CAT-COT-COG-DOG

One of the many things I love to spend time on is a good puzzle.  Word puzzles are a ton of fun!  In particular, word morphs can keep my attention for hours.  A word morph is a puzzle game where you are given a starting word, and an ending word, and you change one letter of the word at a time to come up with the end word.  The challenge is to get from one word to another in the fewest number of steps.  Often the words are somehow linked, such as cat to dog, or help to safe.  Maybe it is these puzzles that really draw me to training using shaping.

Shaping is the process in training where we start with the dog doing something and change that something into something else through successive approximations.  What that means is each training step brings the dog closer and closer to the end behaviour.  As an example, let me describe teaching a dog to approach without jumping up, as I did with a client’s dog last night.  This dog, a young exuberant labrador loves to rush up to people, and throw herself at people.  At about 30 kg, this dog is big enough to really hurt someone if she chooses the wrong person to jump upon.  This is like the starting word.

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Training is a process of steps towards a goal. If you try and take too many steps at once, you will stumble and fall back down to the beginning. When you take the process of learning step by step by step, you go from can’t to can and success with your dog. Copyright: cristianbr / 123RF Stock Photo

The desired behaviour is to have her come up to me, and keep her feet on the floor while I touch her.  In behaviour parlance, we would call this the target behaviour and I always like to break that behaviour down into the simplest terms possible.  I don’t like to use more than 7 words to describe that behaviour because the more simply that I can describe it, the easier it is to find the steps to achieve my goal.  Let’s call this behaviour “approach with 4 feet on the floor.”  That is 6 words, so it fits my desire to have no more than 7 words to describe what I am training, but you will notice that it cuts out the touching part.  By limiting myself to 7 words at most, I prevent myself from lumping too many things into one training session.

Now that I have the starting behaviour and the ending behaviour, the rest of the training session is a matter of inserting the intermediate steps.  This part of shaping requires that I let go of the idea that I am going to run the entire training show without input from my training partner.  It requires that I allow my learner to do what she wants without interference.  During the training session she may do exactly what I don’t want, and for the purposes of this example I am just going to let her do that.  I think that for some of my human students this is perhaps the hardest part of shaping.  Most of my students whose dogs jump up are so deeply appalled by the undesired behaviour that when it happens they give the dog feedback that may or may not be helpful.  Usually, the feedback they give the dog is just exactly something that will maintain or even strengthen the behaviour.  Pushing the dog down may feel like a solution but in fact, teaches the dog that you are more than happy to play a vigorous wrestling game for instance and from the dog’s perspective, yelling is just noisy barking that humans do sometimes.

Here is how the session played out.  We let the dog off leash in the training hall and she began to run around away from me.  This is not an uncommon reaction when the dog is off leash, so the very first thing I did was to set the dog up so that she was unlikely to do the undesired behaviour.  Setting up so that you get what you want is the hallmark of great training.  After about three minutes, she approached me and her person, and I clicked my clicker and threw a treat behind her.  I should mention that this dog understood what a clicker was and what it meant, so if you want to try this out, you should teach the dog that click means treat before you start.

When I clicked the clicker, the dog stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me.  For her, this was probably the first time that she had received any feedback about approaching other than yelling or pushing!  She was genuinely surprised at the outcome.  I made sure she could see me throw the treat and she took off like a shot to chase the treat.  Once she took the treat, she started to explore the training room again, sniffing the toys and finding dropped treats that had been left by previous trainers.  It took her another two or three minutes to approach us and again she approached us at a run. I clicked again and threw another treat behind the dog.  This time there was a short light bulb moment for the dog; approaching me was a safe, interesting thing to do, and it resulted in treats!  From there the dog began to approach me right away after getting her treat.  7 clicks and treats later she was coming in towards us eagerly but under her own control.  Throughout this time, I simply chatted with the client, never giving the dog directions, never micromanaging the dog, just clicking the dog for approaching, and throwing the treat away to get the dog to leave in order for me to set up a chance for the dog to return.

From that point forward, I wanted the dog to start to approach more closely while maintaining her self control.  To get her to do this, I just delayed clicking until she approached more closely.  About 10 more clicks and she was walking right up to me.  I had a little bit of history with this dog, working with her on the down stay, so she made a quick leap of logic and without any prompting or cuing or other information from me, she approached me and lay down.  I really liked that, so I clicked and threw several treats; I made approaching and lying down really, really valuable!

As I said at the beginning, shaping is a lot like a word morph game.  In this case the steps were approach, approach and stop, approach under self control, approach more closely under self control, approach and lie down at my feet.  You will notice that the learner added in something I had not planned for; lying down.  If she had added in sit, or stand and make eye contact, that would have been fine with me too; in this case, it doesn’t matter to me what she did when she arrived as long as it wasn’t putting her feet on me.  In five steps, I achieved my goal of “approach with four feet on the floor”.

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This is what my goal behaviour looks like for the labrador retriever I was working with. Knowing what I want is an important part of shaping. If I don’t know where I am going, it is going to be much harder to take steps towards that goal. It is important to be able to form the goal behaviour in terms of what I do want, not just what I don’t want. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

In order to get my goal of being able to touch this dog, I would have continued to train, clicking and treating for approaching and lying down while I first stepped towards the dog, and then stepping in and reaching but not touching, then stepping in and touching her and finally stepping in, reaching, touching and stroking her.  The important thing to notice in this case is that once the dog is doing what I want her to do, I am shaping the activity that happens around her while she is doing the behaviour that I want.  This is an important next step in most training; trainers might call this proofing.  What we mean is for the dog to continue to do the target behaviour no matter what else happens around them.

