Archive for the ‘animal rescue’ Tag

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.

The Failing Industry of Dog Training: I’m Sorry Willie

sunnywtoyA friend recently shared an article with me in which this blog gets a mention. They say that any PR is good PR but all this article does is make me sad, and to be lumped in with other “quick fixes” for what is a tragic issue, makes me even sadder. The conclusion the author comes to that some dogs just can’t be helped is instead for a me a story about the dog training industry failing another dog and their struggling owner. I am not sad for myself.

The dog training industry is unregulated so anyone can label themselves a trainer or as what apparently happened in the author’s case, a behaviorist. In practically any other profession anyone who charges for a service and not only fails to deliver that service, but makes the problem worse would be liable to be sued, disbarred, lose their license, be Yelped out of existence, or we’d at least expect to get our money back. But not hack dog trainers. Nope. They just move on to screw up or under serve another dog.

I know the feeling of being a pet owner trying to live with a dog who is too terrified to move, and being given many of the same recommendations as the author. There is no guarantee that anyone can “fix” Willie or any other dog and he’s lucky to be with someone who is willing to accommodate him. The problem is not, as I see it, that we think that everything can be made whole, especially something that might have never been whole to begin with, it’s the fundamental inadequacy of the support and guidance the author (and others like us) received from the industry built to help her and her dog.

Train The Dog!

small dog looking at toyHere’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?

Dog Owners Should Stand Up For Their Rights

brown dog with leashDog trainers are a notoriously passionate bunch, and I will not deny that I am among them. However what is going on in the dog training industry extends beyond personal passion for the subject and crosses over into what pet owners should expect when they pay for a service. What they should expect is solid advice and guidance based on the best information available to us regarding how animals learn and how dogs behave.

Though many pet owners may be unaware that dog training is founded on the very solid sciences of animal behavior and learning, this does not mean that dog trainers can be excused for being unaware of it, or choosing to disregard it. A doctor who based their surgical knowledge on a text from the 1800’s or even the 1950’s could expect to be sued for malpractice. A psychiatrist who declared that a person’s behavior was caused by evil spirits in their heads and a hole needs to be drilled to let them out should meet the same fate. But in the world of dog training the selling of nonsense is considered the norm!

“A while ago she started barking at him when he came into an area where i was. This has gotten worse and worse. Not sure if she is being protective of me, or possessive of me. There is a fearful tone to it too. The (insert the name of almost any franchise dog training business or pet shop) trainer, said i should reprimand her for doing this, and that it also signifies that my dog perceives me as weak. I try really hard to behave like a strong leader. But I feel like I am very ineffective at dealing with this barking.”

Here is someone trying to do everything right. They adopt a dog in the hopes of providing her with a better life. They realize they need help and contact a professional, spend their hard-earned cash, and are handed rubbish. Given this dog’s history, she was rescued from a puppy mill, we can assume that the dog was not provided with the early socialization to people and novelty when she needed to have it happen in order to feel safe around a variety of people and in different environments. The impact of this on a dog’s development and behavior is well-documented and any trainer should be aware of it. Even the owner has identified the dog as being “fearful.” What does the “trainer” recommend? Outdated and readily disputed advice about pack leadership and a declaration that would imply an ability to read a dog’s mind and know what she perceives!

In this digital age, when we have access to scientific works ranging from Galileo to neuroscience there is absolutely no excuse for it. None. Zilch. Zero. Don’t even bother trying to defend the ignorance or arrogance of a trainer who doesn’t take advantage of it. This is not about my opinion regarding how to train dogs. We are so far beyond that when it comes to animal training that to try to argue it is akin to asserting that how planets orbit each other is simply one’s opinion on the topic.

There are hacks and shysters in every industry. But if someone is in the business of teaching people how to drive a car and confuse the gas pedal with the brake, they need to be stopped. They pose a risk not only to the driver but to anyone who happens to be on the road with them. And they sure as heck need to stop being paid to do it.

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.

