Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

Folk Healers

boy getting a dog to stand on its hind legsWe have a long, rich history of folk healing. In modern times many of the remedies people still rely on either include or refer back to cures used before people understood the cause of disease. “Hair of the dog,” the term used to suggest that having a drink to help ease the effects of a hangover may go back to a time when the hair of the dog who bit a rabies sufferer was incorporated into the treatment. Folk healing survives not only because the people in need of healing are gullible, but also in part because many of the providers of the treatment believe in it themselves. And we know that belief is a powerful thing. Brains are impacted in numerous ways by the placebo effect. We also know that we have the very real inclination to see whatever it is we want to see, and why scientific studies factor that in when research is being gathered and attempt to eliminate it as a factor in the conclusions being reached.

Dog training is replete with folk healers as well. We don’t have to look far for solutions to our dog’s behavior problems that include energy, force fields, faulty or unforgivably inaccurate declarations about the true nature of dogs and their “needs.” It is virtually impossible for someone without a background in animal behavior to know when they are buying a cure or snake oil. Whether it is because of an intent to deceive or the supplier’s actual belief that they are selling something of value, in the end it is the dog who pays the ultimate price when the cure is ineffective. Adding to the challenge of owners knowing whether they are being sold a “bill of goods” or not is the suave marketing of their product by the retailers. In the internet age it doesn’t take much for an idea to catch fire, and the association with an already established brand will increase the perceived worth of a product or method. Being hosted by National Geographic and heralded by Oprah provided Cesar Millan with a boost to meteoric fame. His theories on dog behavior were so far off the mark that they would be laughable if it wasn’t the dogs who weren’t getting the joke.

The sprinkling in of “truth” can make it difficult for even the savviest of consumers to know what they are buying. That providing a dog with the opportunity to exercise is a good idea and that the addition of it may improve not only the quality of a dog’s life but also their behavior, is not a reflection that the rest of the “alpha dog” prescription for dog training has merit. That a dog may learn a new desirable behavior without direct instruction from their owner does not mean that focusing on changing energy, or attempting to discover balance, are efficient ways to get the behaviors we need dogs to perform. By the time a pet owner consults with a trainer they usually needed the dog’s behavior to have changed yesterday. Messing around with remedies that might help is time consuming and potentially deadly. And I refer to both the use of folk training methods, however new age and trendy they may be, and the addition of dietary and other supplements to a dog’s environment.

Fearful dogs are vulnerable and at risk. It is up to us as their trainers to use methods that are both humane and effective. Create environments where a dog feels safe. It is the perceived threat to their safety, actual or not, that creates most of the inappropriate behaviors we see. Change what the appearance of the threat predicts. The fearful response to a scary object is faster than the speed of light traveling on nerves into the parts of the brain that think about making choices. We need to quickly and reliably add something to the picture that makes the dog feel good. This is what counterconditioning is all about. At the same time we give a dog skills. We teach them to do something. Not only is this what an owner so desperately needs, a dog who can do something other than the inappropriate behavior, but it is through positive reinforcement that we can take full advantage of the ability of a brain to change. Doing this effectively and efficiently is the magic we should be spending our time and money on.

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Good Enough Maybe Isn’t

boy rewarding a cocker spaniel standing on a bucketDogs are remarkable. They are so adept at figuring out what we want that we are often led to believe that we know what we’re going. Enough dogs figured out how to change their behavior when faced with Cesar Millan’s alpha rolling, tssking, and neck pokes that people came to believe that they knew how to be leaders and how dogs need to be handled. As with any product or service being marketed, only the success stories are highlighted and aired, or pasted into magazine ads and stories. But don’t be fooled. For every success story there are failures. There are the people who did not lose 20 pounds in two weeks, stop smoking forever, speak a different language fluently in a month or get 45 miles to the gallon. Unfortunately when we apply the term “failures” to dogs it means either dead or subjected to a life of misery in a cage or on a chain somewhere.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in dog training. On one hand there are the people who are so invested in the method they are using that they can’t see that any lack of success with it is likely due to flaws in the method in general. Dogs don’t live in packs, they don’t have pack leaders so why should employing a method based on being a pack leader be expected to work? But it often does work, and for this reason, in the cloud of misinformation, people put the blame on the dog or their own ability to fully manifest the energy of a true pack leader.

