Archive for November, 2014|Monthly archive page

Who’s Going To Land This Plane?

airplaneI imagine being a dog trainer is like being the air traffic controller back in the tower trying to talk a stewardess through a landing after the pilot has a heart attack or is killed by Nicolas Cage. As attractive and savvy the stewardess may be, this might be her first day on the job, or she was sick the day they went over flying planes in the training she took to become a stewardess, or perhaps none of the navigation aids or gauges are functioning properly.

We know that flying planes is based on formulas that will include the speed, altitude, elevation and the angle of the plane based on the current conditions outside the plane and whether we want to keep flying straight ahead, turn, land or go higher. The controller has to figure out how to convey the information necessary for the stewardess to achieve whatever is required to get the job done. It won’t make it any easier if the guy in row 32, who has only ever been a passenger in planes is shouting out directions based on watching Denzel Washington land a plane upside down. It won’t be any easier if the woman in row 15 is telling her about the better way to fly a plane she made up and wrote a book about, but whose theory has not be adopted by the thousands of professional pilots who actually attended flight school.

How behavior is maintained, increased or decreased in dogs also follows rules that are known by the population of trainers and behaviorists who have taken the time to learn them. Those folks know that their job isn’t to give pet owners a course in aviation but rather to explain to them what they need to do and when they need to do it. Professionals in the animal training field follow guidelines that include not only effective and efficient ways to train but to do so in ways that are humane and the welfare of the animal is as high a priority as that of whoever is flying the plane.

When you need someone to talk you down make sure you don’t get distracted by background noise. And for heaven’s sake don’t try to land a plane upside down, no matter who you watched on TV doing it.

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Should This Dog Be Up For Adoption?

black and white drawing of baby carriage and dogs

drawing by Leslie Swieck all copyrights apply

The compassion that people show for dogs with fear-based behavior challenges is commendable. Rescue groups pull them from shelters by the thousands and well-intentioned people adopt them. Given the number of people joining online groups looking for support and advice about how to help these dogs the reality that it requires more than time and love should be glaringly obvious.

I was recently asked by a rescue group how to prepare people who adopt a dog living with a variety of fears, and my honest opinion is that you can’t. No matter how much people are instructed that they need to be patient with the dog, unless someone has lived with a dog who required months or years to learn how to; feel safe in their new home, go in and out of doors, ride in cars, be home alone, walk on a leash, see new people or dogs, they will not understand what they are signing up for. And if they did, they likely wouldn’t.

But the other reality is that the rescuing and adopting out of dogs with fear-based challenges is not going end any time soon. So what can we do?

Get information: Understand that dogs don’t simply “get over” being afraid. The conditions experienced during a dog’s early development can have life-long impact on their behavior. There’s no way back to normal for some dogs. Let go of biases against the use of modern medicine to address stress and anxiety.

Get skills: Despite current appearances in the dog training industry (absolutely anyone can come up with a protocol or method to train dogs or make up reasons why they do what they do), how dogs learn new skills and can change their emotional responses is well-documented and to train them requires an understanding of a few basic laws of behavior modification. There are more and more trainers who have the knowledge and skills to address the issues fearful dogs face in efficient and humane ways. If you don’t have the skills, find someone who does.

Be realistic: It is going to take time and love and patience and energy and money. Spend all of them wisely.

For dogs adopted into homes as pets the onus of change typically falls on the dog. People will only tolerate aggression, destroyed couches, irate calls from neighbors and any of the other fall-outs from the behavioral quirks of fearful dogs for so long. No amount of “Well we told you the dog was going to need time,” is going to cut it for the owner or the dog. So how can rescue groups prepare new adopters for life with a fearful dog? They can adopt out a dog with a few of the basic skills they will need to live as a pet. Expecting a pet owner, as devoted and well-intentioned as they may be, to be able to train a dog to accept routine ear cleaning when the dog currently hides, bites or screams when handled is wishful thinking. As is expecting them to be able to train the dog to; walk through doorways, go outside for leash walks, walk nicely on a leash, get in a car, sit quietly when guests come into the house, etc., etc.

Dogs have demonstrated the ability to learn despite how we train them not because of how we train them. But our fearful dogs are more dependent on the how being as clear as possible. Being re-homed is among one of the most stressful events in the life of a social animal. Being stressed and uncertain is a miserable combination and is not likely to contribute to an improvement in the dog’s behavior. We can prepare the adopters of these dogs by showing them how to cue a trained behavior and reinforce it. By training dogs using positive reinforcement every cued behavior is an opportunity to feel good and to minimize the uncertainty a dog experiences in a new setting. Will this add to the responsibilities of rescue groups? It sure will. Some are already taking it on, and my guess is that it will increase the odds the dog will remain in the home and have a head start on becoming a happy pet.