It is popular to only define shaping in terms of reinforcement training but in fact, shaping can happen in any of the four training quadrants; you can certainly use punishment to shape behaviour too.  With this very same dog we did this to keep her safe after she jumped up on a treat station and broke it.  We have small flower pots on the wall to hold treats, and like many dogs before her, she tried to jump up and use her claws to pull the pots off the wall.  She broke a pot and it would be dangerous to her to continue to do this, so we didn’t want her to do that.  When she jumped up on the wall near the pots, we called out “that’s enough”.  If she stopped right away, we would toss treats for her to clean up.  If she continued to the pot, we would call out “too bad” and then quietly and calmly catch her and put her in the classroom crate for a few minutes.  Then we would let her out to try again.  In this way, the dog learned that jumping up on the wall near the pots was a behaviour that would predict an outcome that she didn’t like very much.  It wasn’t stressful for her, it was just something she didn’t like.

It took about five repetitions to teach the dog not to jump on the walls, but that was really only the first step; we really wanted this dog to stop fixating on the pots altogether, so the next step on this shaping protocol was to call out the warning as she approached the wall.  This time she learned the game even more quickly; it took her three repetitions to decide that approaching the wall near the pot was not a desired behaviour.  From there, almost half an hour passed before she tried the behaviour again.  In this way, we had shaped the behaviour we wanted using a negative punishment protocol.

Shaping can work with extinction too.  We use extinction to teach dogs not to snatch treats until they are told.  Extinction is the process of doing nothing at all until the behaviour changes and then reinforce the lack of the behaviour.  At first, we ask only that they not touch our hand when a treat is extended towards the dog.  Then we require that they stay off the treat for a second.  Then two seconds.  Then three, five, seven, ten and so on until the dog learns that trying to get at the treat just won’t work.  We essentially teach the dog to stop trying to get the treat for longer and longer periods of time.

The important thing to understand about morphing behaviours like changing words is to make changes slowly.  If you want your dog to pay attention to you when there are other dogs in the vicinity, then don’t start in the middle of the dog park; start far away, and pay your dog for giving you his attention at whatever distance he is already successful.  Some dogs struggle so much with attending to me out of doors that I start out with just hand feeding outside my front door.  Then I take them to places in the car and just feed them in new places.  In general, if I have a really distracted dog, I want them to take treats nicely in ten places before I start asking them to do anything at all in a new place.  Then I start asking for things they will do at home on my front step or in the driveway.  From there, I take them in the car and ask them to get out of the car and do something really easy.  Each time, I pay really well for whatever the dog does what I ask.  Just as teaching the dog a new skill requires that I increase the difficulty of the skill in a step wise manner, so does working in a new environment.

Just like changing words one letter at a time, shaping or morphing behaviours is a lot of fun.  One of the biggest reasons it is a lot of fun is that if you are only changing a little bit at a time, you are going to be fairly successful in very short order.  It is a lot less fun when you try and change more than one thing at a time.  When you are training, if you are not succeeding, ask yourself if you are changing too much too fast and if you are, slow down and enjoy the success.

CAT-COT-COG-DOG

SO YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE A SERVICE DOG PART 2

Originally posted September 2013

Lately I have been inundated with requests to help train people’s service dogs.  Here is more information about how to get started in training your own service dog.  Before you go through this blog, please read the first blog I wrote about getting a service dog.

DO YOU HAVE A SUITABLE DOG ALREADY OR DO YOU NEED TO FIND ONE?

Many people email me telling me about their special dog who helps to make them feel better.  Perhaps they are diabetic and their dog always comes to them when they are about to test their blood sugar level.  Or perhaps they come and cuddle just when the person’s chronic pain becomes intense.  Perhaps you are afraid to go out in public and you hope that your family pet might help you to do this.  My question is always the same; is the dog you have suited to the work you want him to do?

To answer if your dog is suited to the work, you have to first define what work you want your dog to do.  This complex question involves looking at what you do every day and where you might include your dog.  If you are thinking about sending your dog to school with your child, you have to have a dog who is very calm and confident around the things that children do.  You don’t in fact want a dog who is obsessively friendly with children as that would disrupt your child’s school mates.  If you are looking for a dog who will accompany you to the office and alert you to alarms and sounds that you cannot hear, then you don’t want a dog who barks incessantly.

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D’fer is an example of a very rare case; he is a dog who was living in my home who happened to be suited to the work I needed in a service dog.  As a professional trainer, I had the skills to recognize his potential and then to cultivate that into a successful working dog.  This is the exception not the rule.

HOW DO I FIGURE OUT WHAT MY DOG’S WORK DAY MIGHT LOOK LIKE?