On the other hand we can have methods which have shown that when correctly applied change behavior in almost all the dogs they are used with. But when these methods are used improperly, usually unwittingly and innocently enough, and they don’t work, the method itself is tossed into the trash and new ones are invented. It’s a lucrative market this dog training industry with its endless supply of equipment and magic methods for changing behavior. It often goes something like this- we are able to train 8 out of 10 dogs using the subpar application of a training method, the two dogs who for one reason or another require a more perfect execution of the method become examples of why the method doesn’t always work, instead of being canaries in the coal mine indicating that there may be problems afoot with the way the training is being performed.

One of the milestones for me in my journey to help a very scared dog was when I realized that I did not have the skills necessary to train a dog with the level of fearfulness my dog was displaying. The margin for error was smaller than it was with other dogs who were willing to continue to remain engaged with me long enough for the light bulb to finally go off in their head, “Oh so this is what she wants!”

I have gotten to the point where I’m confident that I know what I’m doing based on the research I’ve done and education I’ve received in animal behavior and learning. But I also know that I can keep getting better at doing it. No doubt that one day there’s going to be a dog who will point out the flaws in my technique and I will remind myself to point the finger where it needs to be, at me, not at the dog or the method.

Say Thank You

man giving dog treats while out on a walk

Thanks for sticking around during a walk in the woods

If your kids bring you breakfast in bed it’s best not to respond, “I hope you didn’t leave me a mess in the kitchen to clean-up!” Or accept a gift and explain why it’s not something you’d ever use. You could I suppose but not if you want to see either of these examples to occur again. With people we can wait until the end of the day and tell someone how nice it was to get up in the morning and find the coffee made, but with dogs we need to be more immediate with our appreciation. 

In some cases our praise and positive attention is enough reinforcement to see a behavior repeated. But it may not be. Going in to work every week and being awarded a “special employee” plaque may be nice but it’s not likely going to get you to go back every day. You need the paycheck. For most dogs the easiest way to not only show your appreciation of their behavior, but to increase the chances you’ll see it again is by giving them a bit of food. It’s easy enough to do, so long as you’ve prepared yourself for it.

This week practice saying thank you to your dog. Look for behaviors you like, as simple or basic as they may seem. Want to be able to get your dog’s attention more easily? Give them a piece of cheese when they look at you. Want your dog to come when you call them? Slip them a piece a chicken when they run up and check-in with you at the dog park. Can you catch your dog looking out of the window and not barking at squirrels? Prepare yourself for the inevitability of success by having food reinforcers handy and available. No doubt your dog will thank you.

Surviving in the Wilderness

dog under desk touching a target stick When I was younger I trained to be an “outdoor leader” so I could take people into the mountains or on rivers, for days at a time. I studied wilderness first aid and carried a knife to cut ropes, wore a helmet and PFD on rivers, enjoyed shopping for clothes and shoes designed using the latest technology and fabric for keeping me warm and dry, and coveted other people’s back packs for their good looks or ergonomic design.

As leaders we talked about and practiced what to do if something went wrong. We considered the ways we could remedy the problem using the equipment we had on hand or improvising with what we could find. There was always something new available to make the job easier; lighter, stronger paddles and boat hulls or better signaling technology in case you got caught in an avalanche. We learned to prioritize so we would focus on the key issues we’d face in an emergency. The bottomline becomes very clear and helps to direct our actions and to guide us as to what skills we needed to practice. If someone isn’t breathing or struggling to breathe, they’ll die. If they are bleeding excessively or their heart is stopped, they’ll die (and in pretty quick order in the latter case).

