners” may not behave as they might be expected to.

The following are descriptions service providers gave about themselves, pulled from the website. Most of these were found in the beginning of the description, if not the opening line. The assumption that seems to be being made is that having lived with dogs or liking dogs, is the main qualification a pet owner should look for in someone who is going to be providing round the clock care for their dog, possibly for weeks at a time. Otherwise why feature it so prominently and often?

I have had dogs my whole life and I love spending time with them. I have also volunteered at the local humane society as a dog care assistant for just over a year so I am experienced with all types of dogs.

I have had pets and have worked with animals my whole life and have owned serval animals including: dogs, cats, horses, cows, bunnies & fish. I have also worked at a veterinary office as well as helped care for many family & friends animals while they were away or at work.

I have a 3 yr old miniature schnauzer and have pet sat for many families. I have been doing this for about 20 years.

My husband works a 9 to 5 job and I stay home and care for dogs! I love my job and look forward to getting a few more regular visitors for daycare and boarding to help cover our bills.

I’ve been around dogs my whole life and I adore them.

Taking care of animal is not our source of income, it’s our Hobby!

I love dogs for the unconditionally loving creatures they are, and promise to love your dog (s) as I do my own.

Your dog will be in expert hands and given lots of exercise and cuddle time while staying with us!

I’ve taken care of dogs off and on but that was before sites like this.

We are both mature,reliable dog people who love what we do.

I have been caring for dogs for most of my life.

I appreciate that pet owners want their dogs to have “a good time” while they are away. The thought of leaving my dogs in a kennel for days at a time is odious to me as well. I can’t help hoping that people remember the caveat “buyer beware” before they leave their dog with a stranger whose resume consists primarily of the skills listed above. I have lived with a body for over 5 decades. I know a lot about my body and really like bodies. If that’s all that mattered I could be a surgeon. And I could use a little extra cash.

Want Some Candy Little Girl?

wooden swing bridge in vermont with a dog on it and a dog waiting a other endOne of the often misused techniques for getting new behaviors from fearful dogs is luring. And the most often used lure is food. Besides being unfair, it can backfire, big time.

The unfair part of it is that dogs need to eat. It’s one thing to bait a trap to catch a dog and count on the dog’s hunger to be motivating enough to get them into the trap. It’s another thing to try to draw a dog closer to something that scares them in order for them to get food for training purposes. Dogs who are fearful are often also anxious. They are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. The world is unpredictable and scary. Sometimes people approach them and force them to do something they’d rather not do. They are chronically stressed. Eating may be the only time their brain actually gets the chance to feel good.

Using food to lure dogs into performing behaviors, such as going up or down stairs, walk on unfamiliar surfaces or approaching a scary person can backfire if during the process of getting or eating the food, the dog is startled. So instead of getting the beauty of counter conditioning we have taught the dog to be suspect of food because it predicts something scary might happen. We have lost one of the most powerful tools we have in the rehabilitation of fearful dogs- food. The use of food as a lure in training dogs who are not afraid does not present the same risks, though it’s to our benefit to “fade the lure” as soon as possible and switch to using it as a reward.

There are other ways we can take advantage of a dog’s fears inappropriately, in order to coax behaviors from them. As usual, each situation will be different and trainers, using their brains and understanding the implications and potential negative fall out of any technique they employ, can decide whether or not to use them.

In order to access the snowmobile trails in the woods across the river we have to cross a swing bridge. Crossing it is a scary proposition for many people and dogs. When I am out on a walk with the dogs it’s not unusual for a new dog in the group to get to the bridge and balk at setting foot on it, or get midway and then turn and high tail back. For some dogs being left behind is a powerful enough motivator for them to work up the courage and cross it. They slink across like army comandos. Some, after doing this discover that it’s safe and crossing the bridge is no longer scary for them. Others, once across will refuse to set foot on it for the return home. They pace and whine searching for an alternative way to rejoin the group. It’s stressful for them and their apprehension for  facing the bridge in the future will impact their desire to go for a walk with me next time the leashes come out. And a dog who has not developed a strong enough relationship with their owner or the other dogs they live with, may not find being with the gang enough of a motivator to even try to cross.

