Archive for the ‘learned helplessness’ Tag

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. 

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Random Acts of Cruelty

prong collarIn the same way that fast food has provided us with the opportunity to over consume sugars, fats and chemical additives that may be contributing to, if not outright causing, many of the diseases prevalent in the western world, the “balanced” field of dog training has provided us with the opportunities and excuses to be cruel to our dogs, the implications of which are ignored or denied. That a collar not only designed to “choke” with no effort made to disguise its purpose by calling it something else, or that a prong collar, with it’s medieval look is even purchased by someone lacking a fetish for such devices, are examples of how we have become inured to the actual pain we cause or distress we create in our dogs. Euphemistically called a pinch collar–pinching being what we do to chubby babies so how bad can it be–in plastic or metal it is designed to inflict pain.

Pet owners are responsible for their dogs, and in the same way a parent is responsible for feeding their children, need to be accountable for the choices they make in how they train their dogs. As with the consequences of bad diets and its impact on health, someone else is often burdened with paying the price when this does not occur. Our health care system becomes swamped with people suffering from lifestyle diseases, illnesses that would likely not have occurred if the person had not consumed too much fat and sugar in their lifetime. Shelters and rescue groups are overwhelmed by the number of homeless dogs, many healthy and behaviorally sound, but many others who are not. Yet even the sound are often subjected to the cruelties of shock, choke and prong for infractions such as barking at things, for not having been sufficiently motivated to come when called, for growling at people or animals they feel threatened by, for choosing the wrong surface to sleep on, for taking a step off their owner’s property, and the list goes on.

In some cases pet owners might only be faulted for being uneducated and unwitting consumers. The manufacturers of dog training equipment built to “work” because they are aversive to dogs rarely state this fact up front and honestly. The word humane in their packaging and marketing literature is seen as often as the word natural is in the grocery store. Trainers who advocate the use of these devices, even when they themselves use them in ways that are as minimally aversive as is possible, contribute to the ease with which owners of a new dog will leave the pet shop with a shock collar more often than a treat pouch. Our inability to see the progression of behavior problems and their relationship to the use of aversives means that it is the dog who bears the burden of responsibility for behavior change, not the human driving it.

Breeders and rescue groups placing dogs genetically predisposed to: being wary of strangers, sensitive to movement, inclined to bark, follow their nose unrelentingly, kill small animals, etc., are not freed from their responsibility in the puzzle of fitting dogs into pet homes. As either actual experts in dog behavior, or because they have set themselves up as such, they are responsible for making sure square pegs are not going to be battered (choked, pinched, shocked) into round holes. The challenge of addressing animal abuse takes a concerted effort on the part of all of us who care. We can start by stopping the legitimization of inflicting pain and minimizing the actuality of that pain. Or at least we should be straight about the fact we are doing it.

Yes we eat too much sugar and fat because it tastes good, makes us feel good (while we’re eating it anyway), and provides us with some nutritional value. And yes, we find it hard to stop doing it, and though the risks of heart disease and diabetes are increased by our habits, we still find it difficult to change them. We will deal with the consequences of our behavior down the road.

Yes we use pain (both physical and emotional) and threat of it to train our dogs. It often provides us with a quick end to problem behaviors and we don’t know how else to do it. That there may be consequences to our use of pain and coercion to train, we often don’t make that association and use pain to address those additional problems as well. Our dogs will deal with the consequences of our behavior down the road and our training habits may contribute to the shortening of their lives.

Before you put a device or your hands on a dog to correct their behavior, stop and think. As trainers are reminded over and over again by the expert trainer and educator Bob Bailey, “You are bigger and you are smarter.”  It’s time we started acting like it.

Time To Raise The Bar

dog on pavement with caption training shouldn't hurtThere are few fields in which having grown up either performing a task or with the student, is enough to qualify one as a professional and justifies charging for one’s services. Unless of course we are talking about dog trainers.

I grew up reading and might be able to teach plenty of kids to read but if your kid has dyslexia it would be wiser to choose someone with an education in reading science. I’ve been driving a car since I was 15 but I hold no delusions that I could be a good race car driver because of it. I’ve been feeding myself for decades, and I’m still alive, but it doesn’t qualify me to charge people for nutritional advice.

There is a science of animal behavior. How animals learn has been studied and researched for decades. Ignoring this and continuing to train dogs based on one’s own personal system that deviates from the science, would in any other field leave one open to criticism and possibly criminal prosecution. But not so in dog training. ANYONE can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist, and label the criticism close-mindedness or jealousy. I’ve been training dogs since I was a toddler (what else is holding out my cracker and getting the dog to come to me to take it if not training) but it’s no reason to hire me or seek me out for advice.

