Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

Doing What Comes Naturally

cartoon of shrugging dog with questionsWe live with animals and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact. When it comes to dogs we are living with animals who are designed with varying degrees of proficiency or intensity to; hunt, chase, catch, kill, chew, shred, mark and bark. They also breed and poop, and often at times and places we’d rather they didn’t. We’ve brought these animals into our homes and begin the process of trying to get them behave less like animals. Of all the animals on the planet, dogs seem to excel at accommodating us (much of the time). To be fair, many of us are willing and able to accommodate them when they continue to behave like the animals they are.

Often the easiest thing to do, and something we have a long and rich history of doing with all kinds of animals, including humans, is to use force and punishment to get what we need from them. We find no end to the reasons to justify our actions. Societies enact laws to help guide its citizens in making more just, and humane choices to achieve goals, given our tendency to resort to threats of and actual violence.

Behavior is lawful. When we understand those laws we can make humane, and effective choices to modify it. We start with humane management. This means creating an environment in which the animal can live safely without needing or being inclined to perform the behaviors we decide need to change. We ensure this environment provides them with good reasons to live; things to do, positive outcomes to attain. We consider the needs and normal behaviors of the animal when choosing or creating environments for them to live in. Bringing working dogs (and any other category of healthy dogs) into our homes and providing a minimum of enrichment and exercise is as unreasonable as bringing a goldfish home and tossing it on the sofa and expecting it will live a long and healthy life, and thank us for it.

Given that the practice of bringing or placing dogs into homes without full consideration of what their care will require is not likely to end soon, our best chance at success, and their best shot at a decent life, will be achieved by using our big brains to come up with solutions. There are professionals- vets, vet behaviorists and trainers who have studied the sciences of health and behavior who are able to formulate plans for addressing the challenges we are facing with our dogs.

Should we find ourselves routinely resorting to force, fear, intimidation, punishment and restraint to manage our dogs we should consider the possibility that we have failed in one or both of two ways. Either we lack the skills to efficiently modify behavior without them, or we have not adequately assessed the ability of an animal to be successful given the conditions they will be required to live in. If we are going to punish dogs to end our own suffering and inconvenience we can at least be insightful enough to admit it.

Training Fearful Dogs: Why You Shouldn’t Make Them Do It

brown dog with leashIn the Fearful Dog Group that I started on Facebook I have established guidelines regarding the methods, techniques or ideologies that are appropriate for sharing with group members.

A common, and often hotly debated piece of advice is to encourage people to be better leaders. Though seemingly a benign suggestion it is ambiguous enough for both the giver and the receiver of the advice to have very different interpretations of the term. Given that we already have more appropriate terms for our relationship with the dogs we are training- trainer or teacher, there is no need to use a word that comes saddled with the baggage of pack leadership, alpha rolls and dominance. Even if this form of leadership is not what someone is suggesting, we can spare ourselves the need to explain our version of leadership merely by using another word. We don’t need to be good leaders in order to train dogs anyway, we need to be good trainers.

Nothing in life is free (NILIF) or closing the economy on a reinforcer- making the receipt of a valued or necessary reinforcer contingent on the dog’s performance of a specific behavior- is another training option that is not recommended in the group. In general there is nothing wrong or inhumane about it so long as an animal receives enough of the reinforcement to maintain good health and quality of life. Understanding how we can manipulate the motivators we have to train a dog is important. It makes sense if one is going out into the woods with their beagle off-leash to practice recalls, to skip the dog’s breakfast and have a pouch full of steak and cheese. Maybe (just maybe) we can begin to compete with other reinforcers in the environment that are going to make it more challenging for Tippy to respond to our recall instead of the scent of the herd of deer that wandered by before we got there.

If parents are struggling to get little Jimmy to pick up his dirty laundry, make his bed, do his homework, etc., and they are tired of punishing him, taking away his allowance, or making threats, knowing that playing video games is something Jimmy loves to do, they can take advantage of this to build the behaviors they are after. By making playing video games contingent on the performance of the desired behaviors, they can stop threatening punishment and put the ball in Jimmy’s court. Picking his towel up off of the bathroom floor and putting it in the hamper earns him 15 minutes of game time, bed making earns half an hour.

It’s important that any behavioral requirement we put on Jimmy (or Tippy) is one that they are capable of performing. If Jimmy is not doing his homework because the math is too complicated or written words are hard for him to comprehend, and he cannot earn his video playing time, we could expect to see him find other ways to be reinforced, or become frustrated. He might stop coming home from school right away to hang out at a friend’s house where he can play video games. He then starts smoking pot, steals cars for joy rides, gets arrested and ends up spending his youth in detention centers. OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but my point is that it’s important that all animals have the opportunity to participate in activities that are positively reinforcing to them, and it’s our job as teachers to figure out what those are, and make it clear and possible for them to be attained.

In the case of fearful dogs we can assume that the motivator of the dog’s behavior is to protect themselves, to find a way to minimize what they perceive as a threat to their health and safety. Making the receipt of the most primary of reinforcers, food, contingent on doing something we want them to do, but scares them, is not fair. I would like to think that this is so blindingly obvious that it needs no further explanation. It is one thing to close the economy on food to compete with squirrels, it’s another thing to use it to coerce an animal into doing something that terrifies them.