Archive for the ‘shelter dogs’ Tag

Is Your Dog Trainer A Professional?

pointy-eared dog looking downFor the majority of my adult working life I was involved in the travel and outdoor recreation industry. Early in my career I was introduced to the reality of legal liability. I make no claims about my depth of understanding of negligence vs. gross negligence or how they would be argued in a court of law, I do understand that providers of goods or services have a responsibility to behave in ways that do not put consumers of those goods and services at risk. If you rent a pair of skis at a ski area, hit a tree or take a bone breaking tumble, the company that rented you the skis is not liable. However if the binding on those skis pops off and sends you careening out of control and you’re injured, and an investigation shows that the person who was responsible for checking bindings was fired 2 weeks ago and was never replaced and binding checks, as dictated by industry standards, did not occur (if such a standard even exists), you have a case.

When no standard operating procedures exist in an industry or no regulations regarding a product’s composition, design or strength are in place there will be those who will behave as though those standards exist based on the best information available. Others won’t due to ignorance, greed, laziness, habit or disregard. Though the US legal system regarding liability is often held up for ridicule for perceived excesses, my experience in the recreation industry was that it meant I was less likely to encounter- waterlogged life jackets that wouldn’t keep a cork afloat, climbing ropes that should have been retired years ago and guides who were likely to behave recklessly and put some other motivation ahead of keeping their clients safe. The risk of being sued shouldn’t be the primary reason for acting responsibly and professionally, but it sure doesn’t hurt to encourage a business operator to have those squishy brakes looked at before sending out a van to pick up clients.

I was shocked to discover that despite the information coming from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American Animal Hospital Association, The Society of Veterinary Behavior TechniciansThe Australia Veterinary Association and professionals in the industry who study the effects of different types of training on dogs, there are trainers who continue to use and recommend force, pain, threats and intimidation to pet owners for training purposes. It doesn’t take a degree to understand that if an animal connects being hit, scruffed, poked, rolled over or otherwise feels threatened with bodily harm with a specific person, or people in general, we could see them responding, not surprisingly, with fear, and also possibly with aggression. If a professional in the dog training industry (or pretending to be one on television) suggests that a pet owner hit, scruff, grab, poke, roll over or otherwise threaten their dog, and that dog bites them or someone else, why is the trainer not held responsible for this dangerously wrong information? A doctor who recommended an ointment with mercury in it to treat sores or wounds would lose their license and anyone who followed their advise would likely consider legal action against them.

The body of research and information in the pet dog training industry is turning into a mountain of evidence against the use of force, fear, pain and intimidation to modify behavior. The excuses for using these have worn thin and they do not stand up against the evidence or in the court of professional opinion. A trainer who tells a pet owner to use force or fear to change behavior is like an electrician who suggests you stick a fork into an electrical outlet to find out why it’s not working. Knowing what you know about electricity you’d be foolish to follow their advice, and they’d lose their license for suggesting it. There is no excuse for someone selling their services as a trainer for not knowing that the use of force or coercion to get or end behavior in dogs can lead to increased aggression in those dogs. No excuse. None. Zero.

Not convinced or still have a few excuses? Check out Eileen Anderson’s blog on the topic.


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. 

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.

Changing The Faces of Dog Training

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

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

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

To find out more about the trip visit this webpage.

Got Change?

cocker spaniel sleeping on lounge chair outside

Nothing to worry about here!

When we are training our fearful dogs we are facilitating a change in how they respond to events or objects (including us and other animals) they are exposed to. There is likely an endless array of ways we can come up with to do this, but ultimately what we are doing is making the scary stuff either neutral or good enough so that the dog can continue to seek out rewarding, reinforcing activities while in its presence. The ways that this can be done are based on how a nervous system reacts to stimulus.

Habituation occurs when constant exposure to something stops producing a response and in a sense becomes a non-event. When a collar is first put around a puppy’s neck it can be a big event. The puppy feels the collar and may be upset about it, some more, some less. Eventually, like us and a watch strapped around our wrist, the puppy doesn’t notice the collar, they habituate to wearing it. The challenge with using this approach with something that has scared a dog is that animals don’t habituate easily to things that they felt threatened by in the past. It doesn’t make sense for this to happen. What didn’t kill and eat you yesterday might just get you tomorrow. This makes our efforts to change how dogs feel about things very challenging and why simply exposing a dog to the scary thing is often not successful.

We can use a process called desensitization to increase the amount of the scary thing that is required to produce a fearful response. By starting off with small doses of it, and gradually increasing how much of a trigger a dog is exposed to, how long they are exposed to it, how many they are exposed to, how close they are to it, we can change the dog’s tolerance of it. This can be very effective but as you might guess, sorting out and controlling the “dose” of the trigger can be tricky. A big risk, and not one to be taken lightly is that if we go over the amount necessary to build tolerance and cause the dog to have a negative reaction we can increase the dog’s sensitivity to the trigger. This means that in the future less of the trigger will be required to produce the fearful response. If yesterday you fled from the monster when it was 10 feet away and you survived to tell about it, tomorrow when you notice that monster you will up the odds of getting away if you flee when it is 15 feet away. Now the reaction you had yesterday at 10 feet away from the trigger is occurring at 15 feet and as the monster gets closer your negative response to it increases so that at 10 feet away today you may be more afraid than you were yesterday at the same distance. Ooops. We didn’t mean for that to happen!

