Archive for the ‘training’ Tag

The 3 Steps To Helping Fearful Dogs

shy dog in cageIt has been over a decade since my fearful dog Sunny came to live with us from a rescue camp set up to help care for the animals impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I met him at Camp Katrina where I went to volunteer several weeks after the hurricanes hit. As much as I thought I knew about dogs and dog behavior, training and how dogs learn, I soon came to understand it was a drop in the bucket compared to what I needed to know in order to help and train a scared dog.

But I learned. It wasn’t always a smooth road and even today I realize how much more there is for me to understand about how behavior works and Applied Behavior Analysis, but there is no question in my mind about how to approach interacting with fearful dogs, including aggressive dogs.

The in a nutshell version is this-

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to for each dog. We want to see fearful reactions decrease or end. It may mean ceasing to talk to or interact with the dog beyond routine care. It may mean providing them with a safe haven where they can escape from whatever is scaring them on a daily basis.
  2. Change how they feel about the scary stuff by changing what it predicts. This is called counter conditioning. Usually we have the scary events become a reliable predictor for something yummy or fun. The scary thing does not have to be the source of the good stuff, only a predictor of it.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you need them to do using a high rate of positive reinforcement to build strong and reliable behavior. You can use a clicker if you like and know how, but you don’t need to. What you do need is to know what the dog values enough to change its behavior to get.

Common responses to these steps include;

But if the dog isn’t exposed to scary stuff how will they learn to deal with it? 

This question is like asking, “If someone doesn’t keep almost drowning how will they learn to swim?” We can’t teach someone to swim if they’re too afraid to get into the pool! We start by eliminating the need for the dog to worry about bad things happening to them. From there we can teach them everything they need to know.

I tried counter conditioning and it didn’t work!

This is often an indication that the conditioning was not done properly. Unlike a laboratory where all the different objects and events in the environment can be controlled to a greater degree than we can in the real world, it can be tricky for the dog to isolate that it’s the thing we are trying to condition them to, that is responsible for the fabulous good stuff they are receiving. There are always lots of other things going on around a dog and each or any of them might have also been conditioned to previously. A dog who is afraid of men with hats and beards might also be conditioned to feel afraid when on the sidewalk where men with hats and beards have been encountered, or the smell coming out of the door of the hair salon at the spot where a scary man was last encountered.

My dog isn’t interested in food when scared.

Fear and anxiety impact a dog’s digestive system. It’s not unusual for them to not want to eat. See step 1.

I don’t want to use food. 

Food is a primary reinforcer, as such it is among the easiest, most portable and salient things we can use to train. Use it. If your dog is motivated by toys and play, lucky you, use them.

What if I don’t have food. 

If a dog has been trained to perform a behavior because food was provided as a consequence, and that has happened a lot, the behavior is usually strong enough to persist even if at some times we don’t have food. We can also condition other things to work as reinforcement as well. Don’t worry about it, a good trainer can show you how it’s done.

My mission is to help people living with or working with fearful dogs to have a better understanding about how to help them. My fearfuldogs.com website has lots of information and resources. If you need more help you can schedule a phone or skype consult. Webinars and seminars are also available. Before you let anyone handle or train your fearful dog make sure they know these important 3 steps.

 

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Clean-up On Aisle Dog

worried looking boxer dog

Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

If you happen to be privy to the chatter that goes on between dog trainers, what I am going to say will not be new to you. Daily, dog trainers are contacted to help an owner with a dog, a normal, healthy, fully functioning dog, whose behavior has become untenable or even dangerous. Sometimes we’re contacted within a few days or weeks after the problem behavior has been identified. More often it’s been months or years before we get the call (or text or email).

We may be their first hope, often we are their last. We are not usually going where no trainer has gone before. On the contrary, we are stepping in to try to fix a problem that another trainer (or trainers) failed to address, contributed to, and yes, even caused.

Whether an owner followed the bad advice shared by; a trainer’s TV show, book, seminar, a sales person in a pet shop, or the folklore of a culture, it becomes our turn to step up to the plate. Though the deck has been stacked against us, bases are loaded, with 2 strikes, all eyes are on us to win this thing.

Cleaning up a behavior problem that is based on a schedule of positive reinforcement is like getting a water soluble stain out of synthetic. Behavior problems caused by the use of punishment (P+) or other aversive methods (R-) are more like oil-based stains on silk, good luck to you. Even if you do manage to get it out, the fabric may never be the same as it was before it was stained.

