Archive for the ‘relationship based training’ Tag

Good Enough Maybe Isn’t

boy rewarding a cocker spaniel standing on a bucketDogs are remarkable. They are so adept at figuring out what we want that we are often led to believe that we know what we’re going. Enough dogs figured out how to change their behavior when faced with Cesar Millan’s alpha rolling, tssking, and neck pokes that people came to believe that they knew how to be leaders and how dogs need to be handled. As with any product or service being marketed, only the success stories are highlighted and aired, or pasted into magazine ads and stories. But don’t be fooled. For every success story there are failures. There are the people who did not lose 20 pounds in two weeks, stop smoking forever, speak a different language fluently in a month or get 45 miles to the gallon. Unfortunately when we apply the term “failures” to dogs it means either dead or subjected to a life of misery in a cage or on a chain somewhere.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in dog training. On one hand there are the people who are so invested in the method they are using that they can’t see that any lack of success with it is likely due to flaws in the method in general. Dogs don’t live in packs, they don’t have pack leaders so why should employing a method based on being a pack leader be expected to work? But it often does work, and for this reason, in the cloud of misinformation, people put the blame on the dog or their own ability to fully manifest the energy of a true pack leader.

On the other hand we can have methods which have shown that when correctly applied change behavior in almost all the dogs they are used with. But when these methods are used improperly, usually unwittingly and innocently enough, and they don’t work, the method itself is tossed into the trash and new ones are invented. It’s a lucrative market this dog training industry with its endless supply of equipment and magic methods for changing behavior. It often goes something like this- we are able to train 8 out of 10 dogs using the subpar application of a training method, the two dogs who for one reason or another require a more perfect execution of the method become examples of why the method doesn’t always work, instead of being canaries in the coal mine indicating that there may be problems afoot with the way the training is being performed.

One of the milestones for me in my journey to help a very scared dog was when I realized that I did not have the skills necessary to train a dog with the level of fearfulness my dog was displaying. The margin for error was smaller than it was with other dogs who were willing to continue to remain engaged with me long enough for the light bulb to finally go off in their head, “Oh so this is what she wants!”

I have gotten to the point where I’m confident that I know what I’m doing based on the research I’ve done and education I’ve received in animal behavior and learning. But I also know that I can keep getting better at doing it. No doubt that one day there’s going to be a dog who will point out the flaws in my technique and I will remind myself to point the finger where it needs to be, at me, not at the dog or the method.

Trust Counts

Trust is a central theme of soap operas, TV dramas and political relationships. It’s lauded as being the keystone of good marriages and partnerships. Teenagers are reminded that they will not be allowed to stay home on their own, or out late, or have the keys to the car until they can be trusted. For many people the realization that trust has been “broken” can lead to a lengthy or impossible reconciliation.

If one was inclined to look at the importance we place on trust in a marriage from a biological point of view, the risk of raising someone else’s offspring, or losing the support of a good partner to someone else, could impact the long-term success of one’s own off-spring. But mostly, when someone discovers that their partner was not “faithful,” babies aside, it feels really bad- poem-writing, sad song singing bad.

Dogs are among the few species on the planet who allow us to break trust with them, and not make us pay for it, consistently. Yell at or physically reprimand a cat and you might not see them again, or are at least likely to have to clean out the scratches you received in return. Few believe that the lions in the cage being kept under control with a whip are to be trusted to safely snuggle on the couch with their “tamer.”

We can and do break the trust with our dogs routinely and there is a price. It’s bad enough to wonder if your partner is trustworthy when they call claiming another late night at the office. It’s another to wonder if the person approaching you is going to physically restrain, hurt or scare you. Being at risk physically, even if it’s done leaving no marks, is not something one forgets or puts aside easily.

The risk of losing trust with a dog is greater the shorter the relationship or the smaller the existing trust account. If we, from the moment we meet and handle a dog demonstrate that we are safe and worthy of their trust, and should we have to withdraw from the trust account we’ve built, we are less likely to lose it all. We are less likely to get bitten, or growled at by a dog and more likely to have them come when we call them. A dog’s behavior can tell us as much about our relationship with them as it tells us about them. Trust counts.

