Archive for August, 2013|Monthly archive page

Is Food Really the Problem?

boy in chair and 4 dogs looking at him

Guess what these dogs are looking forward to getting?

From the comments I’ve been hearing and the stuff I’ve been reading on the internet one would be inclined to think that the use of food in training poses great problems or risks. I cannot think of one conversation I’ve had with a trainer who laments that their clients reinforce behaviors with food too much. Indeed it’s usually the opposite. Having trouble with the duration of a down/stay? I’d put money on that it’s because the behavior is not being reinforced with food soon or often enough, or in the right place. Dog won’t come when called? Put me down for a fiver for the same reason.

I’m not suggesting that there are not other reinforcers that can be as effective as food or that we don’t need to be aware of how we use food in training, but do we really need to be out there warning pet owners about the dangers of using food to train their dogs? Have we already won the battle of helping owners understand how positive reinforcement works and how to implement it in their relationship with their dog? And so what if a dog likes steak?

If you get dog as a pup it’s likely that you’ll have the opportunity to create hundreds, hopefully thousands, of positive associations between you and good things or events in the dog’s life. Well-handled young pups will often follow us around regardless of whether we have a treat in hand or pocket, our shoe laces may be the draw along with our companionship. We have become conditioned reinforcers to our dog through the lovely organic process of living gently and playfully with a social animal. It’s not so seamless with rehomed dogs, and even more challenging with scared dogs.

If we are lucky someone along the way has provided a dog with a reason for feeling good about people. My border collie, adopted at least 2 other times from what I know about his history, was given the gift of learning to love as only some dogs can, catching and retrieving frisbees. When life seems uncertain and perhaps a little scary, there’s always frisbee. That my dogs who are not 100% comfortable with people will perform behaviors in order to get a tidbit of treat is a blessing for all of us. Sure the vet smells funny and wields tools of ear and anal prodding capability, but there’s always gorgonzola to mitigate the discomfort.

Travel anywhere in the developing world and the most common relationship you’ll see between people and dogs is based on food. Dogs follow children who drop crumbs of bread, or they hang out at roadside food stands gobbling up discards. I am aware of those torturous studies done on baby monkeys that showed that they spent more time hanging onto a soft facsimile of mother monkey compared to the wire mother monkey who provided milk. I am not attempting to downplay the relationship we can create with our dogs that does not include food or that animals derive comfort and relief in a variety of physical ways other than through eating.

Can our relationships go beyond food? Of course they can, and do. But so what if food plays a major role in that relationship, at anytime during its creation? Try and tell a grandmother that her corned beef with carrots or key lime pie don’t matter in her relationship with her grandchildren. Try believing it yourself the next time you plan a party and decide that the food you serve doesn’t matter. It may not be just about the food, but the food is definitely part of the equation. Our social engagements don’t have to include food, but interestingly they often do.

If a dog is only responding to an owner because of the promise of food, the food is not the problem, and the relationship might not be the problem either. Advising pet owners to ditch the food treats and replace it with “relationship” may not be prudent. Food is a part of the relationship and may be the only salient reinforcer a new pet owner has to use with their dog. And I say, “So what?” By pairing interactions with their owner with food the “feel good” power of a primary reinforcer rubs off on them. Instead of warning owners off of food we should be instructing them on how to use it effectively for creating strong, reliable behaviors. That one can over-hydrate and die is not a reason to advise against drinking water. “Stop using food” is one of the most misguided pieces of advice I’ve heard today.


Assume They Bite

border collie with ball and baby sitting in front

Even a “good” dog has teeth.

During his early time with us Sunny never growled or lifted a lip toward me or my husband. No one was more surprised than I was when he landed a bite on my neighbor’s calf when she was walking in front of our house. I soon learned  from other, more experienced fearful dog owners, that there was nothing surprising about Sunny’s behavior. He was essentially a dog who never had the opportunity to learn to feel good and comfortable around people, especially strangers, and I had encouraged my neighbor to toss tennis balls for Sunny when he went down to the road and barked at her. OMG. I can hardly believe it myself. What was I thinking? Fact is I didn’t know what to think. I never had a dog who was as prepared to bite people as Sunny was. Learning that the dog you are living with has the increased potential to, and in all likelihood will, bite someone is a crushing realization. I felt terrible about what happened to my neighbor, who was beyond understanding and generous in her response. I baked her a maple walnut pie and still am upset about Sunny biting her.

Since that time Sunny has put his teeth into another calf once. Again it was a predictable, and therefore avoidable situation. There was the perfect storm of conditions, I assumed one thing, the person engaging with him assumed another and “bam” it happened again. That sinking gut feeling is one I can do without. Again, the recipient of the bite was kind and generous and in fact was even unsure as to whether she’d been bitten or scratched, but I knew better, those marks were from teeth.

Recently I found out that another of the little dogs who was part of the same confiscation from a breeder as my Nibbles, had started biting people. Of all the shy dogs I met of that group, this little guy had the most skill and comfort around people. I never would have guessed that he’d end up biting, my money would have been on Nibbles. It’s been a couple of years since the dog had been adopted and I’m going to assume that this new propensity to bite has been building. The conditions the dog had been living in were leading to the creation of the behavior. Don’t get me wrong, the people he lives with are loving and kind. The dog is adored and well cared for but the, what are often subtle, signs of discomfort and fear were not seen or heeded.