The way we help dogs learn new behaviors, whatever they are, is to ensure that the dog feels safe and trusts us. This will go a long way and is worth taking the time to figure out how to achieve both. Then teach the dog something. Give them behaviors they can perform on cue. If you use force-free and reward based training methods, asking dogs to do things makes them feel good because you are giving them the opportunity to get something they like. Push a dog too soon in the relationship or when they still don’t feel comfortable enough to cope and you could be setting the stage for aggression to appear as a response.

Every journey begins with one step. We’ll be getting to plenty of bridges to cross with our scared or anxious dogs. Make sure each step is a good one. In the picture accompanying this post Nibbles is hesitating before joining me on the other side of the bridge. He’d been given the opportunity to cross with me getting rewarded along the way on numerous occasions. I could have put him on a leash and encouraged him to come, or carried him. I chose to let him make the choice this time around. He crossed and we celebrated on the other side.

Why Wait?

I stood in front of the copy machine, not so silently cursing the manufacturer, the store where I purchased it, and the salesman who recommended it. The darn thing wasn’t working. I pressed the number of copies button, hit the start button and nothing. It didn’t work and if that wasn’t bad enough, after setting it up I was going to have to pack it back up again and return it.

The owner’s manual sat unopened on the desk next to the machine. I hadn’t bothered to read it. Why should I? I’ve been using copiers since they were called mimeographs. I practically grew up using them helping my father produce newsletters for his business. It was just a copy machine for heaven’s sake, how difficult could it be. Fortunately I didn’t embarrass myself by picking up the phone to complain to some poor tech support in India. Instead I read the manual. As it turns out the “start” button was not the same as the “power” button. Tucked behind the machine, out of my sight was the all important on/off button that changed the course of my day. This was nearly as bad as the time I called in an electrician to repair a light fixture because I hadn’t screwed in the bulb tight enough.

Many of us assume that because we have lived with dogs all of our lives that we know how they work, what makes them tick. And unfortunately for many of us if we picked up an owner’s manual written by someone without the requisite background and understanding themselves, we’ve been led astray and our lack of success in getting dogs to do what we want is seen as their flaw, not ours or the method we are employing. When this happens the labels start getting slapped on the dog. They’re dominant, submissive, red zone, vindictive, stubborn, lazy, stupid, etc., ad nauseam.

When we are trying to help fearful dogs not be so fearful the way we do this is through counter conditioning, which means we change how the dog feels about the stuff that scares them. It’s not easy and depending on what it is they are afraid of, we may have limited success, but at the end of the day, it’s what we’re doing. How we go about trying is important. The most important piece of this training puzzle is that the scary thing needs to predict a good thing, before the dog has a chance to experience the fear of it. Given how quickly brains and bodies respond to things that scared them in the past, this isn’t always easy or possible. Sometimes we can get away with having the scary thing be not so scary by keeping it further away from the dog, or making it go away sooner rather than later. But we have to quickly follow its appearance with whatever we are using to counter condition. This is usually some kind of yummy food or a toy the dog loves.

We know that we do not reinforce fear by providing a dog with comfort, food or a toy. This is because when we present something to the dog that they like, immediately after or while they are experiencing the scary thing, we are counter conditioning, not reinforcing. But this will only be the case so long as the scary thing is not so scary that the dog can’t begin to feel good about the treat or toy. If I was in a car crash and someone walked up to me, my knees shaking, tunnel vision setting in, heart racing and stomach turning, and they handed me my first Publisher’s Clearing House check for a million dollars, I’m still not likely to learn to love being in car crashes, even if I wasn’t killed or injured. We also know that the emotional response of being afraid can be made worse if we don’t intervene soon enough or do something that contributes to it, such as yelling at the dog, poking them, yanking on their collar or  shocking them.

