Archive for the ‘training’ Tag

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.

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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.

I’ve Got Your Mouth or Worrying About Why

face of black & white dogAt my first appointment with a new dentist after I moved to Vermont I asked if he’d like me to have my charts sent from my previous dentist. His reply was, “I don’t need them, I have your mouth.” Everything he needed to know about my teeth was in front of him.

When we begin to work with fearful dogs it’s not uncommon for us to think that we need to know the dog’s past in order to help them. It’s not that the information would be superfluous, but it likely will not change how we are going to work with the dog. We have their mouth, so to speak. Their behavior will guide us. Whether it’s an 8-week old pup or 8 year old dog who won’t come out from under the bed, our approach will be the same–help them feel safe. The same would be true of a dog growling, we don’t need to determine whether the dog is fear aggressive or aggressive and not fearful, our response to the situation will be the same–do what we need to do to end or prevent the growling without punishing the dog. We take away any perceived threat, desensitize and countercondition, and teach the dog to do something else using positive reinforcement-based training.

I have had clients spend the majority of a consult describing in great detail everything that happened to their dog. They think that something is going to inform me about the exact “fix” their dog needs in order to stop being fearful. If there was a sudden onset of the dog’s behavior it would indicate the need for a vet visit, and even with that, we’d prepare ourselves to work on any newly added fears that occurred due to pain or illness. We’d do this the same way if the dog had been displaying fearful behavior for years.

“Why” can get in the way of developing humane and effective plans for working with a dog. Decide that a dog is being aggressive because they are trying to dominate you and respond in a way to thwart this attempt and you’re likely to start brewing trouble. Knowing whether our dog was timid from birth, spent years in a cage at a puppy-mill, was tied up in a yard for most of their life, was beaten by a man with a hat and a beard may satisfy our curiosity, but it won’t change our training plan. Make sure they feel safe, DS/CC and teach them something.

My dentist did take x-rays. It would be nice to have a machine to look into a dog’s past, but don’t worry that we don’t.

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.