 

Just Do It!

boy doing tricks with a small black dogAt a large dog event I watched with some disgust and much dismay, as people who probably really care about their dogs handled them with all I can label was “disrespect.” Dogs were being dragged around on leashes, being reprimanded and jerked for spending too much time (typically measurable in seconds) looking at or sniffing something, not responding to cues fast enough and being left standing on grooming tables while people chatted.

Most of the human behavior was rude though some could be called abusive, and troubling. I realized it was time for me to move on when I found myself watching a groomer handling a young aussie who was not sitting when asked. The dog was being very solicitous, lowering his head and ears, licking and wiggling. I watched as the groomer continued to try unsuccessfully to cue the dog into a sit. Finally she yanked on the lead securing the dog to the stand and slammed his butt down. My own social filters must have been strained because the thought bubble I put over the groomer’s head, and spoke out loud (a tad too out loud) was, “JUST DO IT!”

We know how important good relationships are in all areas of our lives, with our family, friends and pets. I assume dogs are less likely to be given up to shelters or abandoned if their owners feel positively about the relationship they have with them. Working on and repairing these relationships are a part of what many trainers strive to do. But as I watched the groomer manhandle the aussie I realized I had been hoping, for the dog’s sake, that he would just do it to spare himself the wrath I suspect both he and I could see brewing. Why he didn’t will remain a mystery and I prefer to go with the thought that he had his reasons and they were good enough for him and valid enough for the groomer to accept. Maybe he didn’t know what she was asking for, maybe he was worried about something, maybe he would have preferred to have been off the table and had not ever been given a good enough reason for sitting when asked up there. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Life for him at that moment would have been kinder if he had sat when asked.

When you think about it most of our human relationships would improve if the people in our lives did what we wanted them to. It is frequently the daily drag of feeling inconvenienced and ignored that wears away at relationships. If only they; didn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink (get on the furniture with muddy feet), put the toilet seat up or down when they were finished using it (didn’t pee on the carpet), put their smelly socks in the laundry hamper (didn’t chew up our favorite shoes), were on time (came when called), etc. It’s not that we don’t want to feel loved and cared for, but it sure would be nice if they cleaned the bathroom now and then.

As complex as relationships can be, one solution is to teach dogs what it is that their human wants them to do, and put it on cue. Put simply, they do what they are asked to do. The relationship may still require work, but a few well-trained behaviors (using positive reinforcement as the foundation of that training) might act as a tourniquet to keep it alive long enough for the dog to remain in the home where the work can be done.

This is the reasoning behind my upcoming volunteer vacation to three islands in the Caribbean; Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. When pet owners understand how to use positive reinforcement to teach their dogs new behaviors, those dogs are likely to learn and maintain those behaviors, are less likely to end up being part of the sad statistics of homeless animals.

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.

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

toddler feeding treats to a cocker spaniel and small black dogWhen we meet a dog, especially a dog in a shelter or in the rehoming process somewhere, the first piece of information we need to give them is why they should engage with us. Most of us, dog lovers that we are, would never say to the dog, “Because I said so!” when it came to the reason they should pay attention to us. But in effect that’s what we often do. We approach, we pet, we clip a leash on their collar and however gently we do it, make them attend to us.

Our intentions are good. We have time constraints. We think “dogs like me.” It’s for their own good. But none of these are necessarily reason enough for a dog. Especially a stressed-out dog. Erasing first impressions is tough, if not impossible. There are some dogs who it would appear are able to hold onto that first impression for years.

We may be limited in what we can offer a dog, but fortunately for us what is usually most effective is readily available to us–food. We have to start someplace and pairing our appearance or handling of a dog with steak can create a powerful and long-lasting positive emotional response. We know we are more than just vending machines and that there are other things in life that we’ll be able to provide a dog with at different times that food will pale in comparison to– running, playing, tugging, herding, sniffing, exploring, snuggling on the couch–the list goes on, but it’s not a bad or ignoble start.