A common error that handlers make is not providing the treat or toy (the US or UCS) soon enough after the appearance of the trigger cartoon of dog thinking about a bone(the CS). One of the reasons this occurs is because they are waiting for an appropriate behavior to reinforce. This is not to say that rewarding a dog for an appropriate behavior is wrong, but that if you wait too long for that behavior you run the risk of the emotional response the dog is experiencing, becoming stronger or more intense so when you finally do introduce the reward its counter conditioning “power” is lost. This is the case whether you are using positive or negative reinforcement to create an alternate or incompatible behavior. For some dogs even waiting for them to turn and look at their handler takes too much time and their negative emotional response is too strong to change given where you are and what you are using as a reward.

Once the treat or toy has been paired with trigger it is often possible to switch to rewarding for behavior so long as the dog continues to feel happy and safe in the presence of the trigger. When this happens we can start to build duration in the dog’s ability to remain in proximity to the trigger, or to changes in the trigger’s behavior. When it comes to addressing fear in dogs, what are you waiting for?


Too Sensitive?

Dog - SadIt wouldn’t be the first time someone has used my discomfort with something they said or did, to turn the tables and make it my problem, but it was happening and for some reason I couldn’t let it go. One of the skills we all need to practice in this day and age of instant communication is to push ourselves away from the keyboard. Just stop, end your part of the engagement. Let the sting of a comment fade and move on, do the dishes, weed the garden, read a book. Though I reminded myself of this for some reason I was like a dog with a bone, I couldn’t let it go.

I had for a few days been answering someone’s questions about their dog’s fearful behavior via Facebook’s messages. I was glad to do it. I know how it feels to find yourself living with an extremely fearful dog. But at no time do I ever believe that my words of wisdom typed into a 1 inch box are likely to be adequate in fully addressing the challenges owners are facing. I offered to either schedule a time for a consult or assist  in finding a trainer near them. The reply I received stunned me, though it was not the first time I, or any trainer, has heard it in some form or another.

“I can see your (sic) in a business to make money sorry I bothered you”

Move away from the keyboard, I thought. But not only didn’t I do that, I couldn’t do it. Perhaps it has something to do with being a middle-aged woman (a label I will probably continue to use long past the time I should switch to “older” or “senior”). It’s not unusual for young women to shut up, to worry about being impolite or hurting feelings. At my age I no longer feel the need to bear the brunt of someone’s rudeness without providing them with a response. There are consequences to behavior. Maybe it was because I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before. Whatever the reason, I had to respond, to express the fact that I had been insulted by the insinuation that my motivation for doing the work that I do was purely mercenary.

After I pointed out how the comment he made insulted me, I was told it was not meant to be insulting and that I was “too sensitive.” This was an odd way to offer an apology. Again I could not let it go and replied. The conversation continued in this fashion, me pointing out how I was interpreting his comments and was met with a justification for each and admonition to “chill out.” The author even included the number of twitter followers he had. Why? My interpretation was it was a threat to expose me for the sensitive person that I am. He denied this, labeling me a “very negative person” to even think it. Then why include it in the conversation? I was feeling very confused.

Then it occurred to me why this conversation was so compelling that I couldn’t walk away from it. The ease with which my perspective of the conversation was discounted was glaring. That I might feel upset had nothing to do with the author’s behavior from his point of view. I was accused of trying to turn the conversation into a conflict. I was too sensitive. Any misunderstanding was my fault.

His dog defecated when picked up. How could he get the dog to stop behaving this way? The answer was ultimately complex but immediately simple, stop picking the dog up. The dog is sensitive, the owner’s behavior was being interpreted as threatening, scaring the dog. The only way for the dog to change was for the owner to change. But how can someone change if they are unable to consider that their behavior and actions might be perceived differently than they are intended?

Dogs are telling us how we make them feel all the time. If we are serious about helping them become less sensitive we have to acknowledge their perspective, their feelings, and stop putting the blame of misunderstanding on them, expecting to find an answer to changing their behavior that doesn’t include a major overhaul of our own.