Archive for the ‘dog training scared timid shy fearful rehabilitation counter conditioning desensitization’ Tag

Food Is Not A Problem

small black dog with cottage cheese container in his mouthThis morning my mother was having her breakfast and on the TV was an early morning cooking show.  She remarked, “I don’t know why I watch these shows, I don’t even like to cook.”

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.

Training Fearful Dogs

Among the reasons people resort to the use of punishment (P+) and tools like prong and shock collars is that they often provide immediate results when it comes to getting a dog to stop performing inappropriate behaviors. The users of these pieces of equipment will justify it because they work and point to how successful they proved to be, and in some cases we cannot argue with their success. The dog has stopped lunging, barking, pulling, etc., and from the handler’s perspective it was quick, easy and required a minimum of skill on their part.

Educated trainers do not advocate the use of these pieces of equipment because of the very real risk of a dog becoming more fearful, more reactive, more aggression, because of them. We cannot forget that this risk exists, it’s been studied and documented. That we are using pain to control a dog should not be left out of the argument against them either. But as advocates against these types of collars we should not lose the opportunity to learn a lesson from the value others put on them. Ending unwanted behaviors is important. We cannot continue to let our dogs repeat behaviors we ultimately want to see end. It’s bad training.

We have this big brain that provides us with the ability to think about how we can prevent, interrupt or end unwanted behavior without resorting to pain, or threats of it. We can and should use it. Many of our dogs cannot tolerate even the subtle reprimands we may use to end a non-fearful dog’s behavior (Don’t even think about going for that cheese on the coffee table!). Our body language, direct eye contact, tone of voice is enough to worry or startle them. We need to get good at training, and we don’t have to wander around in the dark feeling our way, or modeling mediocre or flat out bad trainers who get dogs to behave how they want through force, fear and pain or month after month of sloppy technique. Training a dog isn’t about looking for the right method or protocol. It’s about being able to get or identify the behaviors you want to see repeated and positively reinforce them, and then give the dog the opportunity to practice the heck out of them.

Any trainer who offers a solution that is conspicuously missing the clear and specific identification of a behavior to train and positive reinforcement as a main component of their method, technique or protocol, should be suspect. We need trainers who can demonstrate how to use positive reinforcement to get a recall, a down stay, a wait at the door, walking on a loose leash happily around other dogs, using good positive reinforcement training mechanics. Much of the other talk trainers use is either delusional or part of their marketing plan. Our dogs don’t need pack leaders and talking about empowering or fixing a dog is too nebulous to be useful.

Note the clearly defined objectives and behaviors stated by the lead trainer in this video and the high rate of reinforcement dogs are being given for performing a down stay on a mat. Whether you’re in a class or working with a trainer one on one you are looking for this kind of guidance- a clear definition of the behavior, how to get it and positively reinforce it and gradually provide more challenging conditions in which the dog can perform it. There is nothing unnatural about a dog performing a behavior in order to get food and dogs will likely develop confidence, learn to trust their handlers and become empowered in the process. This is the kind of training worth spending money on, it’s out there, don’t settle for less.

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?

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. 

The Tragedy of Dog Training

It is not difficult to make a name for one’s self in this industry, and I say that speaking from experience. Come up with an idea or rehash an old one, package it well and people will buy it. It’s not always a bad thing. I like to think that my focus on the sciences of learning and animal behavior for coming up with solutions to help our fearful dogs is among the good things.

Recently on a social media site someone selling a product, which may be a great addition to the industry, described themselves as a “professional holistic dog trainer.” I asked what that meant and received this reply:

“Professional Holistic Dog Trainer means that I take a look at the dog from the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the dog. I have a very detailed background in bodywork and dog biomechanics so I only do training once I know the body is sound and that the back and neck are not being impinged anywhere.

I have spent 20 years studying and practicing Qi Gong and have a pretty sound knowledge of The 5 Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I am an Animal Healer and have worked for the last 20 years with nutrition for many diseases and behavioral issues to rebalance both.

I have been an Animal Communicator for the past 20 years and have assisted hundreds of humans with their health and behavior issues addressing the problems at the root.

I train positively but use treats very minimally and not at all with my product*. I work with dogs based on their awareness of communication via reading their energy and having clear consistent boundaries that are used in a natural manner as we spend time together.

Hope that answers your question.”