 

Shoring up the Foundation

targetWhen we ask a dog to do something in exchange for something they want it’s not about “no free lunches” or that dogs need to learn to work for what they want. Every organism on the planet, if they are going to be around for long already has this information. If they didn’t there would be no beaver dams, no mice caught by cats, no webs woven by spiders, no carcasses cached in trees by fisher cats, no acorns hidden away by squirrels. When we teach a dog to respond to a cue, rather then making them work for treats, or their food bowl, or an open door, we are making the world a more predictable place. The behavior of humans makes more sense to a dog when they are trained to respond to our cues.

When we use positive reinforcement to teach a dog behaviors we are infusing the whole process, all the pieces of it, from the appearance of the person to the performance of the dog, with “feel good.” We are the ones who label a particular behavior as “work” whereas for the dog it might just be sitting, fetching a ball, waiting or rounding up sheep. It’s something to do, and doing something is often better than doing nothing, especially when good outcomes are the result.

John asking Sunny to target his hand is not being used to lure Sunny closer, he had already shown he was quite happy to be that close. It was not to make him “work” for the treat. Asking Sunny to target his hand enriches the relationship between the two because the human’s behavior now has meaning instead of being a random, possibly threatening, gesture. It was a cue Sunny already had learned from me and performing behaviors to make treats happen is an enjoyable experience.

Build a vocabulary with a dog and you’ll be amazed at the conversations you can have with them.

Packing Up Their Toys

boy with a small black dog bowing at himThere was a blog post going around recently that could have easily been parody as serious. It was written by a volunteer trainer at a shelter who was declaring he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again because of his recent experience at one. The reason for his defection? Were dogs being mistreated? Were the conditions gross and unsanitary? Were too many dogs being euthanized? Was the staff being disrespected? Nope. The reason he was never going to volunteer at an animal shelter again was because the dogs were going to be clicker trained. Apparently this was so distasteful to this trainer that he was out the door never to return.

His litany of reasons for this decision included many of the old faithful, and incorrect I will add, missives regarding why force-free training and the use of food in training kills dogs. They included:

Force-free trainers sit around flipping through magazines waiting for good behaviors to reinforce while a dog gobbles down the food off the counter, chews the leg off the dining table and pees on the Oriental. 

Dogs in shelters are there because their owners, patient saints each and every one of them is, never told a dog “NO!” or yanked on their leash. Never having been reprimanded the dog has become uncontrollable and dumped at a shelter. 

Dogs in shelters are there because force-free trainers advised the aforementioned saints not to prevent or interrupt their dog’s inappropriate behavior, but instead to grab a magazine and wait for an appropriate behavior to reinforce with the bits of filet mignon they are schlepping about in a treat pouch. That studies of dogs left at shelters have shown that upwards of 94% of pet owners never even consulted with a trainer about their dog’s inappropriate behavior is insignificant. Of the 6% (or less) of the pet owners who did contact a trainer all were handed a clicker and treat pouch (and a magazine) and instructed on how to create a dog they will want to dump at a shelter. 

As I read I kept waiting for “SURPRISE! only kidding.” I am not going to walk away from shelter dogs for similar reasons that boys walk away from their sports team, because someone (who never knows as much as they do) decided to let girls play. Or quitting the typing pool because your typewriter is being replaced with a computer. This guy was leaving because the shelter management decided to introduce a training method that is less stressful to dogs. Full stop. Period. It’s like the fellow at a hearing about our local nuclear power plant declaring that he’s, “Lived next to the plant for 30 years and he’s ok.” But what about the spent fuel rods sitting in a pool on the property sir? Any suggestions as to what to do with them? Or someone boasting they’ve been smoking a pack a day since they were 15 and didn’t get cancer and see this as enough reason to keep on smoking and recommend Marlboros to friends.

