Archive for the ‘Dog training’ Category

Growing Pains in Dog Training

I suspect that all industries experience growing pains. It may be that they are a constant in any kind of industry, change for the better always being a shining light on the horizon we should be striving for. Thirteen years ago when I first began my search for information to help my extremely fearful dog Sunny, it wasn’t unusual for there to be responses to my queries that included something along the lines of; reinforcing fear, enabling fear, keeping dogs trapped in fear. These comments were rarely challenged. Not so today. Chances are very good that if someone makes the claim that comforting a dog, or feeding a dog when they are fearful will reinforce their fear, more educated voices will chime in. They won’t always be listened to, but I suppose that’s the pain I am referring to.

The future is bright for dogs and other animals as far as how people will train them. More and better information about how behavior can be changed without forcing an animal to do something and without scaring or hurting them to get them to stop doing something, is filtering its way out from the sources that represent the research and science, into popular knowledge about training. More young trainers are getting onboard with it. They are reflective of what’s in store for pets and other captive animals.

We have to remain cautious that we either avoid, or acknowledge and accept, when we have latched onto something that has been packaged nicely and marketed well. This often is identified by its appeal to popular trends in how we like to think about animals. Our personal biases are stoked by descriptions and explanations about why and how someone’s technique or protocol works to change a dog’s behavior. Yes! I want to have a good relationship with my dog. Yes! I want my dog to feel empowered, imbued with confidence. Yes! I want to give my dog the choice to do what they prefer. Yes! It is wrong to hurt a dog. Yes! I need to be my dog’s pack leader.

I cannot sell something I do not own. And I will not sell something that I’ve made up reasons for why it changes a dog’s behavior. We know what we need to do to humanely and efficiently change behavior and emotional responses in dogs. Our goal should be to get better at doing it. The foundation of the technology that allows us to do this is our ability to deliver positive reinforcement to an animal in a timely way that provides them with the information about which behavior gets them the goods. Skilled trainers do this. And they do it a lot (sometimes 8-12 times a minute!).

training pigs

Keep animals feeling safe.

Create good, fun, happy, tasty, associations with objects or events we want them to be comfortable with.

Train them using food or something else good or fun, they want enough to change their behavior to get.

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The 3 Steps To Helping Fearful Dogs

shy dog in cageIt has been over a decade since my fearful dog Sunny came to live with us from a rescue camp set up to help care for the animals impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I met him at Camp Katrina where I went to volunteer several weeks after the hurricanes hit. As much as I thought I knew about dogs and dog behavior, training and how dogs learn, I soon came to understand it was a drop in the bucket compared to what I needed to know in order to help and train a scared dog.

But I learned. It wasn’t always a smooth road and even today I realize how much more there is for me to understand about how behavior works and Applied Behavior Analysis, but there is no question in my mind about how to approach interacting with fearful dogs, including aggressive dogs.

The in a nutshell version is this-

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to for each dog. We want to see fearful reactions decrease or end. It may mean ceasing to talk to or interact with the dog beyond routine care. It may mean providing them with a safe haven where they can escape from whatever is scaring them on a daily basis.
  2. Change how they feel about the scary stuff by changing what it predicts. This is called counter conditioning. Usually we have the scary events become a reliable predictor for something yummy or fun. The scary thing does not have to be the source of the good stuff, only a predictor of it.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you need them to do using a high rate of positive reinforcement to build strong and reliable behavior. You can use a clicker if you like and know how, but you don’t need to. What you do need is to know what the dog values enough to change its behavior to get.

Common responses to these steps include;

But if the dog isn’t exposed to scary stuff how will they learn to deal with it? 

This question is like asking, “If someone doesn’t keep almost drowning how will they learn to swim?” We can’t teach someone to swim if they’re too afraid to get into the pool! We start by eliminating the need for the dog to worry about bad things happening to them. From there we can teach them everything they need to know.

I tried counter conditioning and it didn’t work!

This is often an indication that the conditioning was not done properly. Unlike a laboratory where all the different objects and events in the environment can be controlled to a greater degree than we can in the real world, it can be tricky for the dog to isolate that it’s the thing we are trying to condition them to, that is responsible for the fabulous good stuff they are receiving. There are always lots of other things going on around a dog and each or any of them might have also been conditioned to previously. A dog who is afraid of men with hats and beards might also be conditioned to feel afraid when on the sidewalk where men with hats and beards have been encountered, or the smell coming out of the door of the hair salon at the spot where a scary man was last encountered.

My dog isn’t interested in food when scared.

Fear and anxiety impact a dog’s digestive system. It’s not unusual for them to not want to eat. See step 1.

I don’t want to use food. 

Food is a primary reinforcer, as such it is among the easiest, most portable and salient things we can use to train. Use it. If your dog is motivated by toys and play, lucky you, use them.