Indeed it does answer my question. I see no reference at all to any formal education in animal training, which despite appearances in most TV shows and too many training classes, is based on the sound principles of operant conditioning. Animal training is a mechanical skill and as such we can be good at it, or not so good at it depending on our commitment to increasing and improving those skills. An educated onlooker can spot a good trainer a mile away in much the same way a fan can identify a team’s great athletes or a band’s star performer. Most of us however are not educated onlookers. It’s not an inherent fault of ours, it’s just the nature of the dog training industry. We don’t often have the chance to see many of the really good trainers in action. Given that, we may be perfectly thrilled with a nice red table wine while remaining oblivious to the fact that an award winning zinfandel is available in the next aisle.

Don’t let the veneer of language sprinkled with the glitter of energy, natural, spiritual, blind you to the obvious. At no point did this trainer ever provide me with information to indicate that s/he has the background, education or skill to effectively and humanely train dogs. Indeed most of the information provided is superfluous or contrary to being a great dog trainer. That one practices an ancient Chinese martial art may be good for one’s blood pressure, but it says nothing of their ability to train dogs. Qualifying the use of food in training (minimally) is an indication that one may in fact not truly be capable of communicating with an animal since as a primary reinforcer, and one of the most potent ones, food is renowned as a motivator and is used by professional trainers across the board. That fish tossed to a seal after they wave at the crowd is a primary reinforcer to increase the chances that that behavior will be performed again on cue.

Professional trainers do not apologize for using food in training. This is not to say that we only use food for reinforcement but the mention of limiting its use is a red flag. We don’t get to decide what is reinforcing to an animal, the animal does. If a dog is not motivated to perform for praise, petting, or play I don’t hold it against them, I break out the cheese. Coming from the position that a specific reinforcer will only be used minimally is antithetical to good training (health or medical reasons may impact our decision but it will not change the position that food holds in the training world). We can make the decision how and what to use for reinforcement in the process of training an animal, not create arbitrary dictates.

The tragedy of the dog training industry in its current incarnation is not that people can come up with enticing ways to market themselves or their products regardless of their quality, as consumers we know this is how the game is played. The tragedy is not that some people don’t use or limit the use of food to train. The tragedy is that most pet owners, the main consumers of the products and services, have never seen what good, efficient training looks like. But the industry is changing and we are becoming more savvy consumers who can tell the difference between a really good cabernet and something in a screw top bottle that just provides a good buzz.

*product name removed


Just Say “I’ll Think About It”

vintage image of pharmacist with death in the background

Concern about the use of drugs is not new

In the 80’s there was a campaign to keep kids off of drugs and the mantra was “just say no to drugs.”  I thought the better advice to give kids about what they should or shouldn’t do when it came to their physical and mental health was “just say I’ll think about it.” I would apply the same advice to people with fearful dogs and the consideration of behavioral medications. Think about it.

It’s not easy to think, really think about whether or not to consult with a vet about behavioral medications that could help our dogs by lowering the level of anxiety and stress many are experiencing on a daily basis. We leave important pieces of information out, specifically the very real risk of NOT using medications to address anxiety in our dogs. We tend to put a lot of weight on the possible side-effects of medications and fail to consider the impact chronic stress and anxiety has on our dogs’ health and quality of life. We have a knee-jerk distrust of big pharma which we consider is out to suck our wallets dry by selling us unnecessary meds and hold the marketers of sugar pills and unregulated and untested remedies in high esteem.

It’s difficult to acknowledge and assess the baggage that we carry in regard to the use of behavioral medications, for people or dogs. For many of us it’s about how their use makes us feel. It feels not quite right to us and we come up with excuses and reasons to justify those feelings. Meds are a cop-out. If only we did something else they wouldn’t be needed, and we just need to figure out what that something else entails. They are an indication of laziness on our part. The need for meds means we failed our dog, we weren’t good enough. Few of us are willing to accept that and so we keep looking for alternatives that will make us feel more successful.

The other problem we run into is that we put more merit into anecdotal information about untested or unproven remedies than we do into the data and research available regarding the efficacy of meds. Someone’s cousin’s dog was put on an anti-depressant and their behavior got worse. If we are reluctant about using meds we will latch onto this information like a tick on a warm body. With no other information other than that statement we will write off meds as an option for our dogs. If someone’s sister’s best friend used a homeopathic remedy and saw improvement in their dog we’ll race out to the local shop to buy some. And this is where our thinking is cloudy.

In any group of dogs, some will get better and some will get worse whether we do anything specific or not. If a dog who was likely to get better is also given a magic potion (many of the products that are available have never been tested let alone shown to be more effective than a placebo) you can guess what will be credited with their improvement–the potion. I would surmise that when we start to think about how to help our dogs we are often changing more about how they are handled and managed than simply adding a few drops of something or other to their water bowl. We are likely increasing the odds of them improving because of these changes in management, and the drops are credited for it.

Two years ago my border collie Finn was diagnosed with lymphoma. I did some online searching for information and met with an oncologist. The prognosis for this disease if left untreated isn’t simply not great, it’s bad. But there is a well established protocol of chemotherapy that could increase his chances of surviving beyond the time the disease would kill him. Given all the factors; the type of cancer, his otherwise good condition, his age, the availability of treatment, credit cards, etc., we decided to treat him. He’s still with us (and even I can’t resist superstitious thought-touch wood). Don’t feel bad about the struggle to think critically about the use of traditional medicine to help our dogs, Even smart guys have a hard time with it.

If you enjoy thinking about the best ways to live with and train dogs you might enjoy my latest book Does My Dog Need Prozac?

Grow Up

small dog in a cageAt some point early in the life of a human we develop intellectually and emotionally enough to realize that it’s not always just about us. Hopefully when this happens we’ve had plenty of time to learn to feel safe and loved. It’s not an easy step to take, but a step that most of us not only take, but run with. We go on to become teachers, doctors, nurses, builders, volunteers, dog trainers, psychologists, parents, partners, etc. We find ways to live our lives taking the needs of others into consideration. So what the heck happened when it comes to dogs?

It’s one thing to buy a pair of running shoes and to leave them languishing in the closet, it’s another to bring a dog into your home, a dog who may have been bred to be a working or sporting dog and to leave them languishing on the couch or in a crate for hours upon hours a day. They may be young and fit. They may be designed, through a process of genetic selection imposed on them by people, to not only be able to; run for hours, be fast enough to catch and kill small animals, bark with ease for seemingly interminable lengths of time, dig, chew, herd, guard property and objects. Not only are they able to perform these behaviors they are inclined to perform them.

But what dogs are inclined to do seems to have been lost on many of us (though I don’t expect those of you reading this blog to include yourselves in that group). We want to pat ourselves on the back for adopting a hound dog from a rescue group and then never allow them off leash to run. We’ll have good reasons for this, and other restrictions and will use them to justify the use of bark collars and shock collars, choke chains and prongs, to force them into performing the behaviors we need them to perform in order for them to continue to benefit from the good intentions that brought them into our homes.

Dogs may have enabled us to rediscover our inner child who still wants to believe it’s all about us. Don’t make them suffer for it.

Better Than Average

Black & white dog looking quizzicalIn my world the reality is that those of us living with a dog with fear-based behavior challenges must be better than average pet owners. I say this meaning no offense to average pet owners. Anyone who chooses to live with an animal is ahead of the curve in my book. Most however do not add a dog to their lives in order to have to become a competent dog trainer. And the majority of dogs don’t need them to be. But many of us are living with Mike Tyson and trying to turn him into a ballet dancer.

Dogs from puppy mills, hoarding situations or who have been isolated or abused will require more than simply time and love. Anyone who makes the statement implying that to be the case has identified themselves as either a novice or sadly misinformed about dogs and behavior. That someone was successful with a dog by providing only time and love is little solace to the owner living with a dog who can’t leave their crate, walk through doorways, or be in the same room with their spouse. And it’s little use to a dog who needs skilled handling. Anyone re-homing, selling or adopting out dogs with fear-based challenges who suggests that all that is needed is time and love should get out of the business, there is no excuse for it.

On a daily basis I receive email and Facebook messages asking for “tips” or suggestions regarding how to help a foster dog or a newly adopted dog who is displaying any number of behaviors due to fearfulness and inexperience. I want to help but know that what is needed goes beyond well-meaning advice. The solution they are after doesn’t exist. There is no answer to “what should I do?” when the question should be “what does the dog need?” and that may not be a short list.