Be careful how you handle a dog, any dog, but especially one that is fearful and fragile. If in doubt as an owner or trainer, visit the Fearfuldogs.com website for more information about the most effective and humane ways to train. Join me in Concord NH in February 2018 for a day of learning to Train As If Their Lives Depended On It.

The Bad News About Fearful Dogs

drawing 3 children 2 covering eyes 1 covering mouthI am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.

When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.

What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.

There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.

That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.

-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.

-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.

-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.

Look for educational seminars in your area about fearful dogs.

High Risk Activities

puppy being dragged into the ocean

“I’d rather not.” “So?”

One of the primary goals I have for this blog, the seminars and webinars, and consults I do for folks living or working with fearful dogs is to help them understand how to think about fear based behaviors. When I am contracted to help someone train their dog I can directly and specifically tell them what to do. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the number of dogs out there that need someone to help them. If people have good information to use to come up with reasonable ways to respond to their dog, they are more likely to do so, and that is what needs to happen–dogs need to be responded to appropriately.

Risk management is an important consideration in many industries. It should be in the dog training industry as well. The most obvious reason is that when people get bitten, dogs get put down. But there are other risks. A dog’s quality of life is at risk when they are not handled properly. One of the most high risk activities we engage in is when we expose dogs to objects or events that scare them. This tactic is fueled by a variety of notions espoused by trainers; dogs need to be exposed to things or else they’ll never learn to not be afraid of them, dogs are empowered by being able to choose to investigate something, if something doesn’t hurt them a dog will learn that it’s not something they need to be afraid of, dogs won’t be afraid if you are the pack leader. Each of these, among others not mentioned, can lead people to making high risk decisions about how to manage their dog.

I am not saying that exposing a dog to things, or allowing them to roam around and make choices as to how they will respond to something that might scare them doesn’t ever work. I am suggesting that it is a high risk approach to take with a fearful, shy, anxious or reactive dog. Existing fears can become worse and new ones can be added. We can and should minimize and manage the risks we are willing to take when a dog’s life and the lives of those around that dog are at stake.

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe.
  2. Be prepared to make anything that already scares, or might scare, the dog a predictor of something fabulous. Use food. Fabulous food.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you’d like them to do when in the presence of something that does or might scare them. When we use high rates of positive reinforcement to train appropriate behaviors we don’t need to worry about them making bad choices.

The Real Reason You Should Never Hit Your Dog

yellow dog looking suspicious

What is that hand going to do to me?

Hitting a dog is a bad idea. Even one of those “Oh it didn’t hurt them,” swats is a bad idea. And here’s why. Dogs notice what things predict. If a hand has ever predicted getting grabbed, scruffed, swatted or worse, the dog learns that sometimes hands do unpleasant things to them. Puppies will learn this quickly, and even older dogs who were never routinely hit will learn quickly that some hands are not to be trusted should they ever be hit. The question for dogs will be to know which hands they need to be worried about. That’s where the danger lies, they may decide that being safe is better than being sorry, and will avoid or even bite any hand reaching for them.

Think about what many people do the first time they meet a dog. Think about what little kids do. They reach out their hand for the dog to get a sniff or give a pet, except that dogs are not mind readers and they don’t know their intentions. A dog who has been reprimanded or corrected by hands, or by something in a hand, may be more inclined to bite hands. Any trainer who suggests that someone uses their hands to do something scary or painful to a dog, whether it’s suppose to imitate another dog’s mouth (which is frankly a load of malarky) or to forcibly restrain or punish the dog, is behaving in a way that as a professional constitutes gross negligence. They should know better. They should know that the very last thing in the world we want is for a dog to have to worry about what a hand is going to do to them.

Dog Trainers Do Agree

pssst

 

 

Don’t get sucked in by the supposed “truism” that dog trainers can’t agree on how dogs should be trained. The educated among us agree on the fundamentals. Check out “Don’t Be The Third Trainer.”

Aggression in Fearful Dogs- No Surprise Here

face of a mastiffThe older one gets the less in life seems to surprise us. One of the things that should be no surprise to any of us is for a fearful dog to behave aggressively. Aggression is a normal and predictable response to see in animal who is afraid, often terrified, for their life. Brains are designed so that if an animal is experiencing fear, behaving aggressively–as opposed to taking a deep breath and suggesting that other solutions to the current problem might exist–will happen quickly. It might save an animal’s life. Spend a few extra seconds not fighting back and you might be lunch.