What if I don’t have food. 

If a dog has been trained to perform a behavior because food was provided as a consequence, and that has happened a lot, the behavior is usually strong enough to persist even if at some times we don’t have food. We can also condition other things to work as reinforcement as well. Don’t worry about it, a good trainer can show you how it’s done.

My mission is to help people living with or working with fearful dogs to have a better understanding about how to help them. My fearfuldogs.com website has lots of information and resources. If you need more help you can schedule a phone or skype consult. Webinars and seminars are also available. Before you let anyone handle or train your fearful dog make sure they know these important 3 steps.

 

Between A Rock & A Hard Place

small dog looking at toySometimes we have to do something because it needs to be done. If we grab someone about to fall off a cliff we can worry about having to apologize later for having touched them without their permission. But we need to be careful not to use the excuse that needing to get something done absolves us from understanding what it is we are doing.

If ever there was a group of professionals who could use the excuse that something needed to be done, it’s veterinarians. What we are seeing today, happily and gratefully, is the recognition that how something is done to an animal can have serious implications for that animal in the future, and any decisions made regarding how to handle and treat animals should be done with a thorough understanding of those implications.

There remains resistance among some in the rescue and sheltering community to, at the very least, acknowledge that decisions made regarding how to handle and train a dog can matter in the long term for that dog and the people living with it. It is reasonable to determine that the time and resources to work with some dogs in ways that minimize the risks of creating fear and possibly instigating aggression, are not available. However it’s important to consider whether we are holding onto and justifying familiar practices because they are what we are used to doing. Perhaps they work with enough dogs that dogs who require a more systematic or less aversive approach, can be considered an unfortunate, but acceptable loss when they fail to make it as a pet.

When a dog’s life depends on being trained, train as though their lives depend on it.

Keep the dog feeling safe. Help them feel safe.

Counterconditioning to the scary stuff. Incorporate gradual exposure to them as necessary.

Train. Use food, toys or play. Use lots of food, toy or play. 

Clean-up On Aisle Dog

worried looking boxer dog

Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

If you happen to be privy to the chatter that goes on between dog trainers, what I am going to say will not be new to you. Daily, dog trainers are contacted to help an owner with a dog, a normal, healthy, fully functioning dog, whose behavior has become untenable or even dangerous. Sometimes we’re contacted within a few days or weeks after the problem behavior has been identified. More often it’s been months or years before we get the call (or text or email).

We may be their first hope, often we are their last. We are not usually going where no trainer has gone before. On the contrary, we are stepping in to try to fix a problem that another trainer (or trainers) failed to address, contributed to, and yes, even caused.

Whether an owner followed the bad advice shared by; a trainer’s TV show, book, seminar, a sales person in a pet shop, or the folklore of a culture, it becomes our turn to step up to the plate. Though the deck has been stacked against us, bases are loaded, with 2 strikes, all eyes are on us to win this thing.

Cleaning up a behavior problem that is based on a schedule of positive reinforcement is like getting a water soluble stain out of synthetic. Behavior problems caused by the use of punishment (P+) or other aversive methods (R-) are more like oil-based stains on silk, good luck to you. Even if you do manage to get it out, the fabric may never be the same as it was before it was stained.

Be careful how you handle a dog, any dog, but especially one that is fearful and fragile. If in doubt as an owner or trainer, visit the Fearfuldogs.com website for more information about the most effective and humane ways to train. Join me in Concord NH in February 2018 for a day of learning to Train As If Their Lives Depended On It.

Do Something

I call them “chiselers.” Not the swindler kind, but the kind with chisels who show up and whittle away at your resolve, confidence, and enthusiasm. I can be one and cringe when I observe it in myself.
We can be quick to point out the flaws in an idea or plan, or why it won’t work or shouldn’t be done. The internet even coined a term for a form of it, “concern troll.” It’s not that there is no value to having someone point out flaws, we can’t think of everything, and it may be a heads up as to what obstacles we should prepare for. But it’s the rain on our parade and the pin bursting our bubble.

girl decorating a treat pouch for training dogs

When I first floated the idea of having satos (Puerto Rico street dogs) transported to our local humane society I ran into it.