I admit I only read the post once, glanced through the comments, shook my head and left the page. The requisite “all dogs learn differently” myth was tossed out as further evidence that one dare not attempt to use force-free methods with them. I’m assuming that this is because dogs, unlike any other organism on the planet, NEED to be trained using aversives. There were the head spinning, tail chasing comments about how trainers who advocate positive reinforcement also use punishment by depriving dogs of food treats when they don’t do the right thing, justifying the use of any number of collars designed to hurt or impede oxygen intake, or whatever form of positive punishment they prefer. Terms like “balanced” were used to describe trainers who I’m assuming do not have the mechanical skills in place to put behaviors on dogs using primarily positive reinforcement, tipping the scales to unbalanced in favor of force-free.

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of force-free dog trainers, allow me to share this with you. Many of us spend hundreds to thousands of dollars a year on continuing education. We study with some of the world’s best animal trainers. We practice the mechanical skills of training with some of the great names in animal behavior. Do you honestly think that trainers who can teach a multi-behavior chain to a chicken, hamster, fish, horse, lion or dolphin can’t teach a dog to walk nicely on leash, sit on a mat when people come into the house, watch quietly as other dogs go by, without using positive punishment? When “balanced” trainers choose to call us “treat dispensers” I want to channel Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and shout, “Show me some goddamn respect!”

If you want to pack up your toys and go home because the 21st century of animal training has arrived on your doorstep, go. You have as much to lose as the dogs you claim to care so deeply about.

Wasting a Good System

boy and dog looking for fish off a pierEvery organism on the planet needs to behave in particular ways in order to survive. For some the behavior is more complex, for others it might be moving in one direction with their mouth (or whatever it is they have that allows nutrients in) open. Even microscopic organisms will change their behavior based on whether or not they are reinforced for a particular behavior. They may be limited to simply changing direction, but nonetheless, they will if a behavior is not reinforcing. There is a beautiful flow of experimental behavior that allows single or multi-celled organism to discover which behaviors work for them. The definition of what works is will vary between different organisms and may even vary for a particular organism depending on other conditions; the time of day or what they may have had or not had for breakfast, for example. Guiding these behaviors is a built-in reward system.

That we have taken away the need for our dogs to perform certain behaviors, specifically foraging or hunting, does not mean that we have taken away the reward system in place to ensure that these and other behaviors continue to be performed. Some people like to say that dogs need jobs or need to work, and I suspect some will say that I am splitting hairs when I choose to avoid using these terms in relation to my dogs’ behavior, and no doubt were my border collie able to talk we’d have some lively discussions about it, but I don’t think of asking my dogs to perform certain behaviors in exchange for a treat or toss of a frisbee in terms of them needing a job or requiring that they earn their living. Instead I prefer to think about not letting the perfectly good reward system in their brain go to waste.

 

Is Food Really the Problem?

boy in chair and 4 dogs looking at him

Guess what these dogs are looking forward to getting?

From the comments I’ve been hearing and the stuff I’ve been reading on the internet one would be inclined to think that the use of food in training poses great problems or risks. I cannot think of one conversation I’ve had with a trainer who laments that their clients reinforce behaviors with food too much. Indeed it’s usually the opposite. Having trouble with the duration of a down/stay? I’d put money on that it’s because the behavior is not being reinforced with food soon or often enough, or in the right place. Dog won’t come when called? Put me down for a fiver for the same reason.

I’m not suggesting that there are not other reinforcers that can be as effective as food or that we don’t need to be aware of how we use food in training, but do we really need to be out there warning pet owners about the dangers of using food to train their dogs? Have we already won the battle of helping owners understand how positive reinforcement works and how to implement it in their relationship with their dog? And so what if a dog likes steak?

If you get dog as a pup it’s likely that you’ll have the opportunity to create hundreds, hopefully thousands, of positive associations between you and good things or events in the dog’s life. Well-handled young pups will often follow us around regardless of whether we have a treat in hand or pocket, our shoe laces may be the draw along with our companionship. We have become conditioned reinforcers to our dog through the lovely organic process of living gently and playfully with a social animal. It’s not so seamless with rehomed dogs, and even more challenging with scared dogs.