If we take on the responsibility of selecting dogs to place in homes as pets, we should embrace all that that entails, it’s how professionals operate. When buying a car from a stranger most people will have it checked out by a trusted mechanic (or they would be wise to). We don’t trust that the seller is either aware of, or being up front about possible problems that may be dangerous or costly. People adopting dogs are trusting that rescue groups and shelters are adopting out dogs who will make good pets. They should not be expected to know how to anticipate or deal with fear-based behaviors in a dog adopted to be a pet any more than a consumer can be expected to know about all the things that could be dangerously wrong with a product they are purchasing and hoping to use immediately. And we don’t expect them to know how to fix them.

I know that there will be people who will resent having an analogy made between dogs and products, but I think it’s time we stop closing our eyes to the fact that fearful dogs are returned and discarded all too often and start doing something about that.

Why Are Dog Trainers So Averse To Training?

man feeding treats to dogs in the woods

Building a relationship or a recall?

We are living in a golden age of dog training. The industry has been infused with information from professionals in the field of applied behavior analysis and animal training in general. Mark and reward training (click/treat) and lure/reward are if not embraced, are at least not unknown to most dog trainers and pet owners. Bob Bailey was pulled out of retirement and is once again offering chicken camps to help trainers understand and practice the fundamentals of operant conditioning. The list of educated and accomplished professionals contributing to the progress of dog training continues to grow. So why do so many trainers struggle with the idea of “training?”

I understand attempts to make training accessible to pet owners who may harbor as much enthusiasm for training dogs as I have for changing the oil in my car (very little). Yet often these attempts seem to only further confound or complicate what is quite a basic concept, teach the dog to do what you want. There is relationship training, attention training, engagement training and who the heck knows how many others methods and protocols out there developed to get a dog to do what someone needs them to do.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am all for having a good relationship with dogs and empowering them (whatever that means). Even people uninterested in the mechanics of training likely want to have a good relationship with their pets. And what that means for one person will be different for another and I’m not sure how we can even begin to define what it means to a particular dog. But if we break it down to basics, if a dog is able to understand what is required of them in order to keep them in a home as a valued member of the family, whatever relationship there is is more likely to continue and hopefully improve.

The behaviors required of most dogs are fairly routine; come when called, poop and pee in a designated area, on leash walk slow enough for the human to keep up with you, only chew stuff that isn’t of value to the humans. We can add to this list as we like, but each one of these requirements consists of a what often is an easy to train behavior, if you know how to train. What we call “paying attention” to us could be described very clearly as a specific behavior, in my case it means look at me. Because this is among the behaviors I deem important for a dog to be able to perform, it’s one I reinforce regularly, whether the behavior is performed on cue or not. And as we could predict because of the Law of Effect it’s a behavior I see a lot of in my dogs. I’m not focusing on our relationship, I’m focusing on the behavior. I like to think I have a good relationship with my dogs. They usually come when I call them, they wait for me to catch up to them on our walks in the woods, they would choose to go out the door or into the car with me when given the option.

I appreciate focusing on the warm fuzzy of relationships with owners rather than the cold sounding rate, timing and criteria of training. But what does a good relationship look like? Does it look like an owner putting on their walking shoes, grabbing a leash and going out with their dog? Does it look like hopping into the car and heading to a location where a dog can run off-leash? Does it look like signing up for an agility or nosework class? Does it look like a dog pulling on a tug toy or retrieving a ball? If it does, and it’s not happening because a dog pulls while on leash or lunges at people and cars going by, or takes off and doesn’t come when called, or is too afraid to interact with their owner, as a trainer I know how to remedy this. Train the dog. Make it easy for their owner to get the behaviors they need in order to be successful at keeping up with their end of the behavioral bargain required to create a good relationship; grabbing leashes, driving to off-leash areas, picking up the frisbee.

There are dogs out there who are reaching the end of the rope as far as the energy and patience an owner has for the dog’s inability to do what the owner needs. I may not know how to fix a relationship but I do know how to train a dog, i.e., get a behavior, and put it on cue. I make no apologies about it. Training is not a dirty word in my book.