-What about the dogs already in our area needing homes?! Our shelter frequently had empty runs and the dogs I was planning on bringing over were all under 20#, a size which is hard to find in our local shelters. Someone going to a shelter for a small dog is not likely to end up bringing home a 70# lab mix.
-Disease was a concern, and a valid one. It was addressed.
-Why put energy and money into dogs when there were children who needed help? Without question there are plenty of other causes that need to be addressed in the world. Pick your passion. I encouraged those who felt that there were more important needs, to do something about them. I did often wonder if they actual did, or if pointing out the problem and trashing my idea was the extent of their efforts.
When I first created the fearfuldogs.com website I was criticized because some thought that instead of encouraging people to look at a website I should be telling them to find a trainer. A good idea, but at that time the supply of trainers who could humanely and efficiently address fear-based behaviors was even smaller than it is now.
We all have experienced this in some way or another. You are excited about a move to a new area for a job and your aunt keeps sending you articles about bad things that have happened there. It is done out of concern and love, but you can feel it whittling away at your joy. People will claim to be trying to spare you disappointment, or to stop you from wasting your time. My daily posts in my Fearful Dog Group on Facebook were routinely critiqued by someone or another who felt I could have used a better turn of phrase or words to make my point. I rarely found them to be wrong, but the chronic sting of their comments (being made with good intentions I assumed) was wearing and I began to dread posting something in anticipation of chisel.
I have never forgotten the words of advice my brother-in-law gave me over 20 years ago when I was thinking about starting a business. “What if I wasn’t successful,” I asked. “Most people never even try,” he responded.
You don’t have to be like most people. Try.
*The people on the islands of Puerto Rico and Vieques are in dire need of support. If you would like to drop them a few dollars for water and supplies here are a couple of reputable options for making a difference in their world.
Go to paypal and “send” to
give@pranimals.org
or click on this link
Vieques Humane Society

 

High Risk Activities

puppy being dragged into the ocean

“I’d rather not.” “So?”

One of the primary goals I have for this blog, the seminars and webinars, and consults I do for folks living or working with fearful dogs is to help them understand how to think about fear based behaviors. When I am contracted to help someone train their dog I can directly and specifically tell them what to do. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the number of dogs out there that need someone to help them. If people have good information to use to come up with reasonable ways to respond to their dog, they are more likely to do so, and that is what needs to happen–dogs need to be responded to appropriately.

Risk management is an important consideration in many industries. It should be in the dog training industry as well. The most obvious reason is that when people get bitten, dogs get put down. But there are other risks. A dog’s quality of life is at risk when they are not handled properly. One of the most high risk activities we engage in is when we expose dogs to objects or events that scare them. This tactic is fueled by a variety of notions espoused by trainers; dogs need to be exposed to things or else they’ll never learn to not be afraid of them, dogs are empowered by being able to choose to investigate something, if something doesn’t hurt them a dog will learn that it’s not something they need to be afraid of, dogs won’t be afraid if you are the pack leader. Each of these, among others not mentioned, can lead people to making high risk decisions about how to manage their dog.

I am not saying that exposing a dog to things, or allowing them to roam around and make choices as to how they will respond to something that might scare them doesn’t ever work. I am suggesting that it is a high risk approach to take with a fearful, shy, anxious or reactive dog. Existing fears can become worse and new ones can be added. We can and should minimize and manage the risks we are willing to take when a dog’s life and the lives of those around that dog are at stake.

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe.
  2. Be prepared to make anything that already scares, or might scare, the dog a predictor of something fabulous. Use food. Fabulous food.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you’d like them to do when in the presence of something that does or might scare them. When we use high rates of positive reinforcement to train appropriate behaviors we don’t need to worry about them making bad choices.

Be the Voice for the Vulnerable

My first career as a younger adult was in the outdoor recreation industry. It was fun and there was a certain caché to being paid, as minimal as it may have been, to do something others paid to do. Though there was no obligation to do so, many of us felt the need to advocate for the wild places, the rivers, mountains, deserts and oceans we floated, climbed, skied, sailed, worked and played in and on. We shared information about legislation effecting our environment with adults and provided opportunities for children to find delight in a world that didn’t run out of batteries.

Animal trainers are also in the unique position to provide educational opportunities in ways that may be more impactful than books or classrooms. The same sweeping wave of delight that led one person to work with exotic animals in zoos can be fostered in the troops of children that routinely visit zoos to see the animals, who without advocates, may cease to exist in their natural environments across the globe. It may be less an indoctrination than it is a call to our own self-preservation.

Dog trainers can model the ways we teach without threats, force, intimidation or pain. Children can learn how we can shape and change behavior without bullying or creating fear in an animal whose life is quite literally in our hands. We may not be the only eyes of the miracle that is our world, but we may be the only voices that can protect the vulnerable.

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Fake Dog News

sheep falling off cliffDog trainers are no strangers to fake news and the wealth of misinformation and mythology available to us via the variety of sources for information. It’s been years since we mourned our loss of respect for National Geographic with its enabling of Cesar Millan and his dangerous dog whispering. Regardless and despite the warnings from veterinary behaviorists and other professionals in the field of canine behavior, NatGeo continued with its lucrative programming presenting lies about dogs and how they should be trained and handled. Professional trainers today (those who bless their hearts actually got an education in behavior and training) are routinely presented with behavior challenges that either could have been avoided or easily addressed, had the owner not fallen for the BS they saw on television.