What your dog does will depend a lot on what you do.  Take an inventory of what you do every day for a week.  Include everything including bathing, brushing your teeth, cooking meals, and everything you do both in and out of the home.  Then go through your week, and ask yourself what the dog would be doing at each point you have inventoried.  If you shower with the assistance of a human aide, your dog should not be underfoot; the person can reach the soap and towel for you.  On the other hand, if you want to shower independently, you may wish to train a dog to lie calmly beside a running shower and be able to reach items on a low shelf and hand them to you.  At each step of your week, figure out what your dog will be doing.  Then you can look at if your current dog is suitable or not.  If you think your current dog is suitable, then you should get a trained professional to help you to determine if your dog really is suited.  A second set of eyes is always a great idea.  Unless you are a professional dog trainer, you really should consider getting someone else to look at what you want to do.

IF MY DOG ISN’T SUITED, HOW DO I FIND ONE THAT IS?

Hire a pro.  Really, hire someone who can evaluate the dogs you meet and match them up to the work that you do.  The person you hire should have experience selecting, training and placing service dogs.  They may or may not have worked with someone with your particular disability profile, but they should be able to help you to determine if a dog can do the work you have outlined.

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This dog took me 6 months to find as a puppy, and then two years to train.  As a training professional I need to be paid for the work I do evaluating breeds and breeders, lines and litters and selecting the right dog, for raising the puppy, for the training and training classes I provide as well as for the placement coaching I do with the person who ended up with this dog.  All of that can cost a lot.

I AM ON DISABILITY, WELFARE, PUBLIC SUPPORT OR A PENSION; WILL YOU DO THIS FOR FREE?

Here is where things start to get difficult.  I would love to be able to afford to find, train and place dogs for everyone who needs one.  I really, really would.  I too live with disability, and if I didn’t have the support of a wonderful husband,  I too would be on some form of support.  It is really hard to say no when someone asks me to help them, especially when I know how much my service dog does for me.  The sad fact is that I have expenses related to doing the work you would like me to do, I have bills to pay and I need to eat.  I cannot do this for less than what I charge.

There are programs out there that DO provide service dogs at little or no charge to disabled persons.  You can find many of them listed at the Assistance Dogs International website at ADI.org.  If you are approaching a professional trainer, it is fair to ask them for a possible budget, but it is not fair to ask them to cut their professional fees.  You put the professional into a very difficult situation when you do that; we hate to say no, but if we say yes, we won’t be able to afford to help anyone because we will be out of business.

WHAT SORT OF BUDGET SHOULD I CONSIDER WHEN I AM PLANNING FOR A SERVICE DOG?

As of this writing, the least expensive program trained dogs run about twenty thousand dollars USD and the most expensive dogs cost about $60 000.  What is the difference?  This is depending upon how many dogs the program is turning out, how much they pay their trainers, and what kind of program they run.  To train your own dog, you need to account for the cost of the dog (as low as $250 if you are very, very fortunate, to as high as $3500 if you are getting a rare breed that you have to research, find, and ship),  a professional to help select the dog (between $250-$1500), puppy classes (anywhere from $99 for six to $800, depending on location), private consultations for the first two years (about $3000), group classes (another $3000), plus food, vet care and equipment.  On the low end, that is about $8000, and on the high end, that could be about $16000.  If anything goes wrong, you may have to start all over and pay all that money again.

WHERE CAN I GET THE MONEY TO GET A SERVICE DOG?

I don’t know.  I wish I did, but I don’t.  You can talk to local service groups, churches, friends and relations and see if anyone wants to fund you or is able to donate the money to you, but sadly, there is no central place to get money for service dogs.

I HAVE THE MONEY, I AM DISABLED, AND I WOULD LIKE SOME HELP.  HOW DO I FIND A TRAINER?

There are a number of ways to find a trainer.  You can look up trainers at the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Trainers at ccpdt.org and find a local trainer.  You can then contact the trainer and ask them if they train service dogs.  If they do, then please don’t tell them all about you or the dog you hope to train.  Ask them how many service dogs they have trained, what disabilities they know about, and where they learned to train.  Ask them questions about how they work with clients.  You are looking at hiring a professional, and at this point, you are interviewing candidates and looking for referrals.  If you have a child with autism, and you call me up looking for help training your dog to help him, I am in the end going to refer you to the local program that trains dogs for autistic children.  I know little about autism and would not take on a project like that.

The initial phone or email contact should be to establish if the trainer is able to help you.  If they are not able to help you, please don’t spend all afternoon telling them about yourself and your dog and your hopes and desires.  On the other hand, if the trainer asks you questions, please don’t change the subject or tell us about where you vacationed last year (yes, I had a client do that!).  Answer the question and help us to help you.  Most of us got into dog training because we like to help, and we cannot help when you are telling us things that don’t pertain to what you want to know.

Once you have found a trainer who can help you, then you need to meet and find out if this person espouses values similar enough to your values that you can work together.  Do your research.  If the trainer has a blog or a website, read that.  Don’t worry if they have mostly written about their agility career or how they do visits to hospitals; learn about who this person is.  If you work with this person then you will be spending a lot of time and money with them and you want to make sure that you have a good idea about who this person is and what they do.  The time you spend doing this research is going to pay off in the end, and may save you thousands of dollars and months of time.