If you have chosen to keep a dog and work to help them have a life that isn’t plagued by anxiety, vigilance and fear, you can be better than average. If you have decided that you are not prepared or have the desire to devote the time, energy and expense required to effectively and humanely work with a dog, plan your next move wisely and compassionately. Fearful dogs are a vulnerable population. They are often subjected to abuse in the name of training or rehabilitation. Every move is stressful and scary and their behavior may degrade. Their suffering does not end just because we can’t see it anymore. It’s not easy to be better than average when it means making tough decisions for dogs we care about and are responsible for.

You’ve Got The Ball: Dogs in the 21st Century

black and white dog with basketballI suspect that those of us who work with dogs in any capacity, love them, respect them and want them to have the best lives possible. Yet I can’t help but be surprised and disappointed when I hear and read information about dogs being shared that does more harm than good, or opportunities to educate the pet owning population are missed. Research on the social development of dogs has been available for over 40 years. Veterinarians, of all people, should understand the importance early, positive exposure to novelty, dogs and people plays in the development of puppies. Yet there are still those who recommend isolating puppies from social interactions with other dogs during the time when a puppy’s brain is experiencing dramatic changes on a daily basis that allow them to grow up to be adaptable, resilient dogs. Changes that may not be possible as the weeks go by.

I sat in a vet clinic recently and watched a giant flat screen TV as it aired information about basic husbandry practices pet owners should undertake with their dogs. Dogs were shown having their teeth brushed, ears cleaned and nails clipped and not once were they offered a food treat in return for holding still through the process. What a missed opportunity to educate pet owners on how professional trainers use food to teach dogs who may not already be sitting calmly for a nail trim. Often it doesn’t take much to convince a dog something isn’t as horrible as they think it is, and it would be nice to never read another story about a groomer who has injured or killed a dog using force and restraint to do their job.

Online the forums for pet sitters and dog walkers, people who also are offering services as professionals, are replete with archaic information about dog behavior. Pet owners are paying for services being provided by someone who in the 21st century isn’t even using 20th century information to guide their behavior. Rescue groups post tear-jerking videos of dogs snatched from near death being subjected to forced handling and so long as in the end they are wagging their tail the donation checks keep being written. And heaven forbid the suggestion is made that other techniques and protocols are available that are less stressful on dogs. No doubt I’ll be chastised for even suggesting that too many (not all of course!) rescue groups aren’t doing a good enough job at what they are soliciting money for doing.

There is no excuse for continuing to use force and coercion to get or end behaviors in dogs. Universities have been teaching about animal behavior and learning for decades. Vocal groups of animal trainers have been providing reasons and resources to get information out into the general pet-handling population. We’re passing you the ball. Are you going to make the play or not? We’re all are on the dog’s team after all.

Changing The Faces of Dog Training

In May I’ll be traveling to the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques with a group to contribute our energy to the cause of changing how people handle and train their dogs. No doubt there will be people who will embrace the information we’ll be sharing about force-free and coercion-free training with the enthusiasm of someone who has been adrift at sea waiting for the life raft to show up. Others may be at a different stage in the process of changing their understanding of animal behavior, how animals learn and their relationship with their pet.people holding dogs

I don’t know what they’ll look like or how I’ll tell them apart. I don’t know how old or which gender they’ll be. I don’t know what they’ll be wearing or how they will be behaving. I do know for some we will be sharing ideas and information that will be new to them, they may also conflict with ideas they already are holding onto firmly and been practicing for years. It may be behavior they have been rehearsing not only with dogs but also with the people in their life. We may only be able to loosen the grasp some have on the myths and misinformation which have been available about dogs and why they do what they do. Though I trust that for many people they will gladly discard the advice they’d been given to punish in any of the myriad ways people have devised to punish dogs. They’ll need direction and demonstrations of the equally numerous ways we can provide a dog with information and reinforcement without scaring or hurting them to get the behaviors we need or want from them.

I’m very excited about this trip, not only are these islands filled with environmental gems, we’ll meet people who are involved in different aspects of animal welfare. We’ll spend time with children who are passionate about treating animals with kindness and are role models for their community. We’ll visit shelters and sanctuaries where people take on the challenging and often disheartening task of making life better for animals, knowing there will always be more tomorrow needing their help. We may be separated by distance, oceans, age and culture, but it quickly becomes obvious that our hearts overlap.

To find out more about the trip visit this webpage.


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