If that was the only source of nonsense, maybe, just maybe we might have managed to get a leg up on helping owners learn how to get what they needed from their dogs without resorting to force, fear or pain. But the dog training industry continues to fill lecture halls, sell DVDs, books and webinars, by marketing half-truths, misrepresentations and fiction to those of us interested in learning a thing or two about training dogs.

Years ago when becoming a dog trainer was still only a twinkle in my mind’s eye, I attended a 3 day seminar on aggressive behavior is dogs. Aggressive behavior in dogs is something to take seriously since it’s more likely to lead to a dog being re-homed, relinquished or euthanized, compared to routine ‘doesn’t come when called’ or ‘steals food off the counter’ annoying behaviors. This is of course in addition to the harm they can cause other dogs or people. The seminar was being hosted by a company that promotes educational opportunities for dog trainers who don’t rely on shock, prong or choke collars. I trusted it would be worth my time and money and by the looks of the diligent note taking going on in the room by other attendees, I assume they did as well.

Among the red flags that started waving was one that was planted when I dared question a statement the presenter made. I had learned that the application of a consequence for a dog’s behavior should follow as closely to the behavior as possible, but this trainer claimed that dogs could learn that they did something wrong when the punishment followed after a longer duration. I’m not talking about the difference between 3 seconds and 4.8, he was claiming over a minute. Even as a neophyte this seemed like it made room for a lot of additional behaviors besides the one being punished. After rehearsing the question in my head, I screwed up the courage and asked where I could access the information that lead to his conclusion? “I just gave it to you,” was his straight-faced and somewhat stern reply.

Among the strategies presented for dealing with aggressive behavior in dogs (which included a variety of creative ways to scare the sh*t out of dogs sans shock collars) was this gem of reasoning: Some dogs who are aggressive toward people who come into your home are so because they see these intruders consuming household resources, they get cups of tea and cookies. The solution was to hand guests something to bring into the house, the dogs seeing this, would then be more inclined to feel kindly toward them. And not because they brought something for the dog, a can of soda would do. By the time this pearl of nonsense was presented I had learned my lesson and my notes consisted mainly of the equivalent of “WTF?”

The insidious thing about fake news is that it sounds real and often confirms something you think is true or would like to think is true. A few examples include; functional reinforcers are always better than alternates available to us, you must first bond with a dog in order to train them, choice is a reasonable reinforcer to consider using in training, toys and play are a superior form of reinforcement, dogs need markers (clicker or verbal) to be trained.

If there is a lesson in any of this it’s not that we can’t believe anything we hear, read or watch, it’s that we should be willing to think our way to conclusions and support each other in doing so. Friends don’t let friends believe fake dog news.

The Real Reason You Should Never Hit Your Dog

yellow dog looking suspicious

What is that hand going to do to me?

Hitting a dog is a bad idea. Even one of those “Oh it didn’t hurt them,” swats is a bad idea. And here’s why. Dogs notice what things predict. If a hand has ever predicted getting grabbed, scruffed, swatted or worse, the dog learns that sometimes hands do unpleasant things to them. Puppies will learn this quickly, and even older dogs who were never routinely hit will learn quickly that some hands are not to be trusted should they ever be hit. The question for dogs will be to know which hands they need to be worried about. That’s where the danger lies, they may decide that being safe is better than being sorry, and will avoid or even bite any hand reaching for them.

Think about what many people do the first time they meet a dog. Think about what little kids do. They reach out their hand for the dog to get a sniff or give a pet, except that dogs are not mind readers and they don’t know their intentions. A dog who has been reprimanded or corrected by hands, or by something in a hand, may be more inclined to bite hands. Any trainer who suggests that someone uses their hands to do something scary or painful to a dog, whether it’s suppose to imitate another dog’s mouth (which is frankly a load of malarky) or to forcibly restrain or punish the dog, is behaving in a way that as a professional constitutes gross negligence. They should know better. They should know that the very last thing in the world we want is for a dog to have to worry about what a hand is going to do to them.

Things Professional Trainers Never Say

Don’t expect to hear any of these comments from a professional animal trainer.

“I don’t feed the dolphins fish when they jump through the hoop, they should do it because they respect me.”

“We never use food to train our lions to stand for injections, that would only make them think they’ll get food every time they did it for us.”

“The seals at our facility do what we train them to do because they love us.”

“If we gave the pelicans food for letting us handle them they’d think they were dominant.”

“Using food to train elephants only spoils them.”

“We can’t be bothered always having food available for training.”

“I’d rather hurt or scare an animal to get them to do what I want instead of using food.”

You don’t have to look hard to find animals being trained to perform all kinds of useful and fun behaviors, using food. You can train your dog like a professional animal trainer. Use food.

This blog post is part of the #Train4Rewards blog party. Enjoy other interesting blogs at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog.