Archive for the ‘Fostering Dogs’ Category
I am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.
When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.
What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.
There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.
That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.
-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.
-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.
-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.
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.
- Keep the dog feeling safe.
- Be prepared to make anything that already scares, or might scare, the dog a predictor of something fabulous. Use food. Fabulous food.
- 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.
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.
The dog training industry may be among the few professions in which people with a lack of understanding and limited or no education are glorified, even given their own TV shows, while those who have chosen to become educated are held up for ridicule. Heaven forbid you know a few big words and have the temerity (temerity: excessive confidence or boldness; audacity) to use them. Chefs probably have a deeper and broader understanding of the science of cooking than many dog trainers have of learning.
Imagine sitting around with a group of pilots and one saying with a sneer, “I don’t know what all this wind sheer and lift is you’re all going on about, I just fly the damn plane,” and the other pilots raising their glasses in a toast and high fiving. Or a physician boasting that they’re not even sure what blood pressure is, they just take out the damn appendix. How about hiring an electrician who admits to not fully comprehending (comprehending: understanding) what amps and voltage refer to and just wires the damn house.
Over a decade ago when I first began my search in earnest to try to find out how to train an extremely fearful dog I was discouraged to find how limited, and too often wrong, the information was. The discovery that dog training is based on a science, with principles and laws that are supported by mathematical formulas, and decades of research, came as a relief. Finally I could quit mucking around and could get down to the business of helping a vulnerable dog learn to navigate the world he was living in.
Dogs who do not do what someone wants them to do are called disobedient, stubborn, or even stupid. They are labeled as “lacking in impulse control.” Instead of trainers looking at what they are doing and realizing that they are not making it clear to the dog what they should do, when they should do it, how long they should do it and why they should do it, trainers blame the animal. They don’t know there is a big picture and that the laws of behavior and principles of learning, when applied properly, can make it more likely the dog will be successful, along with feeling less fear, stress or anxiety. I assume these trainers don’t know there is a big picture, a science to refer to, because what professional would turn their nose up at learning more about what they do or would go out of their way to criticize those who do? Apparently that would be some dog training professionals, who revert to the tactics of the cool kids in high school finding ways to disparage (disparage: regard or represent as being of little worth) the kids who read, knowing that the rest of the herd will look on, nod their head and snicker.
Ignorance is only useful when it compels us to seek more information. Otherwise it’s just stupidity, and there’s nothing admirable about that. Dogs deserve better. All animals deserve better from us. The next time someone boasts of their ignorance and their proud refusal to do anything to change it, don’t turn them into heroes, and you don’t have to give them your damn money.
Food is a primary reinforcer. Looking at it feels good, thinking about it feels good. Mmmm..hand churned ice cream with fresh peaches, sweet corn on the grill, garden fresh salsa with just picked cilantro. That’s why you keep watching, mum.
In the world of dog training food is still being given a bad rap by some. The misuse of food as a bribe is often cited as reason to avoid using it. The argument that dogs become dependent on food would almost be funny if folks weren’t serious when they made it. I have yet to sort out how to break my dogs’ dependency on eating.
Different dog trainer camps each have their own set of premises as to why they prefer not to use food in training. And ironically enough on the spectrum of trainers understanding how behavior works (from haven’t a clue to enough understanding to make stuff up and sound like they know what they’re talking about), and developing a method or style, both the dominance and force-free advocates have adopted other supposedly more natural alternatives.
Years ago I ran into a neighbor who had purchased two chocolate lab sister pups. I asked if she was planning on breeding them. “No,” she answered. How about spaying them? “No,” again. “Why not?” I queried. “Because it’s not natural,” she claimed. Had I been drinking coffee there’s a good chance it would have come out of my nose. Natural!? As IF there is anything natural about a chocolate lab (no offense to them or any other breed of dog). The pressures of artificial selection have created very different animals than the pressures natural selection would have created.
This hasn’t stopped trainers from jumping on board the it’s natural bandwagon (I have yet to understand how food has been relegated unnatural, and am not going to spend much time on trying). There are the trainers who seem to be taking their lead from dogs from another planet, those mother dogs who use bites to the neck and muzzle holds to teach their puppies how to walk more slowly on leash, come when called, or poop outside and not in the house (that those mums start out by eating their puppies’ poop is natural enough but few recommend owners go that route). And the trainers who extoll natural, organic, functional rewards (other than food) for training behaviors such as stop running away from me and turn and come to me, or stay in a crate for hours, a behavior which I daresay might be as unnatural as it gets as far as a dog is concerned. Some leap of logic has been made that even though we are going to train behaviors that go against what is likely very much in a dog’s nature; chase stuff, chew stuff, eat stuff, shred stuff, guard stuff, pee on stuff, we are obliged to do so by someone’s random definition of what constitutes natural.
Most troubling are the trainers who just flat out do not understand how counterconditioning works and avoid using food to create positive associations with triggers. Or fail to see how the use of food in operant conditioning can impact the dog’s emotional response to where the food is being given, what’s around, and probably most importantly the handler who’s supplying it, right along with performing the behavior itself. Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.
Before anyone feels the need to comment and remind me that there are other things besides food that dogs can find positively reinforcing and motivating, I get it. I’m not arguing against the use of whatever a dog finds positively reinforcing in training, but those dogs who needed help yesterday and those dogs today who remain wary and fearful or are facing being returned to a rescue or shelter, or euthanized because they didn’t get the memo that they should be able to be trained or counter conditioned without the use of food, are the victims of the very bad advice to avoid using or minimize the use of food in training.
Here’s the main point that we often dance around- it’s about training the dog. Yes the dog needs to feel safe, and we often need to counter condition to triggers before we can get down to business, and that business is teaching the dog what they’re suppose to do.
For the most part dogs are pros at figuring out what we want them to do, and dog trainers can get away with tips and suggestions, and get the job done. Some trainers appeal to an owner’s belief in the mythical pack leader, others to the balm of “natural” or “organic.” And still others to our tendency to conserve energy and want something that seems simple and easy.
But at the end of the day, a dog is going to stay in a home because they do what they are asked or expected to do. If we cannot leave the decision of what they should do up to them (no you cannot chew the sofa, bite the mailman or pee on the rug) we need to train them. In many cases we need to train them fast, for their sake as well as the sanity (and safety) of the people they live with.
For those who are unaware of it (and many are because as a whole the dog training industry has done a woeful job of educating both trainers and pet owners about it) there is a science to behavior change. The physical act of training is a skill people can practice and learn, and for those who choose the most humane way to train, this means getting very good at identifying behaviors to reinforce, and minimizing or eliminating the reinforcement of behaviors we don’t want. The art of reinforcement is based on the laws of behavior. When we understand the laws we can focus on our artistry of providing reinforcement, or not.
Some of our dogs may always be compromised in their ability to function easily in the world they find themselves. For whatever reason that ship has sailed, they come to the table with the nervous system they were born with or developed. Most can learn skills. The act of learning by being positively reinforced provides benefits beyond the skills themselves. It improves relationships, it builds new pathways in the brain, it develops the confidence and optimism to try new behaviors, it creates trust between the dog and handler. And gosh darn it, it’s fun, it’s just flat out fun. And who couldn’t use a bit more fun in their lives?
We 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.
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.
I 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.