In the wilderness of dog training we are often faced with a variety of equipment choices and protocols to use to get basically one thing; a dog to behave the way we want them to. Some of the equipment and protocols we can use can make our jobs easier for us. Regardless of what we choose to use the bottomline remains as clear as it is when we have a medical emergency– we need to get a behavior. And making it even clearer, and therefore simpler, is that just as we know how when done correctly blowing into someone’s mouth will put air into their lungs, we know that when reinforced, behaviors are more likely to be repeated. Both are straightforward, true for everybody, systems. If they are not working then either we are doing something wrong (don’t forget to pinch the nose shut) or there is something very wrong (a piece of steak in the windpipe). We have to remove obstacles to success and follow the protocol for performing mouth-to-mouth correctly.

When trying to live with and train a fearful dog it becomes very important that we understand the basics of the system. Once we do we can break out the special equipment or try a new protocol available to us. And we are safer doing either of these when we understand how the system works. Understanding the purpose of an exercise is important. Good ones are about practicing a behavior and being reinforced for doing it. And being reinforced using something the dog feels good about.

In an emergency one of the first rules is to assess the situation. We assess the situation to ascertain what happened and to ensure our own safety. We want to avoid being the fool who rushes in. We can apply the same rule to working with scared dogs. Assess the situation and make sure that we will be safe and that the dog is safe so no further damage will be done. If someone is on fire for gosh sake, put it out. The faster we can extinguish the flames the less damage will be done. True with our dogs as well. If they are afraid figure out what they need to stop feeling that way. Give them space if they need it, a place to hunker down in, talk to a vet about medications to lower anxiety, or simply stop looking at them. Do what you need to do.

Once a dog is no longer fearing for their life we can work on changing the negative emotional responses they are experiencing and making them positive. We do this by pairing the scary thing with something fabulous, usually super good food. If the trigger comes to consistently and reliably predict the good thing, the emotional response changes. If we are not seeing this change then reassess. Is the dog still on fire? Are they still feeling scared and threatened? If so, you have to change that. Are you sure the trigger has been paired with the good thing consistently? Is the good thing good enough? Have you painted the picture clearly enough for the dog– the trigger predicts the treat– all the time?

Along with changing emotional responses we go back to the other basic– reinforcing behaviors we like. If a dog is still too scared to participate in a formal training session, they are still learning and we can still find behaviors to reinforce using positive reinforcement. Can the dog look at you? Turn their head? Stretch their neck? Sniff a toy? These are behaviors we can reinforce because as simple as they seem, they build the foundation not only for future, more complicated behaviors (pick up that toy and bring it back to me) they also contribute to helping the dog understand how *we* operate and how the system works. We do something, they do something and we give them a treat. We say their name, they look at us, we toss a treat. No need to make it more complicated than that.

I think it’s great that dog trainers are always trying to come up with ways to help dogs and make their lives better. But the best protocols and equipment keep your eyes on the prize. Identify the behavior you want and teach the dog to do it using positive reinforcement. Don’t waste your energy stumbling around in the wilderness. If you don’t understand how to apply the basics, find a trainer skilled enough to show you. In medical emergencies we know that we may have a small window in which to address that emergency. When a dog is really afraid we should be as concerned about addressing the crisis they are experiencing. If we don’t, all the equipment and special protocols may not be enough to save their life.

Losing Your Audience

I enjoy reading nonfiction and watching documentaries. But there are some books and videos I will avoid watching or stop watching, they are too upsetting to me. It won’t matter how important someone tells me the information I’d be gaining is or how artfully it is presented. There are award-winning films I have not watched because I know how they end; me feeling bad. Berate me all you like for sticking my head in the sand when I choose Glee over Blackfish, I’m still not watching it (read Death At SeaWorld, I get the picture).

pointy-eared dog looking down

“Were you saying something?”

When we lose our audience we effectively end the conversation. I’m not suggesting that people stop writing well-researched works of nonfiction or producing documentaries featuring behind-the-scenes information most of us are unaware of. I just can’t promise that I’ll want to read or see it.

If I am trying to teach a dog to do something I always consider whether or not they are willing to remain engaged in the conversation. They respond to my behavior with their behavior. For the most part dogs are pretty easy to wow with my conversational prowess, especially when the conversation includes food and play. When I do lose them it’s often because I’ve bored them or have made it an unpleasant enough exchange that they choose to opt out.

Good performers play to their audience and fearful dogs can be a tough one.