Archive for the ‘dog training’ Tag

Dog Trainers Are Behavioral Mechanics

Frank Swanton was driving down Route 53 when the car he’d had for a year started making a loud clanking noise and was pulling hard to the right whenever he stepped on the brake. He had noticed that there were some problems early on after he bought the car but they didn’t seem too bad so he didn’t bother to have them checked. But today they were bad and there was a brake or transmission smell and he wasn’t sure he’d make it home. He remembered there was an auto repair shop about 2 miles up the road. He’d never been there before but he decided to stop.

Melissa Brandon picked up a rag and was wiping the grease off her hands as she hurried away from the car she was working on when she heard the bell announcing someone had entered the shop. Ever since she was a kid she loved cars. When she was small she played surgical scrub nurse to her father who slid around under the old Buick he drove, barking out, “3/4” socket wrench!” “Vice grip, the big one!” He took pride in his young daughter who had learned the names of tools the way his friend Ralph’s kid could name dinosaurs. “Stegosaurus, smegosaurus,” he’d wink at her, “that kid doesn’t know the difference between a crescent wrench and an allen key,” and she flushed with pride because she knew that by the time she was five! If she did get it wrong it was only once. After placing the tool in her father’s outstretched hand it would disappear under the car, reappearing in seconds accompanied by a single word, “Nope,” he’d say and she’d hand him her second choice. “That’s better,” he’d mumble. She had worked nights to pay for two years at technical college and busted her knuckles at the Audi dealership for 3 years in their service department before deciding to open her own shop.

“What can I do for you?” she asked the obviously distressed fellow who had called out, “Can someone help me please?” as soon as the door close behind him.

“There’s something wrong with my car,” he replied. “It’s making this clanking sound as though there’s someone in the engine with a hammer. There’s a bad smell, I’m not sure if it’s coming from the engine or the exhaust, and it’s hard to turn the steering wheel to the left if I put on the brake.”

“Did you want to leave it and have me get one of the mechanics to check to it out, or did you want to schedule an appointment and bring it back?” she queried.

“I need it fixed, he insisted. “Can you tell me what to do to fix it? Can’t you just give some suggestions? Or what about a book or a website?” he was practically pleading.

Melissa looked at the car, a late model sedan, similar to the cars she’d worked on during the course she had recently attended to learn about the new electronic systems being installed. She’d spent three, eight hour days studying the schematics of the computer boards, and had invested several thousand dollars in equipment for the shop to help perform diagnostics in situations like this. She knew where to start to teach someone to fix a car, but she also knew that a few tips and some random advice were not likely to solve this car’s problem.

“It would make more sense to leave it or bring it back so one of the mechanics can look it over and make the necessary repairs,” she politely replied.

This was when Frank threw the first verbal punch. “Oh I get it,” he snorted, “I thought you loved cars, but I can see you’re only in it for the money.”

Mrs. Brown, who had dropped her car off this morning as pre-arranged and agreed to pay for parts and labor, would be coming in at 5pm to pick it up. Melissa had left it up on the lift when she heard Frank come in the door. Mrs. Brown worked two jobs and had found someone to give her a ride after her first shift to return for her Camry that needed new brake pads, a job Melissa was only half-way through. If she was going to get paid for that job she’d need to get it finished. Last week she had discounted the work they’d done on the van for the kid’s club, the senior center’s mini-bus and Roger Ferris’s old VW. She had been friends with Roger’s wife who was dying of cancer, Roger had taken leave from his job at the soda packing plant to take care of her.

The monthly nut for the mortgage on the shop, including taxes and insurance meant Melissa had to work 5 days, sometimes 6, to cover it. Then there were the weekly salaries of the 2 other mechanics she hired, along with withholding and insurance, and she couldn’t forget that someone had been heavy handed with the sink in the men’s bathroom and the threads in the handle of the hot water faucet were stripped and she needed to replace the entire unit, and she was still not sure what happened to the wrench set she had to special order to work on a foreign car one of her customers had recently bought.

“If I can get it home can I give you a call tonight to talk about what I should do to fix it?” he suggested, seeming to forget his previous insult.