Once you have found a trainer who DOES the work you need, and who seems like the kind of person you want to work with, you will need to meet with that person face to face.  Please be prepared to pay them for that time.  Many of us will waive our fee if you have done your background work and have prepared yourself for this interview, but we should not be expected to do that.  If I had been paid even minimum wage by those who have dropped in and taken up my time when I am at my office, I would be financially much better off than I am.  This is my work, and I need to get paid for it if I am going to continue to do it.

WHAT IF I CANNOT FIND A TRAINER LOCAL TO ME, OR IF I DON’T WANT TO WORK WITH A TRAINER?

If you have to be your own professional, you are going to need to grow a very specific set of skills.  There are fantastic resources on line that help people to learn about dog training and you can take advantage of those resources, but do be aware that if you are working on your own, your chances of success decrease a lot.  One of the most difficult situations is when you have a dog who is for whatever reason just intuitive enough and well enough behaved that he can do the work without any training, and then he has to retire.  This situation is difficult because the person who has this dog often doesn’t realize that the dog is not representative of what dogs are like in general.  In general, dogs don’t walk out of the womb willing, able and skilled enough to do service work.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

That depends on what route you have worked out.  Ideally, I would suggest you work with a trainer.  Realistically though you should expect that interviewing a trainer, and then finding, purchasing, raising, training and preparing a service dog for the work he will do as an adult is a three to five year project, and at any time, the dog you have may wash out.  Some sources suggest that 60% of all dogs selected wash out between the time they are selected, and they have completed the first six months of full time work as a service dog.  This means that you may end up with one or more dogs in your care who are not service dogs.

Be very realistic in your expectations of yourself, your dog, the trainer and the parameters of the disability that you live with.  It may take you longer to completely train a service dog.  Or you might get unlucky and have a medical event that prevents you from training for a period of time.  Or you might get lucky and finish ahead of schedule.  If you are realistic, you won’t be disappointed.

SO YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE A SERVICE DOG PART 2

RATED R

Originally posted Sunday, May 19, 2013

My dad had a method of rating movies. G movies were good. PG movies were pretty good. R movies were Rotten. XR movies were extra rotten. And when it comes to dog behaviour one of the behaviours people often struggle with are the R rated behaviours; any sexual behaviour and especially humping. Humping seems to be the equivalent of a full frontal nudity scene in a movie; it is at that point where people seem to reliably exhibit one of two reactions; utter fascination or total revulsion. I will warn you now, that if you are squeamish and you don’t want to read about sexual behaviour in dogs, the time to stop reading is right now, because this blog is all about….humping.

Let’s start at the start with the fact that humping is a normal behaviour. Some dogs seem to do more of it than others and some dogs don’t seem to do it at all. Dogs who do it, do it regardless of if they are intact or neutered, male or female. It has nothing to do with dominance. The target can be an object, another dog or a human. Or the cat. And pet owners seem to be endlessly fascinated by it, talking about it, observing it, describing it and ascribing motives to it.

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Humping is a normal behaviour and it doesn’t matter how big or small the humper is, or the humpee!

Dominance is the term used to describe the hierarchy between two or more individuals of the same species when there is a limited resources. I have observed dogs humping in a very wide variety of contexts and I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access over a resource. You could argue that the humper has control over the humpee, but in my experience, if the humpee doesn’t want to be humped they have very clear ways of explaining that to the humper. If the humper doesn’t listen, then other dogs will often come in to the rescue of the unwilling recipient. Not always, but often. Just this weekend, we are boarding a neutered male who spends much of his time trying to hump our intact bitch Friday. She is due to come into heat in about three months, so he isn’t trying to breed her, although neutered males will breed a bitch in heat. Furthermore, there is an intact male turned out with the neutered male and Friday, and he just doesn’t care that much. Friday will sometimes stand and allow him to hump, and the intact male will sometimes sniff the two of them if they are standing still, but most of the time, Friday uses a different tactic to keep this neutered male from bothering her. She likes to trot just fast enough to keep lover boy on his toes; just when he thinks he can get up on his hind legs, she darts out of his way. Yes, she is a flirt. Today at about three in the afternoon, she must have had enough, because she started running really fast whenever he approached, and when he tried to mount her while she was getting a drink, she turned around and pinned him to the ground. She was really clear when she was done playing the hump me game.

So consider this. The humper got nothing. Friday got a lot of exercise, but she is a very fit, young athletic dog and she wasn’t showing any signs of stress through the 36 hours or so (not continuously; she had turns in the house, and in her crate and out with her normal buddy) that the guest dog spent trying to hump her. When she had enough she explained very clearly to this dog that the game was over and interestingly, he respected that and stopped humping her. The intact male, the smallest of the three dogs didn’t care that the neutered male was humping the intact bitch, and he spent most of the time outside hunting grasshoppers and looking at the horses through the fence and sometimes playing tag with Friday and trying to get her to speed up enough to chase him. How could this be dominance, when the definition of dominance requires that there is some gain for the winner? Could it be that this interaction might possibly have simply been play? That is what I suspect it was. And often that is what I think we see; humping as a normal part of play.

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Here a spayed bitch is humping an intact bitch who is tugging with a neutered male.  This is a completely normal behaviour.  The intact bitch’s ears are pinned not because she is stressed but because she is using her jaw, head and neck muscles to tug with the neutered male.