When we live with a dog with “issues” of any kind we have two options that are often best combined. We manage the dog so that they are not put into situations in which they are likely to experience fear or discomfort and then fail at being good dogs. For pet owners without a lot of training background or skill, this is the go-to approach. Your dog lunges at dogs while out walking on a leash, stop walking your dog where or when you’re likely to run into other dogs. Your dog barks and charges guests who come into your home, put the dog in a crate or another room so they can’t.

The second thing we do is a combination of changing how the dog feels and teaching them new behaviors. Both of these are often most easily done using super good food treats. It can take some skill development on the part of an owner, but a good trainer, well versed in positive reinforcement methods and protocols can teach you. It’s a gentle and kind process that is a joy to watch unfold. As you are learning and practicing good management, your dog is learning and less likely to feel stressed and pressured, and less likely to bite.

I live with four dogs. My cocker Annie and border collie Finn have teeth and like all dogs can bite, but I don’t have the same degree of concern about their behavior with people as I do with Sunny and Nibbles. Annie and Finn have a buffer of tolerance and resiliency to being stressed by people. They are not afraid of people. Both Sunny and Nibbles have come a long way in their ability to feel more comfortable and safe with people, but the first feeling that washes over them when they see a person is probably fear, worry or concern. My goal has been to change that feeling to one of gleeful anticipation. In Sunny’s case it might be a frisbee toss across the dog yard. For Nibbles it’s a treat. For both dogs it means no handling or social pressure to engage in a conversation that decreases the distance between person and dog without the dog’s stamp of approval.

By assuming that your dog will bite you might save yourself and someone else having to deal with one. It’s painful.

Fixing What Ails You

french fries with ketchupIt seems that many of us go through our lives trying to make something better or fix something that we hold responsible for our troubles.

Years ago I was traveling with a couple of friends. One an ex-housemate who I enjoyed and laughed with, the other, his girlfriend was a friend only the most superficial of ways. We worked at the same place and we liked hanging out with the same guy. She always seemed to be struggling with something in her past that kept her unhappy with her better than average body, her prettier than average face and her smarter than average brain. Luckily her richer than average parents were able to provide her with decades of therapy. Even this seemed to be a cause of dissatisfaction and guilt.

I found her tiresome and self-centered. At dinner one evening when she asked how I would “feel” about her having some of my french fries I thought, “I’d feel like stabbing you with my fork,” but I am an adult and my future will hold many more french fries so, “Help yourself.” In retrospect she might have been a good dog trainer. Considering a person’s emotional attachment to their french fries certainly would set one up for understanding a dog’s attachment to a bone, or old sock.

I’m not sure if this woman ever found the solution to her nagging discontent, but no doubt it motivated many of her behaviors. When I look at dogs I often wonder what nagging discontent is motivating their behavior. Why does one find it impossible to walk outside, or another to race frantically from window to window to bark at the slightest movement or sound? What problem is their behavior trying to solve? And I understand that whatever reason I come up with may be right, but may also be very wrong. The best I can hope for is that whatever I come up with motivates me to change the dog’s environment and my or the owner’s interactions in ways that help solve the problem, rather than contribute to it.

In the dog training world more people take relationships into consideration. There is the realization that how we feel about each other will impact how and what a dog learns. And the relationship the dog has with their environment will also play a part in how they choose to behave or are triggered to behave. Dogs will find behaviors that make them feel better or provide some kind of relief, even if those behaviors are maladaptive to our homes and our lives.  Indeed these behaviors may be maladaptive to their own lives. We need to find solutions that help them solve their problems in ways that are constructive and safe.

I try to extend my compassion and understanding to people as well as dogs when it comes to being patient with behaviors that annoy me. But it’s probably still a good idea not to reach for my fries. I may be having a bad day.

So You Want To Be a Dog Trainer

So You Want To Be a Dog Trainer

There are plenty of options out there for online or DVD dog training courses. Knowing what you are getting is important because there are currently no guidelines for who can offer you certification to hang on your wall declaring you a dog trainer. And more importantly is there are no guidelines for the content of the information you will be receiving. 

The Academy for Dog Trainers is headed by Jean Donaldson. You may be familiar with her books; Dogs Are From Neptune, OH BEHAVE: From Pavlov to Premack, MINE: A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding, FIGHT!, The Culture Clash, and others. Her course provides a variety of media formats for learning including; DVD’s, books and other printed resources, weekly webinars, and 24/7 chat groups. The information is based on the science of animal behavior and learning and years of experience working hands-on with thousands of dogs in and out of the shelter setting.  

If you are looking to become not just a good dog trainer, but a great dog trainer, make sure you are starting with a solid foundation in modern training methods and up-to-date information on dogs and behavior. When you achieve certification from the Academy you can feel proud and confident that you are making decisions for your clients based on accurate and humane practices for behavior modification. 

*Disclaimer: I received a scholarship from The Academy to participate in a course. I was not asked to write this post, nor did I ever feel as though I was expected to.