Adding Accountability

I have been involved in ‘rescuing’ and finding home for dogs. I have worked with shelters and on my own. I have been negligent in performing the things I am going to address in this blog post so my high horse is not quite as tall as it sounds. I acknowledge the good intentions, hard work and struggles that most people involved in animal rescue experience. I am aware of the argument that it’s better to save some, even if others suffer. I happen not to accept that this is as good as it can get. There are plenty of reasons and excuses for turning a blind eye toward the practices and outcomes of rescue operations. We can do better and making excuses isn’t the way to get there. It won’t happen overnight but we need to start kicking the bar up a notch when it comes to what we call ‘rescue’.

When I buy a car one of the criteria I have for choosing the make and model is how long I can expect it to last and its resale value. A good car will be a good car longer and the company that makes it gets my business. I am not likely to buy a car from a company which cannot demonstrate that their vehicles are still road worthy 5 years down the line, or from a company which sells cars with brakes that routinely fail. If I am buying a car from an individual I take it to my mechanic to check it out before I make the decision to buy it. No one is likely to tell me I am expecting too much from car manufacturers or dealers.

When a rescue group waves the banner and is cheered for the number of pets they have found homes for I wonder why they are not also sharing information on how many of those pets are still happily living in the original homes they were placed in. Or how many did not survive the ‘rescue’ process. I know the reasons they could give for not doing this, but I am going to suggest that the main reason the data isn’t shared is because no one is doing it routinely, and that we need to expect it.

If we are serious about our love for animals and respect them for their unique abilities and personalities we should be serious about adding accountability to the ‘rescue’ process. We need to put as much effort into finding out how well someone is doing their ‘job’, unpaid or otherwise, when it comes to finding homes for animals as we do when buying a car. How can we know how well our protocols are working unless we follow up and track results? Not only will we gain insight and knowledge but we’ll improve the service we are providing both the animals and the people taking them home. As trendy and politically correct ‘rescuing’ a shelter dog is there are still people who because of a bad experience with a dog, will head to the pet shop or mill breeder in the belief that they are more likely to get a ‘better’ pet out of the deal.

When we buy an unsafe car we might be killed, when an animal is rehomed inappropriately they’re the who is less likely to survive the experience.

Sh*t happens

photo of bathroomIt’s true, sh*t happens and when it does it’s good to know about it. It’s like those fast food restaurants with the sign in the bathroom that says ‘Please let us know if this restroom does not meet our high standards for cleanliness’. If sh*t happens and you don’t know about it, how can you clean it up?

In the industry of animal rescue, and find fault with my use of the term ‘industry’ if you like, there is a lot of sh*t going on that doesn’t make it into the reports and stories created to provide PR and donations for the group doing the rescue.

I catch sh*t from people who insist that getting a dog into a home and out of a shelter is worth doing, whether there has been adequate evaluation of the dog’s and future owner’s needs and skills or not. Some will say that the odds are better for the animal, 100% chance of dying in a shelter vs. some unknown percent chance of suffering in a home, or wherever they end up. But make no mistake in plenty of cases they die anyway. They may suffer emotionally and physically while being passed from home to home or shelter to shelter. They may be forced to live a life of confinement or isolation. They may be ‘adopted’ by dog traffickers who sell dogs to labs or fight rings. If the dog is intact they may be used for breeding. They may end up as part of a hoarder’s collection and receive inadequate care. In a surprisingly high number of cases they may flee from their home and never be recovered.

How many shelters and rescue groups have statistics regarding how many animals are still in their original home, with contented owners, a year after being adopted? And if they don’t have them, why not? How can we raise our pompoms and cheer for dogs being placed in homes if those placements are ultimately unsuccessful? How can a group learn to improve their assessment of dogs and potential owners unless they can see the results of their current practices and procedures? I already know all of the excuses for not doing this kind of follow-up, time and money being high on the list. But I just don’t buy them. If we seriously want to declare ourselves ‘animal advocates’ then the ‘out of sight out of mind’ rationale doesn’t hold water.

If we are committed to the animals in our care we can find ways to ensure that we are doing the best we can for them. But we’ll never know how to do that until we are willing to expand our vision to include the ‘big picture’ and not just the snapshot ‘feel good’ moment of adoption.