Dog training is an unregulated industry with no accepted standards outside of those established by professional groups, and they vary even between groups. Before you let anyone put a hand or piece of equipment on your dog, or encourage you to do so yourself, stop. Don’t let their confidence, arrogance or even big words or concepts sway you. You may end up paying a bigger price than you thought.

Getting It Our Way

I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents. lex luthor shouting wrong!

As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.

In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.

What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?

I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.

Losing Your Audience

I enjoy reading nonfiction and watching documentaries. But there are some books and videos I will avoid watching or stop watching, they are too upsetting to me. It won’t matter how important someone tells me the information I’d be gaining is or how artfully it is presented. There are award-winning films I have not watched because I know how they end; me feeling bad. Berate me all you like for sticking my head in the sand when I choose Glee over Blackfish, I’m still not watching it (read Death At SeaWorld, I get the picture).

pointy-eared dog looking down

“Were you saying something?”

When we lose our audience we effectively end the conversation. I’m not suggesting that people stop writing well-researched works of nonfiction or producing documentaries featuring behind-the-scenes information most of us are unaware of. I just can’t promise that I’ll want to read or see it.

If I am trying to teach a dog to do something I always consider whether or not they are willing to remain engaged in the conversation. They respond to my behavior with their behavior. For the most part dogs are pretty easy to wow with my conversational prowess, especially when the conversation includes food and play. When I do lose them it’s often because I’ve bored them or have made it an unpleasant enough exchange that they choose to opt out.

Good performers play to their audience and fearful dogs can be a tough one.

 

You Have Options

I try to be careful when I start feeling like the fellow in the cartoon tapping away at a keyboard late into the night because, “Someone said something wrong on the internet.” I try to be tolerant knowing full well that I’ve written stuff or have videos that someone, for one reason or another could find fault with. Maybe you can guess where this is going. Someone has said something wrong on the internet.

There is no shortage of videos and websites providing information about how to work with fearful dogs. I tend to avoid them because even when there may be something of value in them, it is frequently contaminated by misinformation that perpetuates ideas that people have that guide them into making the wrong training choice with their dog. Stating that dogs are pack animals can seem benign unless you consider that one of the biggest challenges we face today is to get people to stop bullying their dogs based on the idea that a preponderance of misbehavior is based on the dog’s desire to be dominant, or pack leader. And if you care that the evidence about dogs out of the control of people (street or feral dogs) does not support this “pack” definition of their social relationships that’s another reason not to talk about dogs as pack animals.

When I see people using force to get behavior from dogs it makes me cringe. When I see people using force to get behaviors from scared dogs it makes me feel ill. Even when the outcome is heralded as a success (and I would encourage you to consider who is defining “success”). It is not difficult to get people to accept that the ends do not always justify the means. This is especially true for me when there are alternatives to the means being employed.

Following are three videos. The first is an advertisement for a training business. When you watch I encourage you to pay close attention to the dog’s body language. It’s not difficult in the first part of the video to understand how terrified the dog is. In the second part of the video when the dog is walking with the owner it becomes a bit more difficult, in part because of the voice-over, canned applause, and finally the choice of music, all geared to having us feel warm and fuzzy about what we are seeing. But look at the dog. Note the way the tail and ears are being held. Does the dog seem comfortable and happy? Is this really a “successful” dog.

It is not explained, nor is it clear, if this dog was trained on, or wearing an electronic collar. In trying to discern whether or not e-collars were a part of this company’s training practices it took some digging into their website to find references to them, but they’re there. Training “off-leash” is a great concept. But being “on-stim” is not the same thing. Perhaps the dog was not trained using an e-collar and was too frightened to stray far from the owner. This hardly seems like a training success to me and as far as learning goes is relying on an aversive consequence to maintain control of the dog.

The second and third videos are mine and are advertisements for my website, and without question there are trainers out there who are mechanically cleaner and more skilled than I am. So I open myself up to criticism. I created these videos because I wanted to show the process of building comfort and skills in a scared dog. Nibbles, the little dog in the videos was as resistant to being leashed as the dog in the first video. My choice is not to subject a dog to the terror of being restrained by the neck and forcing them to comply. You have that choice as well.

That a trainer is unaware of how to do this, doesn’t have the skill, or cannot show you how to do it with your dog, does not change the reality that you have options as to how you will interact with and train your dog. Pay attention to the excuses someone makes for not choosing less coercive methods for training dogs, and remember that because your dog doesn’t have a say in the matter doesn’t mean they don’t have strong feelings about it.

Does My Dog Need Prozac?*

The subject of using medications to treat dogs with fear and anxiety issues is a controversial one among pet owners and trainers, and one I frequently feel inclined to address in regard to working with fearful dogs. Drugs have been a blessing and curse for humans. They can both save and destroy lives. Deciding to give a scared dog medications is often a struggle for owners. An incomplete understanding of why they are being used is often at fault.