 

Puppies may start showing this behaviour as early as 4 weeks in the litter. If mom is involved with the litter she will often teach the puppy what is an appropriate amount of humping, who and what they can hump. If the pups have been separated from their dam too early, some pups get to hump without interruption, and they can carry this behaviour further than we might like them to. If your pup is humping and in a puppy class, his classmates will help him to learn who, when and where he can hump, provided they are permitted to do so, and the humans support the humpee if he or she is asking for the humper to stop. A simple delta signal, or warning that says to change behaviour or face the music can help a lot. We say ‘that’s enough” if we feel a youngster is over doing the humping. If he stops and does something else, we allow him to continue playing. If he continues to hump in spite of the recipient asking him to stop and in spite of our warning signal, we say “too bad” and pick the pup up until he settles down and then we return him to play. In general though, the pups do a pretty good job of teaching one another when they should and should not be humping one another.

We often see this behaviour in the context of dogs who are very conflicted and aroused. When they are stressed and uncertain about what to do, we may see dogs humping one another, us or their toys. One of the easiest things to do about this is to address the underlying stresses that the dog is experiencing. This is a prime example of a situation where you really want to take care to use non confrontational training; if the dog is aroused and conflicted, then confronting the dog with an unpleasant consequence is only going to increase, not decrease the stress.

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Here is a humper who is clearly conflicted in some way; his facial expression is not relaxed and his humping is likely a response to just not being sure what to do.  Contrast his expression to that of the humpee who is fairly relaxed in his facial expression.  Photo credit:  Paul Shelbourne, Urban Dog.

There are a few dogs we have met who appear to have a sign tattooed to their hind ends that say the canine equivalent of “hump me, I’m Irish”. Like the human kiss me tee shirts, these don’t seem to be worn by the more confident outgoing dogs. We used to have a dog who boarded with us several times a year and no matter who we put him out with, or walked him with, he would get humped. The only reason he wasn’t humped in our living room is that we have a strict “take it outside” rule for humping that all of our resident dogs completely understand. This dog didn’t seem to mind, and in fact, when other dogs didn’t hump him, he would often throw his hind end into their faces. One of my assistants hypothesized that this may have been his particular way of asking other dogs to play with him. Whatever the reason, he didn’t seem to mind, and we didn’t interfere. This dog never had trouble working with any of the other dogs, including those who had humped him when loose together.

Dogs don’t just hump one another; they also hump things. About ten years ago, a veterinarian I worked with asked me to visit one of her patients in his home. At 9:00pm every evening, just after the kids went to bed, the dog was suspected of having seizures. Video cameras were much less common then, so she asked if I could drop by and observe for her and tell her what I saw. The dog lived in my neighbourhood and I was happy to oblige. I arrived at about 8:30 and the couple greeted me at the door. The kids were at a neighbour’s and we had the opportunity to watch this dog in action. The dog was a two year old neutered male maltese. I asked a bunch of questions and it turned out that this dog had a very extensive ritual that he went through before the “event”.

At 8:45, he would begin to pace and pant. He would get gradually more and more excited, and then he would start jumping against the cupboard door where one particular special toy was kept. I asked what would happen if they didn’t get the toy out. He became dangerously aggressive towards whomever was nearest. Dominance? Nope, they aren’t the same species. Let’s call this what it is; dangerous, obnoxious, rude behaviour that had been put on a reinforcement schedule. In other words, the family had taught the dog that by being aggressive he could get his toy.

At about five minutes to nine, the couple opened the door, got out a stuffed bear and gave it to the dog. The dog grabbed the toy and ran to the living room couch, jumped up and began to hump away like crazy. The husband started to get quite upset; “see”, he asked? “See, he is having a seizure!” Gently I tried to explain to them that the dog was masturbating and was very good at it. The husband turned beet red and the wife began to laugh. She was nearly hysterical with her laughter. I was left trying to “normalize” the information I had to share about normal behaviour in neutered males, but the more I explained the more the woman laughed, with tears eventually rolling down her cheeks.

About seven minutes after he started, the dog was finished and he relaxed, jumped off the couch and went to lie down in his bed and we were able to talk again. The husband was still fairly tense, but the wife kept breaking into giggles. What was so funny? Well, it turns out that at Christmas the past year, her uncle had a video camera and had taken film which he was showing around his seniors home in Florida, with the residents baffled at what the fluffy little white dog was doing to his bear.

In dozens if not hundreds of species, animal behaviourists have observed masturbating in both males and females. Kagaroos? Yes. Horses? Yes. Bonobos? It is pretty much the single most common behaviour they show, both in captivity and in the wild. And yes, domestic dogs masturbate. The solution I suggested and the family chose to take up was to do some obedience training at about twenty minutes to nine in the evening each night and then give the bear to the dog in a quiet private room. As a friend of mine told her five year old daughter-“that is something special we do by ourselves with the door closed.” As a side note, discussing this with the family it turned out that they were so afraid that the bear might be lost or damaged that they had gone to the petstore and found out where the bear was made, and special ordered twenty of them. Yes, they had a dresser drawer full of maltese terrier sized masturbation pillows.

I remember going to a John Rogerson seminar several years ago where he described collecting all the male police dogs each week in a large canine program he worked with. The image baffled the mind; ten young men and their German Shepherds, every Thursday afternoon sounds implausible, but that is what he claimed they did to prevent the dogs from spending time and energy humping things they ought not, or spending time in their crates masturbating instead of resting. I am not sure how well that worked, but according to John Rogerson, this was standard practice in this particular program.

