Archive for the ‘pack leader’ Tag
I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.
Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.
The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.
It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.
It stands to reason that if we have not ever lived with a seriously scared dog that we would not have developed the skills to work effectively with them. Even if we’ve assisted other people living with a dog like this, there’s nothing quite like 24/7 to put our feet to the fire.
I regularly speak with people embarked on the bumpy journey to change their dogs. Many, after hearing the suggestions I make, express regret that they had been going about it ineffectively for as long as they had. It was obvious that what they were doing was ineffective, but unaware of the protocols used to change emotional responses and behaviors in dogs, had no way to discern if the problem was with the dog or with them. Many were following the advice of misinformed trainers or veterinarians and doubted their own ability to apply what were ineffective protocols to begin with.
The two ingredients which are essential to the process of helping fearful dogs are skill and patience. We can often stumble along making slow headway if we are missing one or the other, and it’s what most of us do when first confronted with the challenge of training fearful dogs. It’s when both of these key ingredients are missing from the mix that it becomes frustrating and potentially deadly for the dog. It is often our lack of patience with a dog that compels us to put too much pressure on them and some will snap, literally snap. Dogs who bite people or other animals run an increased risk of being abandoned or killed.
We improve our skills through education and practice. It takes time and energy. That education can also help increase our patience with a dog. When you understand that a terrified dog can’t do what you are trying to get them to do and is not being willfully disobedient it’s easier to cut them some slack. No one stands a 9 month old baby on their feet and implores them to walk or is surprised or disappointed when they don’t. Or we become able to see their behavior for what it is, a warning or a plea.
We shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has only ever lived with happy, social dogs would struggle when an unsocialized or abused dog lands in their home. We need to extend some of that patience to ourselves as the dog’s trainer and caretaker. We too can continue to become more confident and competent in the way we communicate and go about the unending process of becoming better than we already are.
What are the other ingredients you add to your work with fearful dogs?
It would seem that it is too much to expect that people who decide to make a living from “working” with dogs, actually spent some time learning about them. There are plenty of jobs out there that don’t require any education for someone to excel at them. If you want your lawn mowed and raked hiring a neighborhood kid with the tools is probably not a big risk. But if you want your fruit trees pruned you’d better be careful before you give that kid a pair of clippers.
Awhile back I caught grief for suggesting that as admirable as her intentions might be, having a 15 year old run an animal rescue might not be the greatest thing in the world to happen to animals. A similar thing happened when I suggested that stopping to let a newly freed group of rescued laboratory beagles out of their crates to explore the great outdoors, might not be the best choice. That any animal copes and thrives when handled inexpertly is not an excuse for the handling method.
The pet industry is booming. Anyone can label themselves a trainer or behaviorist. Log on to any chat board and it’s apparent that many of these so-called trainers base their understanding of dog behavior on what they’ve seen on television. There’s a saying that if you can’t “dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” One of the problems is that many of the bafflers have no idea that they’re doing it (some do and are laughing all the way to the bank).
I was asked to go through the hand-outs that a vet gave to new clients with puppies. The information came from another vet who made the rounds on the speaking circuit. I was aghast at what I read. Despite the lack of evidence that dogs form rigid social hierarchies or live in packs, the literature was full of advice for owners on how to securely position themselves at the top of said hierarchy. The methods for doing so ranged from cruel to absurd. This came from a vet who, like the rest of us, has access to information about animal behavior and the science of learning. That they were unaware of this information, or chose to ignore it in favor of their own, scientifically unfounded hypotheses on behavior, is inexcusable.
Anyone can start a day care center, dog walking or sitting service. These are people who will be in direct contact with an animal, or numerous animals. If you’ve got a happy dog who only needs to get out for walks, finding someone who enjoys being with dogs may not be a bad decision. But once someone sets themselves up in business they should be held to a higher standard of behavior. I recently heard about a day care center that employed one of the most misunderstood forms of punishment, the time-out. A dog who became overly aroused and did not play well with others was removed from the group and isolated in an area where he could see, but not get to the group of dogs continuing to play. Did the staff expect that by doing this the dog would come to the conclusion that he needed to play more appropriately?
Since I brought it up, the time-out is a tool that is used to end a dog’s ability to continue to perform an inappropriate behavior and then set them up so they can be rewarded for performing the right one. Putting a dog into a time-out and expecting that they’ll come out when they decide to apologize is as silly as it sounds, but yet, it is not far off from what people think is going to happen.
Someone who labeled themselves the “top behaviorist” in their country (I discovered that it’s crowded up there at the top with other self-appointed “tops”) called me an idiot for suggesting that comforting a fearful dog did not tell them they were correct in being afraid. Though they had an impressive history working with and training dogs, they held no certification or credentials as a “behaviorist.” This is not uncommon in the dog world and pet owners would be wise to cotton on to it.
When someone decides to label themselves a surgeon, and goes on to perform surgeries, they end up in jail when they are finally caught. And within the medical industry a surgeon who practices psychiatry, without first taking (and passing) the requisite courses is also frowned upon. If you are inclined to suggest that performing surgery and training dogs are completely different things, maybe you should think about it from the dog’s side of the equation. Screw up a gall bladder operation and you might end up with a dead patient. Screw up teaching a dog to stop resource guarding and there’s a good chance you end up with a dead dog. As someone who takes animal behavior and training very seriously, this thought is never far from my mind.
If we truly love and care about our pets as much as we claim to, we have to put our money where our mouth is. The hope I hold in my heart is that when the art and science of dog training and behavior modification is respected for what it is, and people who put the time, effort and money into learning about it, are both respected and compensated for it, one day the knowledge that we have will filter out into the general population. It will replace the misinformation and myths currently touted and adopted as truth, and dog trainers will have fewer behavior “issues” to deal with and can focus on teaching dogs to open the refrigerator and get their owner a can of soda.
Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.
Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.
Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.
A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.
Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.