FIRST published April 2013
Imagine for a moment that a good friend has died. Someone you love dearly and you are close to, someone you could call at two in the morning and they would come give you gas money to get home if your wallet was stolen. Someone who has shared moments and hours and even days with you. Someone you love. In the days following your friend’s passing, you pull up pictures on your phone, and you fill the vase she gave you with flowers from your garden, and you grieve. Sometimes, you cry.
|How do you feel when you go to a funeral? Do your emotions influence your behaviour? Don’t you think that your dog’s emotions might influence his? Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kzenon’>kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo</a>|
A few days later, you go to the funeral home to say your public goodbyes. There is a casket and dozens of baskets of flowers, and a picture of you and your friend, nestled in amongst so many other good warm memories shared by the community who shared your friend’s life. You are sad and there is an empty part inside of you where you used to hold your friend, and it feels like the memories aren’t enough to fill that hole. When your friend’s sister gets up to share the eulogy, she mentions you, and you start to cry.
Imagine now, that the person who is sitting beside you in the funeral home looks at you and says “Just stop it. I HATE crying. Don’t.” How does that make you feel? Sit on this reflection for a moment. How does that make you feel? Do you feel good about the person sitting beside you? Do you want to share tea and sandwiches after the service with this person? Do you want to trust your memories of your friend with this person?
Let’s rewind one paragraph now and imagine that the person beside you quietly and calmly reaches into their bag and pulls out a hankie and gently gives it to you. You reach for the hankie, and he offers you his hand to hold. With one hand, you wipe your eyes and with the other you hold hands with your friend. Deeply sad, you lean in and your seat mate puts his arm around you and holds you close. Assuming this is someone who knows you well enough for physical contact to be appropriate, how do you feel now?
I have seen hundreds of dogs in our training hall. Many of these dogs are happy, but there are a ton of dogs who come through our doors who are traumatized and fearful, and who are expressing their feelings with growls, snaps, snarls, whining and recently one poor dog who shivered and shook for an entire hour while I took a history. The thing that amazes me, day in and day out, is that these dogs keep hoping that the people they live with will see that they need help, and offer them the equivalent of a hankie and a hug.
It is well known in behaviour consulting circles that owners take a long time to seek help for their dogs. One of the biggest reasons for this is that if the behaviour problem isn’t a problem for the owner, there isn’t a lot of impetus to get help. The dog cannot dial the phone and call for help, and neither can he send me an email to describe his problems. Often the dog has been doing everything short of biting in order to get attention, but they aren’t being heard.
When people come into my training hall, they often tell me how difficult it is to live with a dog who is barking, lunging, growling, snarling, pulling, and chasing. I am often told about methods that have been tried to stop the undesired behaviour. These people really care about their dogs, but they often don’t understand that the behaviour the dogs are exhibiting means. The fact is that dogs don’t act randomly. Behaviour is always functional on some level. Consider what it might be like to behave truly randomly. If you were to randomly stop reading this paragraph, and get up out of your chair and twirl around the room and go outside and come back in and jump as high in the air as you are able and roll on the ground and pick up a pen and turn on and off your computer, how would that feel?
Random behaviour is rare. When people behave truly randomly, it is usually an indication of something being wrong with them. When I took animal behaviour in university, the professor talked about an animated Bugs Bunny toy he did an experiment with. He set the toy off a thousand times, and recorded the “behaviour” of the toy. He found that 30% of the time, the toy gave a predictable “What’s up Doc”, and then there were nine other phrases that he uttered on a variable schedule. It turned out that the chip that ran this toy was set on pretty tight parameters, which gave a specific number of repetitions within a thousand repetitions. Ironically, we know that there are two things about this toy that keep kids playing with it and drive parents nuts. From the kid’s perspective, they keep triggering the toy to get the rare and uncommon response. From the parent’s perspective they have to put up with ‘What’s up Doc” 300 out of every thousand repetitions. This random behaviour is annoying and frustrating beyond the interest of animal behaviour professors who want to figure out how often a behaviour happens, and the kid who really wants to hear Bugs say something truly novel.
The other thing about random behaviour is that it is out of context; like the Bugs toy, the last response doesn’t predict the next response. Living with someone who is truly random would be really annoying. Living with a dog who is truly random would also be really annoying. Most of the dogs we meet and live with are actually very predictable. There is an easy little experiment that helps us to understand this. Spend a half an hour watching your dog. Watching Eco right now now, sleeping on the floor beside me, I can sample every minute and say what he is doing and what he is going to do. When I get up out of my chair, he will lift his head and if I leave the room he will wake up completely and follow me. When I sit back down at my computer, he will wander around the room and check out the water bowl, the toy box and the window in the door and then he will lie down again and go back to sleep. He is very predictable and that is part of what allows me to change his behaviour. His behaviour is not random and it never happens in isolation from his environment.
Knowing this, and understanding that dogs are deeply emotional animals, allows us to modify problem behaviours quite easily, but there is one more piece to the puzzle. Skills are under the direct control of the outcomes. Eco standing up and following me happens because he likes the outcome of being with me. Eco barking at the door happens when he is startled and alarmed. The barking doesn’t happen because of the outcome but rather because of the input, and the input is emotional. Could I change the barking behaviour through the application of pain? Sure. But it wouldn’t change how Eco felt about people coming to the door, so treating this as a skill might be more like being at a funeral and being told sternly to stop crying. I could also change the behaviour by getting him below threshold and pairing the situation with something pleasant. The difference being how well I understand what is going into the behaviour to begin with.
A question that is often asked is if feeding the bark will make more barking. Let’s go back to the funeral example. Which would make you cry more; someone who was supportive and brought you a cup of tea and sandwiches, or someone who told you to quit it? When barking is emotionally based (which is more often than not), then removing and feeding is going to help the dog to regain his composure and improve his behaviour. When you do this often enough, you develop in the dog a pattern of barking and then seeking you out. When this happens, the dog is moving out of the emotional state and into the operant state, or the state where he can control his behaviour. Much like at a funeral, if I can get the person who is crying to have a cup of tea, they are often able to calm down and reflect more effectively, and then they can chat comfortably, often about the very thing they may be upset about.
A common tactic when dealing with dogs who are emotional is to give them something else to do. If a dog reacts to something in his environment, then in theory, if he is busy, he won’t be worried about that thing. There are two problems with this tactic. The first of them is that if the dog is upset enough, then he is not going to be terribly compliant. In these situations people start to get pushy and demanding about their dog’s behaviour and it is for exactly this reason that many people turn to aversives in their training; they are asking more than the dog is ready to give them in a given circumstance. For instance, making a dog look you in the eyes so that he stops looking for the frightening things that can creep up on him will only make things worse; he may stop looking but he won’t stop worrying. In this particular case, you rob the dog of the ability to try behaviours other than the undesired one because he is glued on the new behaviour of looking at you, and while he is looking at you, there is always the risk that his trigger will surprise him out of the corner of his eye. This is the second issue with this tactic; you may have compliance, but the dog is still worrying about what might come out and surprise him.
When I was out and about this weekend, I met a woman who told me that her friend had been to every other trainer in town. She told me that this woman was ruining her dog by feeding it when the dog is clearly misbehaving. The popular thought is that if we use food, we can only use it as a reinforcer to get more of a particular behaviour. When you put this into the context of a funeral, and what you would do if someone was upset, it becomes really clear that much behaviour is motivated by emotion and that being clear with your learner does not only mean reinforcing, or punishing behaviours or putting them on extinction. Sometimes, perhaps even often, it means addressing the underlying emotions before even thinking about the behaviours at all.