One of the main goals for anyone working with a fearful dog is to never put the dog into situations in which aggression becomes necessary from the dog’s perspective. By keeping a dog feeling safe, however that needs to be sorted out for an individual dog, will help prevent the demonstration or escalation of aggressive behavior. If a dog is troubled by people coming into the house we can be proactive and put the dog away in another room where they are safe, have something yummy to chew, and the scary event can occur without any drama.

The next steps we take address how the dog feels about the scary event. We do this by using desensitization and counterconditioning. Change how the dog feels and you generally will see a change in how they behave. Counterconditioning is a straightforward process, but misunderstood enough that people, including dog trainers, get it wrong. Getting it wrong leads to the idea that it doesn’t work. And when this happens people move on to to less effective ways to work with fear based behavior challenges.

Simply put– when counterconditioning the scary thing comes to predict a wonderful thing. The appearance of the wonderful thing is only contingent on one thing, the awareness by the dog of the scary thing. The wonderful thing, usually food but toys and play can be used if a dog finds them wonderful, appear regardless of the dog’s behavior. We don’t want a dog going bonkers at the end of a leash or scurrying under a chair so we add in the desensitization piece which means we don’t expose them to the scary thing so much that they are too freaked out to eat or play. But even if the dog is behaving in ways we wish they wouldn’t the error was ours in that we over-exposed them to the trigger, but the wonderful thing MUST appear if the scary thing has. That’s it. This has to happen often enough for the dog to put two and two together. Or one and one in this case, scary thing leads to wonderful thing.

Concurrently we begin teaching a dog something else acceptable to us to do. We should take pains to make sure it’s acceptable to the dog too. Going and sitting in a crate when people come into the house can work for both the dog and the owner if the dog feels safe in their crate. Asking a dog to sit quietly while scary monsters pet them is not likely to be acceptable to the dog as much as it makes us feel accomplished and successful. The way we help dogs learn new behaviors and continue helping them learn to feel good about the scary stuff is by using positive reinforcement to train them. By running to their crate when guests show up a dog learns that a favorite delicacy is delivered. It’s worth running to their crate when company comes.

Many of us did not break the dogs we are living with, but we can put the pieces back together again. Keep them feeling safe, desensitize and counter condition to triggers and give them skills using good positive reinforcement training mechanics.

You’ve Got The Ball: Dogs in the 21st Century

black and white dog with basketballI suspect that those of us who work with dogs in any capacity, love them, respect them and want them to have the best lives possible. Yet I can’t help but be surprised and disappointed when I hear and read information about dogs being shared that does more harm than good, or opportunities to educate the pet owning population are missed. Research on the social development of dogs has been available for over 40 years. Veterinarians, of all people, should understand the importance early, positive exposure to novelty, dogs and people plays in the development of puppies. Yet there are still those who recommend isolating puppies from social interactions with other dogs during the time when a puppy’s brain is experiencing dramatic changes on a daily basis that allow them to grow up to be adaptable, resilient dogs. Changes that may not be possible as the weeks go by.

I sat in a vet clinic recently and watched a giant flat screen TV as it aired information about basic husbandry practices pet owners should undertake with their dogs. Dogs were shown having their teeth brushed, ears cleaned and nails clipped and not once were they offered a food treat in return for holding still through the process. What a missed opportunity to educate pet owners on how professional trainers use food to teach dogs who may not already be sitting calmly for a nail trim. Often it doesn’t take much to convince a dog something isn’t as horrible as they think it is, and it would be nice to never read another story about a groomer who has injured or killed a dog using force and restraint to do their job.

Online the forums for pet sitters and dog walkers, people who also are offering services as professionals, are replete with archaic information about dog behavior. Pet owners are paying for services being provided by someone who in the 21st century isn’t even using 20th century information to guide their behavior. Rescue groups post tear-jerking videos of dogs snatched from near death being subjected to forced handling and so long as in the end they are wagging their tail the donation checks keep being written. And heaven forbid the suggestion is made that other techniques and protocols are available that are less stressful on dogs. No doubt I’ll be chastised for even suggesting that too many (not all of course!) rescue groups aren’t doing a good enough job at what they are soliciting money for doing.

There is no excuse for continuing to use force and coercion to get or end behaviors in dogs. Universities have been teaching about animal behavior and learning for decades. Vocal groups of animal trainers have been providing reasons and resources to get information out into the general pet-handling population. We’re passing you the ball. Are you going to make the play or not? We’re all are on the dog’s team after all.

Losing Your Audience

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

pointy-eared dog looking down

“Were you saying something?”

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

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

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

 

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.