Archive for the ‘socialization’ 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.



Grow Up

small dog in a cageAt some point early in the life of a human we develop intellectually and emotionally enough to realize that it’s not always just about us. Hopefully when this happens we’ve had plenty of time to learn to feel safe and loved. It’s not an easy step to take, but a step that most of us not only take, but run with. We go on to become teachers, doctors, nurses, builders, volunteers, dog trainers, psychologists, parents, partners, etc. We find ways to live our lives taking the needs of others into consideration. So what the heck happened when it comes to dogs?

It’s one thing to buy a pair of running shoes and to leave them languishing in the closet, it’s another to bring a dog into your home, a dog who may have been bred to be a working or sporting dog and to leave them languishing on the couch or in a crate for hours upon hours a day. They may be young and fit. They may be designed, through a process of genetic selection imposed on them by people, to not only be able to; run for hours, be fast enough to catch and kill small animals, bark with ease for seemingly interminable lengths of time, dig, chew, herd, guard property and objects. Not only are they able to perform these behaviors they are inclined to perform them.

But what dogs are inclined to do seems to have been lost on many of us (though I don’t expect those of you reading this blog to include yourselves in that group). We want to pat ourselves on the back for adopting a hound dog from a rescue group and then never allow them off leash to run. We’ll have good reasons for this, and other restrictions and will use them to justify the use of bark collars and shock collars, choke chains and prongs, to force them into performing the behaviors we need them to perform in order for them to continue to benefit from the good intentions that brought them into our homes.

Dogs may have enabled us to rediscover our inner child who still wants to believe it’s all about us. Don’t make them suffer for it.

Dog Displaying Fear or Aggression? Don’t Make Them Repeat Themselves

boy sitting on pier with 2 dogs looking at the water

Go on Sunny, there’s fun ahead.

When a dog performs a fearful or aggressive behavior it’s as though they are saying, “I don’t have the skills to behave in any other way in this situation.” Why would you want to make them repeat themselves?

If you were to drop a kid into a pool that was just deep enough they didn’t feel completely safe you could expect them to try to get out. Some kids might find the exercise educational and learn to tread water, kick their feet, blow bubbles, or dog paddle. Others might continuously get themselves to the side and hang on. If the latter is good enough for you, then keep doing it, but it’s a step short of what would help them feel better about being in a pool and give them skills so that if they find themselves in any body of water they are less likely to drown.

Skill building is not only what the dog training business is all about (or should be!) it’s incredibly rewarding to see a dog develop the skills they need to find other ways to enjoy their life. Not being able to swim keeps many people from participating in activities that are healthy and fun. Not being comfortable in places where there are people or dogs puts limits on the opportunities to discover the joys of simply being alive.

If they need support and feel better hanging on to the side, that’s ok let them. But remember that the combination of counterconditioning and training using positive reinforcement can lead to the day that rather than trying to avoid the water they embrace their ability to float and start having fun in the pool. While they’re learning, their desire to keep heading for the ladder out is information that they need more counterconditioning and reinforcement for kicking their feet and practicing strokes.

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.

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.

Suffering the Consequences

small black dog with 3 quills in his noseI heard an interesting piece on NPR’s This American Life radio show. The topic was institutionalized, racial segregation in housing in America. During the 1960’s when people protested, often violently, against this practice a comment made by then President Nixon went something like this, if the demands were met (end policies that perpetuated segregation in housing) the protesters would be rewarded for protesting or rioting, and therefore their demands should not be met.

Knowing that consequences drive behavior we could look at that scenario and agree with President Nixon. We have to be very careful about behaviors we reinforce. Dog owners and trainers could think about the puppy shrieking to get out of her crate. Open the door and the puppy learns that shrieking gets doors open, and that’s not anything we want to encourage. When my husband worked for a youth club years back he was faulted for inviting a young girl to have a snack after she became upset, spewed a litany of swears and hid in a locker. Hadn’t he rewarded her for her bad behavior of swearing and hiding in lockers with the snack offer?