Counterconditioning is changing what the dog has learned the trigger predicts. For most of our dogs triggers predict feeling scared. That alone is enough to kick in the dog’s automatic responses so they behave in ways that might ensure their survival. They may run, they may hide, they may fight, they may beg for their life. It’s not easy to change this. It’s better to leap away from a stick and have it turn out not to be a snake then to bend over to pick up a rattler to use as a cane. The most effective way to countercondition is to combine it with desensitization, but if we make a mistake with the desensitization piece and the trigger causes a negative response from the dog we can still attempt to countercondition and maybe get the point across. And the point we are trying to get across is that men with hats and beards predict that fabulous things are going to happen. For most dogs some kind of smelly, greasy, real, food will do the trick. It may take numerous repetitions for the dog to make the association that it’s the scary monster man that is the heads-up notice that cheese is on its way, but when it does you can see it by the way the dog reacts. Instead of the trigger predicting fear is on its way, he now predicts that something good is going to happen and the dog behaves in a way that demonstrates they are anticipating the good thing. At our house when the scary monster man comes home Sunny runs and picks up a frisbee because the monster now predicts that games will be played. Sunny likes games.

By using our big brains we can come up with all kinds of ways to take advantage of how animals can change their response to stimuli they are exposed to. We can talk about what is going on for the dog in any number of ways as well; the dog is gaining confidence, learning they have control, making choices, learning skills, etc., but at the end of the day they are habituating, desensitizing or being counterconditioned to the trigger.

My goal for a fearful dog is straightforward, I want them to be able to function in their world easily enough that they can seek out positive reinforcement. I want them to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (or out of their crate or the corner they’ve hunkered down in). I want them to be able to enter new environments and be capable of looking for ways to feel good, to do something fun and rewarding, or to find a good spot for a nap. I want changes in their environment to elicit curiosity or the anticipation of something good, including the opportunity to do something they’ve been taught and get a treat for it, not terror or worry. We have our jobs cut out for us with our dogs that’s for sure, but by taking advantage of desensitization, counterconditioning and using positive reinforcement to train we are using our time, and our dog’s time wisely.

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.


Use Protection

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.

History Matters

I’ll be at my vet’s office tonight running a class called “Vet Ready!” to help owners and dogs feel more comfortable coming to the clinic. Few things are as clear as how they respond to handling to give you an idea of what they have learned to expect from you. For some owners the way their dog responds is….well….history. The dog has learned that visits to the vet are not happy events. Their behavior will reflect this and both dog and owner are likely to be upset and stressed.

Today my 15lb dog Nibbles got a bit of wood stuck in his teeth. It wasn’t dangerous but it was annoying. Initially I wasn’t sure what he had in his mouth and thought that it was a bit of food that he’d easily dislodge. But when he began to paw at his muzzle and become more upset I thought I better have a look.

Years ago I had a dog get a stick stuck between his teeth on the roof of his mouth. When I saw him his fur was tinged pink from the blood his pawing to get it out had caused. I didn’t know this at the time and feared he’d been in a fight with a critter. Off we went to the vet. Because he was not comfortable with me handling his muzzle and looking into his mouth he resisted my efforts and I called the small piece of wood the vet removed his $40 root canal (this was back in the days when a vet visit and sedation only cost $40!). Had I been able to get a better look into his mouth I could have popped it out myself.

Nibbles came to me a dog afraid of being handled by people but I have put time and energy into changing this. He let me run my fingers along the sides of his teeth to find out what the problem was. I was able to flick the splinter out from between his teeth and with a few licks he’d spit it out. I didn’t have time to teach Nibbles to let me do this, but our history of gentle handling and my efforts to teach him what to do instead of using force and restraint paid off. This video by Chirag Patel shows how simple it can be to create a positive history of handling with your dog. If you are fostering a dog consider working on both restraint and restraint-free handling with your charges. Show them that their bad history will not repeat itself.

Giving My Dog A Life

lifeGiving My Dog A Life

Please feel free to “like” my latest Facebook page and post your own pictures of the good life you give your dogs. Let’s stop shaming dogs and give them a life!

Fostering Success: Do No Harm

black dog playing with a plastic food toy

Food toys are a great way to show a dog a good time

The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people.

Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so. Some will have had enough positive experiences with people that they are able to withstand a few minor bumps and bruises and not be worse for it. There will be others whose background with people is spotty. Some people have been kind and gentle with them, obviously some have cared enough to get the dog into a foster home. But other people have been less than kind. This lack of kindness may have manifested in neglect, in other cases abuse. When these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens. They may be disproportionally prepared for the worst. A foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.

What might constitute too much pressure or punishment for one dog, may not for another. It’s best not to assume that any pressure put on a dog to engage socially or any punishment, even if only a raised voice, is tolerable for a dog. Behavior that might be ok with a dog you have developed a positive relationship, may not be with a dog newly introduced to your home. This is true for dog/dog relationships. Fear is unfortunately easy to install in animals and nearly impossible to remove. This is true of all kinds of fears; other dogs, people, cars, storms, etc. And you are not seeing the dog at their best. As addressed in my previous post Fostering Success, these dogs are stressed and stress can negatively impact them in a variety of ways.

Consider the first impression you will make with a dog. Will you be snapping on a leash and pressuring them to follow you with no other incentive other than because you say so? Will you be touching them or putting your face close to theirs without knowing if that is what they feel comfortable with? Are you immediately bringing them into your home and ordering them around; come here, get off of that, leave that alone, go this way? Do you have a pocket full of treats or a squeaky toy at the ready?

If you hold outdated beliefs about dogs and how they relate and interact with other dogs and people, it’s time for an upgrade. Dogs do not need pack leaders, they do not behave in ways to gain domination over the household. They do what works for them, like every other organism on the planet. If their behavior does not work for us, it’s up to us to teach them what does. If you are unfamiliar with the risks of using force, coercion and punishment when training dogs, it’s time you became familiar with those risks. If you do not know how to use positive reinforcement to teach dogs new behaviors you might want to brush up on those skills before you take on a dog whose life may be depending on that you do.