I have also worked with bitches, both intact and spayed who have humped items as diverse as their owners, the arm of the living room couch, pillows, laundry and on one interesting case, a specific log in the yard. I have had clients who have put the behaviour on cue and brought it out as a party trick, not realizing what they have trained the dog to do. This behaviour is normal, and in my opinion the best thing to do when it happens is to redirect the dog onto an appropriate item in an appropriate place. It is important to understand that this behaviour is inherently self rewarding, and if you spend a lot of time trying to stop the dog from doing it, the dog is going to become difficult to handle. In the words of the Beatles…Let it be.

My exception to interrupting this behaviour is when the target of the dog’s affection is a non canine animal. When the target is the family cat or a child, then I intervene, immediately, with “that’s enough/too bad”. When the target is an able bodied adult, I teach them how to do this effectively. Combining this tactic with controlling arousal and opportunities to hump more appropriate opportunities usually resolves this problem very quickly.

There is some evidence that neutering before sexual maturity may decrease humping and I have seen this happen, but it doesn’t happen without behaviour modification support. Without boundaries and rules, whether imposed by people or by other dogs, the neutered dog is going to continue, for the same reason that masturbating occurs in every other species; because it feels good.

RATED R

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

John, The Puppy Guy was not always The Puppy Guy. In fact, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, he spent an interminable amount of time on the corporate customer service desk for a large investment house. And not surprisingly, they wanted their phone jockeys to behave in very specific ways. John mostly just wanted a job in his field, and the paycheque. When the company and the employee have different goals, hilarity can ensue.

 

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Working on the telephone desk of a big corporation is a complex task that could be broken down into component elements, but often isn’t!  Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Let’s call the company Big Bank and Investing. BB & I hired a consulting team to come in and figure out what criteria they wanted the people answering the phones to use in order to keep their customers happy. They narrowed it down to a few relevant things. First was that the customer service rep was supposed to address the client by name four times in each call. Second, they were to ensure that each client was asked if they wanted their account information updated. Thirdly, they wanted the phones answered within the first two rings, so that the clients never had to wait to talk to someone. Finally, they wanted their reps to thank the customer for calling BB & I. The consulting company chose measurable, repeatable criteria, which is always a good idea when you want to change behaviours. They forgot a few minor details however.

 

The first of the details they forgot was that the clients were calling a discount brokerage desk. This meant that individuals were sitting by their computers waiting for the markets to move and then hitting the speed dial button to talk to John or any of a hundred other guys just like him. The phone calls would go something like this:

Hello, this is BB & I, and you are speaking with John. Who is calling please?

This is MikeBRaddock24352345234-L, I need to sell 700 of GoGolfing at 42.

Thank you Mike. Before we continue Mike, I see that you only have 600 of GoGolfing and GoGolfing is selling for 38, Mike. Mike, shall I put that trade through for you at 38, Mike?

Yes go ahead.

Now, Mike, is there anything I can do for you?

  1. Thanks..

Before you go Mike, can I check your account details and make certain that we have your correct contact information?

No. Thanks. Bye.

Thank you for calling BB & I Mike.

Except that Mike would have hung up on you before you said good bye. And if you didn’t finish saying Thank you for calling BB & I to dead air, then you got a poor rating on that particular call. This was really depressing for the customer service reps, and in fact led to a suppression of the desired thanking behaviour. Not only that, Mike was annoyed because he talked to you fourteen times a day, every day and he was sick and tired of being asked to update his account. Some of the stories John told were quite funny about the responses they got to their queries about contact information. About the fourth time you are asked the same question in a given day, you start getting annoyed and you start giving smart ass answers, such as “Yes, please, update that I am in the den now instead of the office.” Or sometimes they would string along a rep in order to not change their address but to keep an agent on the line so they could make another trade without having to call back. And sometimes they would keep you on the line for a long time.

 

Not surprisingly, moral was not great amongst the employees, so the office management team was constantly challenged to come up with incentive activities. One such activity went like this. Each employee had four calls randomly selected each week to be evaluated by the management team. If you hit all the criteria that were laid out, you got the chance to kick a soccer ball into a net from a set distance. If you got the ball in the net (keeping in mind that everyone is in business attire), you got your name put in a box for a monthly draw to get a day off work. One day, John got all the criteria right, on all four calls and his manager proudly walked over to his desk, with the soccer ball under his arm. With great ceremony, he offered the ball to John.

 

“No thanks,” John replied, “I just want to answer my phone, and go home at the end of the day.” The manager was dismayed.  “You earned this”, he said.  “I don’t want it”, John replied.  “You are not being a team player”, the manager replied.  “I really don’t want to do this”, John came back.  “I will write you up in your permanent file if you don’t kick the ball”, the manager pressed. So John stood up and took the ball and removed his suit jacket. He carefully placed the ball on the floor. He took two steps back. And he HOOFED the ball into the goal. And his shoe….flew up and lodged in a ceiling tile.

 

Two days later a VP of the company came and toured the department and for some unknown reason, the soccer game disappeared forever. I have always thought that the shoe in the ceiling tile is a wonderful example of some of the things we ask our dogs to do, for rewards they don’t want and the problems that ensue when the trainer and the trainee are not on the same page.