There is an immediate emotional response to the idea of giving a dog a medication for a behavior issue, and for some people it’s a bad response and for others it’s more neutral. There are few pet owners who thrill to the idea. That some people mis-use medications with their dogs, and by this I mean that they assume that training challenges, or the failure to provide a dog with enough stimulation and enrichment on a daily basis will be remedied with a pill, does not take away the benefit these pills can have for many dogs.

A common misunderstanding about the use of behavioral medications is that they are being used to sedate a dog, this is especially the case when a dog is fear aggressive. Owners assume that the dog will be “doped-up” and spend the rest of its life in la-la land, unable to function. People often worry about potential side-effects of medications, but have given no consideration to the impact chronic stress (which a medication might alleviate) has on their dog. And if a medication does not prove to be effective or there are negative side-effects the option always remains to stop using them. There are a different medications available, and one might work better for one dog compared to another.

colored pills spilling out of a bottle

If you step on a rusty nail and suffer a deep puncture wound, even if you develop an infection there is a chance you will survive. Antibiotic medications will likely play a role in this. If you wait too long to take the drug the infection may progress to a point where the drugs are not effective or your life can be saved, but not your leg. While we are hoping that our dog’s problems can be addressed with soap and water, a kiss and a bandage, the infection may be setting in. We know what normal, healthy dog behavior looks like. If you are unsure as to whether or not it’s time to stop hoping the problem will resolve on its own find a trainer** who understands the challenges of working with fear-based behaviors and talk to a vet or vet behaviorist to explore ways you can ensure you save the leg.

**Any trainer who recommends the use of force, coercion or punishment to help a scared dog “get over” their fear should be avoided. At no time during training should a dog be handled in ways that are designed to elicit fear in your dog.

*This is also the name of my upcoming book.

Good Enough?

Scared dog at hoarding siteChildhood milestones in my life could be measured by learning how to swim. There are grainy, black and white home movies showing me leaping up, wiping the hair out of my eyes after demonstrating the newly gained skill of putting my face in the water at our lakeside cottage. I remember learning the “deadman’s float” and pretending to swim in the shallow water, my hands on the bottom of the lake as I practiced kicking my feet. When I went away to college I sought refuge in the pool swimming laps. Waiting for me at the deep end one afternoon was a young man. He had been watching me and asked if I’d like some tips to improve my strokes. I’d never had a lesson and along with enjoying the attention figured, why not?

He suggested some minor adjustments to how I held my head in the water, the position of my arms as they reached to enter the water and start the freestyle stroke, how to loosen up my hands and alter the depth of my kicks. Whenever we happened to be at the pool at the same time he coached me on subtle changes I could make to improve the efficiency of my movements. Soon I was swimming a mile and only stopping because I was tired of the routine, not because I was tired. The things he taught me made me a better swimmer and I took my new found confidence and joy in my abilities and found summer jobs as a life guard and swim instructor. I went from being good enough to being better.

It’s not unusual for us to learn how to do something just well enough to achieve some success and be happy with it. We get the job done, and that’s reinforcing. I have no plans to become a competitive swimmer and am content to go for long distance swims simply for the pleasure of it. Most of the skills I have learned are probably like my swimming skills, I get by with them enough to not see the need to put the energy into improving them. My interactions with my dogs were like that for most of my life, that is until Sunny came along and showed me that good enough was not going to cut it.

There are people involved in dog rescue, training and rehab who seem to have settled for “good enough” when it comes to how they handle dogs. They get what they need from the dogs and that’s reinforcing enough for them to not bother trying to improve on what they do. I recently watched a video of an obviously caring and compassionate rescuer using restraint and force to get a dog to let them handle her. To the casual observer it was heartwarming and the audience broke into applause and shed tears when the dog finally gave in and stopped resisting. Many would say that the ends justify the means and I did not question for a moment the good intentions of the handler. But I’m not a casual observer. No one working with fearful dogs can take the risk of remaining casual when interacting with scared dogs.

I remember reading this rescuer saying that they did not pay attention to what others said or did, they did what worked for them, and without question they were being reinforced routinely by the success they were having with dogs. But I saw someone who though “good enough” by the low standards currently upheld today in the field of dog rescue, had the potential to be amazing. All of the behaviors they were getting they could have attained without using force and restraint. A terrified dog would not have to be subjected to the additional stress and what looked to some as acquiescence in the dog, looked to me like a dog who had simply given up trying to fight anymore. A dog who was saying “uncle.” Why go there if you don’t need to?