Reinforce it and you’ll likely see more of it. But there’s a piece missing, a big piece, and that’s the reality that when someone, animal or human is upset they may behave in ways we don’t like. If all we are going to rely on is the use of consequences, chiefly punishment, to change their behavior we are in effect forcing them to suffer the consequences, when a goal should be to eliminate the need for those behaviors to be performed in the first place.

If we don’t want people to riot for equal rights or treatment, and accept they should have them, then we either have to provide them with those rights, or provide a way in which they can achieve them without needing to riot. A puppy who screams and whines to be taken out of their crate could be given the opportunity to learn to feel good inside the crate with opportunities to play, rest and chew bones there. They can learn to feel safe and comfortable in their crate for longer and longer periods of time. The little girl who became upset and hid in the locker could be given the tools for expressing herself in a more socially appropriate way. She could have also stood to have had a better home life and this fact makes the use of punishment or the withholding of rewards to change her behavior seem even more inhumane to me.

We are responsible for setting up the conditions for our dogs to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and useful to them. If we can’t create ideal conditions we need to give them skills to be able to cope with less than ideal conditions. Let the consequences drive your behavior. Being able to predict that your dog is not likely to be successful means you can change the conditions to improve the chances that they will be. This will spare you from having to suffer the consequences of your dog’s inappropriate behavior.

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.

Take It When You Can Get It

approach1In November Sunny will have lived with us for 8 years. He has remained wary and afraid of my husband for those 8 years. There are likely a variety of reasons for this. John is a man, dogs tend to be more afraid of men than they are of women. Early on in their relationship there were several events that scared Sunny, quite literally sh**less (it usually fell on me to clean up after those episodes). One day the metal food bowl that John was carrying dropped and chased Sunny down the stairs where he slammed into the wall before recovering and getting into his safe spot under my desk where he hid out for hours. One day during a run John tripped and fell, Sunny on a long line emptied his bladder on the spot. There was the flexi-lead debacle that I describe in my blog post Don’t Take My Lead On This One!

Another factor could be that as much of a nice guy and dog lover John is, he’s not into dog training in the same way I am. He works away from home, I work at home. By virtue of that arrangement I have had more time to work with Sunny and more inclination to do so. Tagging along with this is “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Since it has fallen on me to come up with ways to help Sunny, and early in our time together I was not up to speed on exactly what those ways should be, mistakes were made. Both Sunny and John lost the motivation to work on their relationship. Neither got enough positive reinforcement.

All relationships require positive feedback. It’s not easy to live with a dog who is afraid of you. People will converse longer with someone who offers a nod or smile, compared to someone who does not. Humans and dogs seem to share this as motivation for engagement. Live with a dog who avoids you and runs for cover when you appear and there’s not much “feel good” value to the relationship. As for the dog, well, they’re feeling fear and that’s worse than being snubbed.

For years John has been happy to go into the yard and toss frisbees for Sunny and Finn. John likes to count and see how many frisbees Finn can catch and the dogs just love the game. Gradually I’ve seen Sunny’s reaction to John’s evening return morph from what was complete concern to a mix of concern and frisbee-tossing-anticipation. This felt like an improvement.

Recently something changed. Several times during the past couple of months John has joined me and the dogs on our woods walk. Initially he came along to get the trails ready for winter skiing. He toted a chain saw or pruning shears to clear downed trees and build walkways over the streams that will ice up your skis if you break through the snow. I brought treats. Sunny preferred keeping John in sight, and his preference extended to seeing John walk away from him, rather than toward him. I doled out the treats whenever John was nearby. As the number of our walks together increased Sunny’s comfort having John on the trails with him increased as well. Off leash Sunny is able to choose his proximity to John. I even managed to convince John to toss a treat to Sunny now and then when Sunny came up behind him.

Yesterday I watched as the dance of desensitization, counterconditioning and training between the two occurred. Initially Sunny would get within 5-6 feet of John who was ahead of him on the trail. John would stop and toss a treat for him and keep walking. After eating the treat Sunny would move back to within 5-6 feet of him, and another treat would be tossed. In front of my eyes I watched Sunny decrease the distance between the two of them until he was taking treats from John’s hand. Today the same thing happened. At one point John stopped and tried to lure Sunny to his extended hand with treats, but Sunny would have nothing to do with it, but seconds later after performing the “move toward man” behavior on his own he happily took the offered treats.