 

So what can dog trainers learn from this anecdote? Let’s start with reward programs. As humans we are inundated with ineffective reward programs. What was wrong with this part reflects the poor understanding that almost everyone has about rewards and how they affect behaviour. The fact is, from a behaviour analysis perspective, rewards don’t change behaviour, because they are not necessarily linked to the behaviour. In order to for a behaviour to increase, it must be reinforced, which is the outcome of an effective reward. We may USE rewards to reinforce behaviour, but we can also use rewards at difference times than the behaviour. A reward in short is something we want, but not necessarily something that will reinforce a behaviour. This subtle difference becomes important when you look at how people use rewards. You can think of rewards as the tool that CAN or MIGHT use to reinforce behaviour, but you may also misuse the tool and inadvertently reinforce behaviours you are not interested in having.

 

The reward that was being offered was a day off. The behavioural criteria were the number of times that the rep said the client’s name, checking for updated information, that the phone was answered in a timely manner and saying the company name when thanking the client for calling. The reward would be delivered at a MUCH later date than the behaviour, and in fact, behaviour needs to be reinforced at the time it occurs in order to assure that it will increase. Not only that, but the reward was not actually contingent on the behavioural criteria; the reward was contingent on your name being pulled from a hat, and your name getting into the hat was contingent on your soccer ball getting into the goal, and the soccer ball getting into the goal was contingent on your ability to kick accurately over a given distance as well having carried out all four of the behavioural criteria four times in a random sample of your work. Getting a day off would be a relief, but not a reinforcement!

 

I had a client at one time who decided that her dog would only get the exercise he needed if he was well behaved until four pm that day. Any transgression would result in a lack of a walk. Lack of exercise made her dog quite unsettled and uncomfortable; he was a border collie who was bred to be very active. The frequency of this dog’s walks decreased bit by bit until he was spending most of his day being destructive in the client’s home. When the reward comes much later than the behaviour, or when the contingencies are unclear to the learner, as in the situation John found himself within, or that the border collie experienced, you will never make progress with teaching the behaviours you want.

 

Let’s consider too that kicking a soccer ball in a suit and tie was uncomfortable for John. The reinforcement would need to be pretty immediate and very valuable to get him to do the task reliably. John in a suit and tie is a sight to see and dignity is something that he demonstrated when he wore his dress clothes. Kicking a soccer ball in the office just isn’t dignified. How often do we ask our dogs to do things that they might feel is undignified? Treat on the nose trick? Some dogs like it, but more do not. The reinforcer may be immediate and valuable, but an awful lot of dogs just don’t like doing it and demonstrate their dislike in a manner not unlike what John tried to do; they avoid the situation if they can. In John’s case, the act of kicking a soccer ball in the office was probably the opposite of reinforcing; it was embarrassing and upsetting and likely decreased the likelihood of his doing what his manager wanted in the first place. If using the client’s name less frequently would avoid soccer ball kicking, John and many other employees probably would intentionally stop using the client’s name. When we ask the dogs to do things they don’t want to do, no matter how pleasant the outcome, many dogs just won’t do it.

 

I know that the promise of behaviourism is that we can get dogs to do anything they are physically capable of doing through manipulation of reinforcers. This is a case of just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Really. We don’t need to train everything we are able to teach a dog. Dogs have preferences and trainers should learn about those preferences and train within them. I am not saying that dogs should not have to learn to do behaviours that keep them safe, like not pulling on leash, but honestly, we don’t need to train our dogs to do things they don’t enjoy just to amuse ourselves. What does this mean to you and your dog? This means knowing what your dog likes and doesn’t like, what he is physically and mentally comfortable doing. Ask yourself if the behaviour is both necessary and kind. If you have a dog who hates water, there is little point in training him as a hunting retriever; that is un necessary and unkind. If that same dog lives on an island and has to take a boat to and from the mainland, teaching him HOW to swim and keeping up with that skill is necessary to keep him safe in the event of a mishap, even though it may be uncomfortable and to a certain extent, unkind.

 

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This little guy doesn’t look thrilled about getting into the water; asking him to retrieve ducks would be completely un necessary and unkind, not to mention unrealistic.  Image credit: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

 

The next thing to consider is the meaningfulness of the reward, the tool you use to increase the likelihood of the behaviour you want. In John’s case, the ultimate reward was a day off, something he wanted very much. The problem was that the reward was deeply buried in a complex and convoluted reward cycle that included an element of chance. Everything that happens between the time that you mark or identify the correct iteration of the target behaviour and the end reward is part of the reinforcement cycle. If you click and then walk your dog towards a treat station, both the walking and the treat station, as well as the treat itself are part of the reinforcement cycle. When the reinforcement cycles get too long, then the behaviour that you targeted gets lost in the process. If the ultimate reinforcer is something that the dog wants but the rest of the reinforcement cycle is onerous, then there are a good many learners who had the same reaction that John did; “thanks, no, I don’t need that badly enough.” Making John kick the soccer ball was like offering D’fer the chance to sleep in his crate overnight so that he can have a special breakfast in the morning; the reward is too far away, and the behaviour of sleeping in his crate is something that he doesn’t want to do in order to get it.