Two days a week she volunteers at the high school, an after school program to teach kids how to work on cars. She has to leave the shop early, but Buddy the part-time mechanic is happy to pick up more hours. She thought about Ellie Barton who had been giving her mother so much trouble, and how she had turned into a wiz kid with hybrid engines, and was able to explain some of the tougher information to other kids who were willing to pay attention. Billy Frankel, the kid who’d been suspended 3 times last semester had a knack for body repair. When he was done with a fender or hood even a professional had to look twice to notice a repair had been made at all. He’d even asked Melissa to help him pick out an old car from the salvage yard to fix up, and they’d left towing an old Impala that if he followed through on would be worth a pretty penny.

“I’m sorry I won’t be available,” she apologized, “my son has a recital tonight.”

“If I leave it how much is all this going to cost me?” he asked, his brow furrowed. “I bought this car at a fundraiser for the community food kitchen, I can’t afford to spend a lot of money on it.”

Two weeks ago a woman had brought her car in, convinced that the problem was the same one she had heard described on a call-in radio show. Two clever and funny mechanics diagnosed car problems on the air every Saturday morning. When the mechanic had a look at the car she discovered the problem was entirely different, a large part of the exhaust system had rusted out and would need to be replaced. When Melissa explained this to the car’s owner the woman wailed, “It’s even the same make and model as the one they talked about on the radio and they said it only required a $25 part to fix!” grabbed her keys and drove off. There were shops in town where they would happily take the woman’s money, replace the $25 part and send her home with a car no better, and maybe worse off than when she’d brought it in. But Melissa would never even consider it, though it meant that she lost a potential customer.

“First I’d have to have someone take a look at it to know what needs to be done, then if we need parts I’ll have to put in an order for those.”

She did some quick calculating, knowing that she couldn’t guarantee anything without having even looked under the hood but he was insistent. The range of how much time it might take to work on the car was wide, and the lowest cost possibility was still high enough to make him visibly cringe when he heard it. “Nevermind,” he huffed as he turned to walk out the door, “I thought you could help me.”

She stood for a moment as he got into his car and worked hard to turn the steering wheel as he pulled out of the lot. The sinking feeling in her stomach would pass, this wasn’t the first time someone had complained about the cost of repairs or expected her to take the time to explain, step by step, how to replace a fan belt, or figure out whether it was a fuse that needed to be replaced or something else in the electrical system. She did what she could, suggesting the easiest things that could be checked, repaired or replaced by an owner, and it felt bad to be accused of being mercenary.

As the car faded into the distance, smoke billowing from the tail pipe, Melissa turned and headed back to Mrs. Brown’s car. If she hustled she should be able to have it ready by five.

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.

What Every Pet Owner Needs To Know About Dog Trainers

1. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means ANYONE can tap themselves on the shoulder with a sword and pen and ink cartoon of panting  hound doganoint themselves a; trainer, behaviorist, whisperer, dog psychologist, rehabilitator, nanny, etc.

2. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means anyone can anoint themselves as the certifier of; trainers, behaviorists, whisperers, dog psychologists, rehabilitators, nannies, etc.

3. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means there are no standard operating procedures that any of the above “professionals” needs to follow in order to have business cards printed, websites built or cash your check.

4. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means anyone can recommend the use of pinching, shocking, squirting, startling, choking, hitting, poking, kicking, rolling, etc., to end unwanted behaviors.

5. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means anyone can put treats in their pocket, spray their pants with lavender oil and call themselves a “positive-only” trainer.

6. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that someone can handle a dog in ways that causes them pain or distress.

7. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that should someone handle your dog in a way that causes pain and distress and there is a degradation in your dog’s behavior, they can blame you and/or the dog, you will have little to no recourse and they will have moved on to their next victim.

8. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that people are free to ignore the evidence indicating that there is the likelihood of seeing a degradation in a dog’s behavior, including increased aggression, should they be handled in ways that cause pain and/or distress.

9. Dog training is an unregulated industry. This means that pet owners, rescue groups and shelters, are at-risk of being manipulated by misinformation presented by the unregulated.

10. Just because dog training is an unregulated industry doesn’t mean that some of us are not preparing ourselves and learning to train as though it was.

Doing What Comes Naturally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Going To Land This Plane?

airplaneI 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.

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.

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


How Bad Is It?

For those who choose to follow what is called the “humane hierarchy” when training animals (guidelines created by far better minds and more experienced minds than my own) there remains confusion among the ranks. In the hierarchy created by Dr. Susan Friedman, some note that because both negative reinforcement and negative punishment are presented on the same level they must therefore both be of equal invasiveness or aversiveness. This assumption then leads to debates about whether trainers who routinely utilize negative punishment have any right telling people who routinely utilize negative reinforcement that they shouldn’t be.