By the end of the walk Sunny was able to take treats even if John was facing him.

Everything about the “picture” of the trigger (John) mattered to Sunny. I complimented John on his ability to hand out treats without scaring Sunny. He responded, “I’m not looking at him and keeping my upper body turned away from him.” Bravo! Eight years of living with my chattering on about fearful dogs was not for naught!

Some would say that it has taken 8 years for Sunny to make these gains with John but it’s as much based on the fact that it took 8 years for John to find that tossing treats while walking with Sunny was worth the effort.

P.S. Sunny missed out on positive experiences with people and novelty during the first year of his life. There is no “do-over” for the lack of whatever needs to happen during critical periods of development in a dog’s life. He has learned skills to be comfortable around people, but he will never be like a dog who had the benefits of play and enrichment with people during the first few months of their life. Sorry to break it to you if you were unaware of the importance of early puppyhood experience.

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.


Over Equipped

I should start this post with a disclaimer that I am not advocating against the use of the pieces equipment I am going to mention, rather that we should take a good long look at how and why we are using them.

Routinely a post will make the rounds of the social media circuit about a dog who while playing with a dog, ended up getting tangled, one way or another, in the other dog’s collar. I was once part of an assessment of a dog whose playmate had died from strangulation from a collar entanglement. The dog being assessed had unintentionally killed his friend. Few would suggest that dogs should never wear collars, they are peerless for identification should a dog go astray. Micro chips and tattoos are helpful as well and good back-up should a collar go missing, but a tag with a contact number can get a dog home pretty darn fast.

At the risk of sounding like a whiny old person, longing for the good ol’ days I will say that when I was growing up with dogs we didn’t use crates. I am not saying that crates are not useful pieces of equipment or that we wouldn’t have been better off had we used a crate with my childhood dogs. I’m merely saying that for the majority of time dogs have co-housed with humans, they were not confined to a space which restricted their movement to the degree a crate does. And yes, one could add that there are far less humane ways to restrain dogs and that there are working dogs, who when not working, are similarly confined.

Crates are invaluable for a variety of reasons, no question. Plenty of dogs love climbing into their crate for a snooze or chew session. But crates have provided humans with the option of confining dogs, possibly for longer than is reasonable or humane. A dog who might be able to go for 6 hours without a toilet break, or before boredom sends them round the bend, can be left in a crate for 8 hours without giving owners any reason to attend to the dog sooner, because the dog was unable to cause any damage to the household. The equipment gets us what we need, at the dog’s expense. If a dog in a crate begins barking incessantly, there are more pieces of equipment we can use to deal with that, namely some kind of bark collar.

Muzzles and head halters, useful for the management of dogs, give us the opportunity to put dogs into situations where they might prove to be dangerous or annoying. They make it possible for us to ignore the information a dog is sharing with us through the intensity or duration of their behavior. Essentially they allow us to flood a dog with stimuli that they might otherwise have chosen to avoid, or bite. A skilled handler can incorporate these tools into their practice with dogs for the purpose of maintaining the safety of all involved, and in the case of head halters, to get a behavior which they then reinforce. And for a pet owner or novice handler the use of a piece of equipment which takes the element of choice away from a dog, may always be necessary. It’s not always the end of the world for a dog.

Recently I watched a service dog at an all day event being manipulated by a head halter. Not only did I assume that the dog had been professionally trained (the handler was a trainer) but that he was a well-loved animal. The dog was expected to ignore everything in his environment and focus on his handler. Should he turn his head to take note of a person or other dog walking into the room his head was pulled back toward the handler. That this was done with an apology, “sorry you’re still working,” mattered little to me, and probably less to the dog. This dog was not a service dog, he was a slave, albeit a well-cared for one. That’s just my opinion of course, and heaven knows I’ve got plenty of those.