We all know that the story continues after the camera stops rolling, the tears have been shed and the money has been donated. Plenty of dogs go on to become happy pets, but there are others for whom “good enough” wasn’t enough. Their failure will be attributed to any number of causes; the dog’s past or genetics. But when will we acknowledge that if all the people who handled the dog throughout the rescue process understood behavior, understood how animals learn, understood that good enough was not always going to cut it, more dogs could be successful pets? It’s one thing to be on the path to improving one’s skills. It’s another to refuse to even step onto it.

Competing Motivators

pictures of an apple and chocolate cakeMotivation. Everyone talks about it. Did you make a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym? There are blogs devoted to helping you stay motivated enough to actually do it. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning requires a level of motivation we may question whether we have or not. Some motivators are very powerful, while others lag behind, yet even if that is the case, they still manage to get us to behave. Lying in bed, snuggled warmly, comfortably and blissfully, under the blankets with a dog or two, when the temperatures are far below freezing is a huge motivator for maintaining my lying in bed behavior. But there are other motivators that will impact my behavior. The initial shock of a cold floor is tolerable because there’s morning coffee brewing and I should get to work. Sometimes I’m motivated by what I am going to get, and sometimes I’m motivated by what I’m going to avoid (caffeine or poverty as examples of the former and latter).

Fear is an important motivator. It may be the most important motivator animals, including us, have available to us to increase our life span. The chances of being killed accidentally climbs until after the age of 19 when it accounts for nearly half the number of deaths among humans aging 15-19. Young children do not have enough experience to accurately assess their environments and so behave in ways that put them at risk. Experimenting with forks and electrical outlets and toddling at the top of a flight of concrete stairs are a couple examples. Teenagers may not only be poor assessors of risk, they also may have keys to a car.

Every day I receive emails from people asking me what they should do to help their dog. It’s impossible for me to answer their question with any specificity or if I do, to not sound flippant (“My dog is scared of me, what should I do?” “Stop scaring them”). If their dog’s behavior is motivated by fear whether that means remaining shut down in a corner or lunging at anyone who walks into a room, they need to address the motivator. Options fall into two categories, decrease the motivator, i.e., the fear, and/or find a motivator that out competes the fear to get behaviors the owner prefers. How they should do this I can’t say for sure. What options are available to them for decreasing the fear and creating other motivators? The answers will vary depending on the dog (the dog has the final vote regarding what is or is not motivating) and what are the resources or environments available for creating alternate motivators.

Sometimes motivators are glaringly obvious. Fear is motivating a dog to cower or growl. Food is motivating a dog to stare and drool. Sometimes the motivators are misidentified or mislabeled, not so glaringly obvious to some. Behaviors motivated by fear are attributed instead to the motivation to move up in status in a relationship with an owner or other dog. Sometimes we can easily control the motivators, or the conditions which motivate, sometimes we can’t. We can control food, but we cannot control thunderstorms.

It’s a damn difficult thing to help many of our fearful dogs. I try to offer ideas and hope that a similar kind of brain that figured out how to create wifi can come up with ways to address a dog’s fearfulness. Those of you living or working with a fearful dog will need to assess the motivators which are driving the dog’s behavior, and don’t forget to have a look at your own while you’re at it.

Freedom To Try

Dogs who come from puppy mills or who have lived on chains or confined with limited opportunity to interact with a varied environment, are lacking in many skills. I’m not sure if ‘trying’ is considered a skill or not, but it’s not unusual for a dog who suffered deprivation in their early life, to ‘give up’ easily. When faced with a challenge, a partially closed door, a ball under a chair, a treat out of reach, instead of trying to remedy the situation, they do nothing. In some cases they may be afraid of what happens when they try, the chair moves, startling them. Or they don’t appear to be inclined to try at all.

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that a dog is stupid when they behave this way, and it’s not a fair assessment of them or their potential. We need to be prepared to provide the dog with numerous opportunities to learn to be successful when faced with a challenge. When we talk about building a dog’s confidence, this is how we can do it. You can help by making sure that the solutions to problems are simple.

Instead of giving a dog a frozen stuffed food dispensing toy like a Kong, put a few bits of meat into it and spread some canned food on the rim. Make it easy for them to get a taste of the food and then let them discover how by manipulating the toy more food can be had. Hide toys and treats in easy to locate, accessible, places where they feel safe. Put food under towels or pieces of paper or cardboard if their range is limited.

Following is a video you may be see circulating on the web. It’s not just a cute puppy playing with a stick, though it is that. It’s a sophisticated animal trying to solve a problem and through her efforts, discovers a solution. Even if Maddie never tries to bring a big stick through the door again she has learned an important lesson- her behavior matters and sometimes it pays not to give up. Maybe it’s a good lesson for the rest of us as well.