Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Way We Were

Recently I added a scanner to the array of equipment cluttering my desk. I am working on a project for the family which includes scanning old photos. It’s been fun to look at the images of the dogs I’ve lived with, and will continue to enjoy subjecting my Facebook friends to them.

Memories of each dog include a lightbulb moment or two when I learned something about them and their behavior. Samantha was a fox terrier we were given by cousins who didn’t want her. She had been relegated to life in their garage and when our dog Blackie died, we didn’t stay dog-less for long.

old photo of girl with fox terrier cradled in her lapHome for lunch from grade school, I took Sam for a walk around the neighborhood. I dropped the leash accidentally when she pulled and off she ran. I was wearing a pair of fish net stockings (this was before the days of pantyhose). I had fashioned a garter belt out of a pair of my father’s sock garter’s and as I ran screaming after Sam the stockings and garters slid down my legs and puddled around my ankles. I was scared and angry as I ran shouting her name. I returned home in tears without her. It wasn’t long before she returned and I yelled at her for running away. She cowered and even in my pre-developed, pre-frontal cortex, there was a glimmer of what would make perfect sense to me later, and that was that she didn’t understand the specifics of why I was shouting at her. She had come back, I should have thanked her.

For my 16th birthday I was the recipient of the best gift I can image ever getting, an 8-young woman wearing sunglasses sitting on a stoop with a dogweek old puppy. It was love at first sight and I slept on a couch in the basement because my mother did not allow dogs upstairs in the bedrooms. I named her Treble and brought her with me whenever I could, including on the subway into the Boston Common where she was delighted to chase squirrels back into the trees. It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t come when I called her, she would spin on a dime mid-chase, to return to me. I knew nothing about training or positive reinforcement. All I knew about was adoration, and I think it was mutual.

When Treble died I was heart-broken and when an adolescent stray dog arrived at the summer camp where I was working it wasn’t long before he was my dog. I called him BC (he was wearing a blue collar) and unlike Treble, he had no recall and I had no idea how to teach one. Many a time I would have to sit and wait while he ran around exploring until he’d had his fill. I discovered that if I ran away from him, as though off on my own pursuit of adventure, he’d follow me. Years later when I was shown how to do this in a dog training class I smiled at the memory of BC stopping to look at me quizzically before deciding to change direction and run after me.

woman with elf make up on and  holding a dog on a leashHe also taught me about appeasement gestures, that guilty look that people think their dog is making because they understand that they misbehaved. When confronted BC would lower his head and squint, something which I found utterly charming and I could never stay angry with him for long. One day I confronted him with, “What did you do?” even though he’d done nothing, and in return he squinted. Having done nothing wrong, why behave as though he had? Something else must have been going on, and indeed it was, he was displaying behaviors designed to get me to stop scaring him. So I did.

These are just 3 of the dogs who I shared some time with on this planet. With each I have found myself wishing that I knew then what I know now. I suspect that will be true for every dog I live with, present and future.


Missing Ingredients

small black dog yawning while being pet on the chestIt stands to reason that if we have not ever lived with a seriously scared dog that we would not have developed the skills to work effectively with them. Even if we’ve assisted other people living with a dog like this, there’s nothing quite like 24/7 to put our feet to the fire.

I regularly speak with people embarked on the bumpy journey to change their dogs. Many, after hearing the suggestions I make, express regret that they had been going about it ineffectively for as long as they had. It was obvious that what they were doing was ineffective, but unaware of the protocols used to change emotional responses and behaviors in dogs, had no way to discern if the problem was with the dog or with them. Many were following the advice of misinformed trainers or veterinarians and doubted their own ability to apply what were ineffective protocols to begin with.

The two ingredients which are essential to the process of helping fearful dogs are skill and patience. We can often stumble along making slow headway if we are missing one or the other, and it’s what most of us do when first confronted with the challenge of training fearful dogs. It’s when both of these key ingredients are missing from the mix that it becomes frustrating and potentially deadly for the dog. It is often our lack of patience with a dog that compels us to put too much pressure on them and some will snap, literally snap. Dogs who bite people or other animals run an increased risk of being abandoned or killed.

We improve our skills through education and practice. It takes time and energy. That education can also help increase our patience with a dog. When you understand that a terrified dog can’t do what you are trying to get them to do and is not being willfully disobedient it’s easier to cut them some slack. No one stands a 9 month old baby on their feet and implores them to walk or is surprised or disappointed when they don’t. Or we become able to see their behavior for what it is, a warning or a plea.

We shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has only ever lived with happy, social dogs would struggle when an unsocialized or abused dog lands in their home. We need to extend some of that patience to ourselves as the dog’s trainer and caretaker. We too can continue to become more confident and competent in the way we communicate and go about the unending process of becoming better than we already are.