Few would would argue that there are not degrees to which something is aversive enough to either increase or decrease behavior. My desire to stop getting wet in a rainstorm is likely different in mid-July than it is in mid-February but the observable behavior will look the same, I’ll put on a raincoat. Since it’s my behavior I feel safe in assessing how aversive I found getting wet at the time. I should be cautious to assume I can attain the same level of certainty when looking at an animal’s behavior. There are those among us with the experience with the species and with an individual to assume (guess) correctly. But that’s not a recommended practice among professional trainers who use behavior to guide their choices when training. That’s what the humane hierarchy is for.

The other bit of confusion is that we typically are not choosing between negative reinforcement or negative punishment. One is for getting or increasing behavior, the other for stopping or decreasing behavior. We are choosing between using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement to get behavior. In this case our first choice should be positive reinforcement. If there is a behavior we want to end or decrease we can choose between positive punishment or negative punishment. According to the hierarchy our choice should be negative punishment. We take away the opportunity for an animal to attain positive reinforcement.

Accomplished and ethical trainers do not punish unless they have adequately provided the animal with information to understand how to behave to get positive reinforcement. It’s not up to us decide how bad something is or isn’t to a dog. It’s up to us to develop the mechanical skills to be good trainers using positive reinforcement and the technical understanding of how learning is impacted by consequences. While we’re doing that this roadmap provides us with good information to guide us. humane hierarchy

Aggression in Fearful Dogs- No Surprise Here

face of a mastiffThe older one gets the less in life seems to surprise us. One of the things that should be no surprise to any of us is for a fearful dog to behave aggressively. Aggression is a normal and predictable response to see in animal who is afraid, often terrified, for their life. Brains are designed so that if an animal is experiencing fear, behaving aggressively–as opposed to taking a deep breath and suggesting that other solutions to the current problem might exist–will happen quickly. It might save an animal’s life. Spend a few extra seconds not fighting back and you might be lunch.

One of the main goals for anyone working with a fearful dog is to never put the dog into situations in which aggression becomes necessary from the dog’s perspective. By keeping a dog feeling safe, however that needs to be sorted out for an individual dog, will help prevent the demonstration or escalation of aggressive behavior. If a dog is troubled by people coming into the house we can be proactive and put the dog away in another room where they are safe, have something yummy to chew, and the scary event can occur without any drama.

The next steps we take address how the dog feels about the scary event. We do this by using desensitization and counterconditioning. Change how the dog feels and you generally will see a change in how they behave. Counterconditioning is a straightforward process, but misunderstood enough that people, including dog trainers, get it wrong. Getting it wrong leads to the idea that it doesn’t work. And when this happens people move on to to less effective ways to work with fear based behavior challenges.

Simply put– when counterconditioning the scary thing comes to predict a wonderful thing. The appearance of the wonderful thing is only contingent on one thing, the awareness by the dog of the scary thing. The wonderful thing, usually food but toys and play can be used if a dog finds them wonderful, appear regardless of the dog’s behavior. We don’t want a dog going bonkers at the end of a leash or scurrying under a chair so we add in the desensitization piece which means we don’t expose them to the scary thing so much that they are too freaked out to eat or play. But even if the dog is behaving in ways we wish they wouldn’t the error was ours in that we over-exposed them to the trigger, but the wonderful thing MUST appear if the scary thing has. That’s it. This has to happen often enough for the dog to put two and two together. Or one and one in this case, scary thing leads to wonderful thing.

Concurrently we begin teaching a dog something else acceptable to us to do. We should take pains to make sure it’s acceptable to the dog too. Going and sitting in a crate when people come into the house can work for both the dog and the owner if the dog feels safe in their crate. Asking a dog to sit quietly while scary monsters pet them is not likely to be acceptable to the dog as much as it makes us feel accomplished and successful. The way we help dogs learn new behaviors and continue helping them learn to feel good about the scary stuff is by using positive reinforcement to train them. By running to their crate when guests show up a dog learns that a favorite delicacy is delivered. It’s worth running to their crate when company comes.

Many of us did not break the dogs we are living with, but we can put the pieces back together again. Keep them feeling safe, desensitize and counter condition to triggers and give them skills using good positive reinforcement training mechanics.


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