If we are lucky someone along the way has provided a dog with a reason for feeling good about people. My border collie, adopted at least 2 other times from what I know about his history, was given the gift of learning to love as only some dogs can, catching and retrieving frisbees. When life seems uncertain and perhaps a little scary, there’s always frisbee. That my dogs who are not 100% comfortable with people will perform behaviors in order to get a tidbit of treat is a blessing for all of us. Sure the vet smells funny and wields tools of ear and anal prodding capability, but there’s always gorgonzola to mitigate the discomfort.

Travel anywhere in the developing world and the most common relationship you’ll see between people and dogs is based on food. Dogs follow children who drop crumbs of bread, or they hang out at roadside food stands gobbling up discards. I am aware of those torturous studies done on baby monkeys that showed that they spent more time hanging onto a soft facsimile of mother monkey compared to the wire mother monkey who provided milk. I am not attempting to downplay the relationship we can create with our dogs that does not include food or that animals derive comfort and relief in a variety of physical ways other than through eating.

Can our relationships go beyond food? Of course they can, and do. But so what if food plays a major role in that relationship, at anytime during its creation? Try and tell a grandmother that her corned beef with carrots or key lime pie don’t matter in her relationship with her grandchildren. Try believing it yourself the next time you plan a party and decide that the food you serve doesn’t matter. It may not be just about the food, but the food is definitely part of the equation. Our social engagements don’t have to include food, but interestingly they often do.

If a dog is only responding to an owner because of the promise of food, the food is not the problem, and the relationship might not be the problem either. Advising pet owners to ditch the food treats and replace it with “relationship” may not be prudent. Food is a part of the relationship and may be the only salient reinforcer a new pet owner has to use with their dog. And I say, “So what?” By pairing interactions with their owner with food the “feel good” power of a primary reinforcer rubs off on them. Instead of warning owners off of food we should be instructing them on how to use it effectively for creating strong, reliable behaviors. That one can over-hydrate and die is not a reason to advise against drinking water. “Stop using food” is one of the most misguided pieces of advice I’ve heard today.

Plenty in Life Should Be Awesome

img_1979In order to simplify training for pet owners, and to incorporate training into daily life, eliminating the need to set aside a specific time for it many trainers recommend the Nothing In Life is Free protocol (NILF)*. It has its merits, though an unfortunate name. Tagging along with the technique is a fuzzy notion of “we’re in charge here and the sooner you figure that out the better” or something like that. There is also an unfortunate misunderstanding among many that merely making a behavior a requirement will change how a dog feels about performing it. This leads people with fearful dogs to obedience classes and to the recommendation that the person the dog most fears, does the training.

It is the case that when positive reinforcement training is used to teach behaviors that a dog is likely to feel good about performing those behaviors, but it would be an overstatement to say that they always do. In the case of NILF a dog learns that the food bowl doesn’t get put on the floor, or the door doesn’t open until they put their butt on the floor. This alone is a useful behavior for most owners, if left at that. But behavior, even with a reward, can become rote to the dog while remaining beneficial to us.

Kathy Sdao in her book Plenty in Life is Free encourages owners to look for behaviors to reinforce, rather than require behaviors be performed to earn a reward. It’s a beautiful system and once you get in the habit of it, it hardly feels like “training” at all. Instead it’s an ongoing conversation with your pet, “Hey that is awesome, I like it when you do that, have a bit of cheese.” One day you notice that your dog is performing that behavior with more frequency and you no longer need to block them from rushing out the door because they sit and wait for you to tell them how fabulous they are, and if you happen to have a bit of cheese, that would be nice too.

This is a great technique to apply to your interactions with any dog, but especially a fearful dog. Not only does the dog learn to repeat the behaviors you like, life changes for them. Most of our fearful dogs are very good at feeling scared, anxious and worried. By finding ways to provide them with rewards frequently throughout the day you can help them to develop what in a person might be considered, hopeful anticipation for life ahead. Help your fearful dog learn that plenty in life is awesome.

*Also called Learn To Earn, which removes some of the “I’m the boss around here,” sensibility of the practice.

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