What are the other ingredients you add to your work with fearful dogs?

My I Have Your Attention Please

Stop in for a visit to any one of the thousands of forums or groups devoted to dog training and behavior and you’re likely to bump into a discussion about whether or not it’s acceptable to punish dogs during training. There will be both reasonable and unreasonable comments from either side of the table.

Punishment is a very effective consequence to apply in order to end behavior. The challenge is getting it right. Reinforcement in the form of food is a very effective consequence to apply in order to see more of a behavior, and again the challenge is getting it right. In either case I want to consider what the consequences of me getting it wrong will be. Am I willing to accept, and subsequently have to deal with those consequences? In the case of punishment, often I am not. The reason? The consequences of the misapplication of a reinforcer, though problematic, especially if it’s routine, are likely going to be easy for me to change compared to the consequences of the misapplication of punishment, especially if it’s routine.

There are many reasons why a dog may continue to perform an inappropriate behavior or fail to perform a behavior we ask them to. Punishing a dog for failure to respond to a cue is risky business. What are we punishing? In this case we are often punishing what we interpret as a dog who is being willfully disobedient or blowing us off. There are other reasons why we may not get what we ask for, leading reasons being that the dog has not really learned the behavior, or has not generalized the cue to different locations or variations in the handler’s delivery of the cue.

Check out this video* and keep it in mind the next time you are inclined to yell at, yank on a leash, shock or hit a dog who doesn’t respond to a cue. They may not have even been aware that a cue to perform a behavior was presented to them.


*I was among the 70% of the people watching this video who did not.

Good Enough?

Scared dog at hoarding siteChildhood milestones in my life could be measured by learning how to swim. There are grainy, black and white home movies showing me leaping up, wiping the hair out of my eyes after demonstrating the newly gained skill of putting my face in the water at our lakeside cottage. I remember learning the “deadman’s float” and pretending to swim in the shallow water, my hands on the bottom of the lake as I practiced kicking my feet. When I went away to college I sought refuge in the pool swimming laps. Waiting for me at the deep end one afternoon was a young man. He had been watching me and asked if I’d like some tips to improve my strokes. I’d never had a lesson and along with enjoying the attention figured, why not?

He suggested some minor adjustments to how I held my head in the water, the position of my arms as they reached to enter the water and start the freestyle stroke, how to loosen up my hands and alter the depth of my kicks. Whenever we happened to be at the pool at the same time he coached me on subtle changes I could make to improve the efficiency of my movements. Soon I was swimming a mile and only stopping because I was tired of the routine, not because I was tired. The things he taught me made me a better swimmer and I took my new found confidence and joy in my abilities and found summer jobs as a life guard and swim instructor. I went from being good enough to being better.

It’s not unusual for us to learn how to do something just well enough to achieve some success and be happy with it. We get the job done, and that’s reinforcing. I have no plans to become a competitive swimmer and am content to go for long distance swims simply for the pleasure of it. Most of the skills I have learned are probably like my swimming skills, I get by with them enough to not see the need to put the energy into improving them. My interactions with my dogs were like that for most of my life, that is until Sunny came along and showed me that good enough was not going to cut it.

There are people involved in dog rescue, training and rehab who seem to have settled for “good enough” when it comes to how they handle dogs. They get what they need from the dogs and that’s reinforcing enough for them to not bother trying to improve on what they do. I recently watched a video of an obviously caring and compassionate rescuer using restraint and force to get a dog to let them handle her. To the casual observer it was heartwarming and the audience broke into applause and shed tears when the dog finally gave in and stopped resisting. Many would say that the ends justify the means and I did not question for a moment the good intentions of the handler. But I’m not a casual observer. No one working with fearful dogs can take the risk of remaining casual when interacting with scared dogs.

I remember reading this rescuer saying that they did not pay attention to what others said or did, they did what worked for them, and without question they were being reinforced routinely by the success they were having with dogs. But I saw someone who though “good enough” by the low standards currently upheld today in the field of dog rescue, had the potential to be amazing. All of the behaviors they were getting they could have attained without using force and restraint. A terrified dog would not have to be subjected to the additional stress and what looked to some as acquiescence in the dog, looked to me like a dog who had simply given up trying to fight anymore. A dog who was saying “uncle.” Why go there if you don’t need to?

We all know that the story continues after the camera stops rolling, the tears have been shed and the money has been donated. Plenty of dogs go on to become happy pets, but there are others for whom “good enough” wasn’t enough. Their failure will be attributed to any number of causes; the dog’s past or genetics. But when will we acknowledge that if all the people who handled the dog throughout the rescue process understood behavior, understood how animals learn, understood that good enough was not always going to cut it, more dogs could be successful pets? It’s one thing to be on the path to improving one’s skills. It’s another to refuse to even step onto it.