 

Finally let’s look at the target criteria. I have intentionally placed them out of sequence, because that is something that trainers often do. When you want your dog to come in straight on the recall and sit in front of you and wait till you tell him what to do next, and then you decide that sitting must be straight you cannot just tack that criterion onto the list willy nilly. When we are training, we have to suss out a single criterion, train that, and then suss out a second criterion and train that, and then put those two together. To make more complex behaviours we train each criterion individually, and then when we have achieved fluency we can put those behaviours together. If we get halfway through our process and then add something in the middle as an afterthought, the learner just gets frustrated. In John’s case they wanted the rep to say the client’s name four times, check for updated information, and say the company name when thanking the client for calling, and somewhere along the line someone added in the need to answer the phone within a specific number of rings. Instead of training each criterion as an individual behaviour, the managers tried to lump everything together and without actually reinforcing successful iterations of the target behaviour, they worked on all the behaviours at once. I see this problem so often in training classes that it is often amazing to me that the dogs get trained at all.

One of the most common places I see this is in teaching the recall. If pressed, the handler will state his target behaviour as the dog coming when called even if distracted. This is a really vague criteria, and it gets worse when the handler asks the dog to stay and then walks across a room with nothing between them and then calls the dog out of his stay, but only rewards the dog if he also sits when he arrives. I break coming when called into several discrete behaviours. I want the dog accept handling when he comes, so I teach a collar grab as a first step. Grab, feed and release; lather, rinse and repeat. When the dog is happy about being grabbed, we do a restrained recall where the dog is held back and the handler runs away and then stops and calls the dog. When the dog is good at that we put the two behaviours together; the collar grab AND the restrained recall. Then we do this with toys in between the handler and the person restraining the dog. Then we add people and dogs between the dog and the handler. Then we play a game where the dog is free and we call him and click and place a treat between our feet and move away while the dog is eating. Then we play a game where we click when the dog comes in close and then we throw the treat away to get the dog to move away from us. THEN we start calling the dog out of play. There really isn’t a link between coming when called in a distraction free environment and coming when called out of play. By working on each of the component elements of the come when called out of distractions and rewarding for the smallest successes, we reinforce the behaviour we want.

 

When you examine training programs it is tempting to use results as your only measure. From the perspective of the young managers who were trying to get better customer service, they thought they had a solid plan. They didn’t understand the difference between a reward (the tool) and a reinforcer (the effect), and they didn’t understand anything about the reinforcement cycle. They didn’t understand criteria, and the process of taking behaviours and deconstructing them into their component elements. In short, they didn’t really understand what they were doing. This is why we need to have instructors who really understand the process of training; so we can help our students to avoid the pitfalls of the shoe in the ceiling.

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

SO….YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE TO BECOME A DOG TRAINER?

Originally posted in October 2010

About once a month, someone from outside of the training school calls me up asking how to become a professional dog trainer.  About twice a year, these folks are nice animal lovers who don’t own dogs!  In the spirit of helpfulness, I would like to talk about how to become a professional dog trainer.  It really isn’t any harder to become a professional dog trainer than it is to become a professional anything else.  You need a solid education in the field along with some experience, and where necessary, you need to write qualifying exams.  For example, if a doctor got the sort of call I get from a very nice person who wanted to become a doctor that I get, I imagine that the conversation might go something like this:

“Hello, this is Dr. Mike.”

“Hello Dr. Mike, this is Sally and I would like to be a doctor.  What can you suggest that I do to achieve this goal?”

“Well, let’s start with volunteer experience.  Have you volunteered at a hospital or in a doctor’s office?”

“No, I want to be a doctor now.  I don’t want to volunteer.”  Or alternatively, “Oh, I would love to volunteer in your office, doing examinations and surgery!”

Sigh!

If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo
If you want to be a professional dog trainer, likely an image such as this comes to mind; playing with a group of well behaved dogs all day long while you earn a living. That may happen, but that is only one tiny aspect of the dog industry. Most of us have to have impeccable people skills. Copyright: mezzotint123rf / 123RF Stock Photo

This is the sort of conversation I have with people who want to be professional dog trainers.  They want to start where I finished up!  I have to admit that I started out as a dog training instructor the wrong way round, but back in the day, when I started teaching, there were few options other than the way that I started.  I started out by purchasing a dog and spending two years learning how to train her.  After that, I borrowed two dogs from a room mate and took them to classes.  I showed all three dogs in matches and trials.  A few years later, I got a second dog and trained him.  Then when my boyfriend at the time had a dog who was aggressive, I worked with that dog and started a little training club for me and my friends.  After a year of volunteer coordinating, I charged a small fee to join our classes.  I taught this way for the next seven or eight years and then I opened Dogs in the Park as a school.  By that time, I had read thousands of articles, participated on a wide variety of internet chats and BBS’s, and had read hundreds of books on the subject, as well as attending workshops and seminars to learn more of my craft.  Once the school was opened, I went back to university and took some upper year behaviour courses.  Then I wrote and passed the Certified Pet Dog Trainer exam (now the Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed exam, through the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Training-www.ccpdt.org) and was grandfathered into the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants as a clinical member.  This is not how I would recommend that you go about it now!

The first thing I would suggest that you do if you want to become a dog trainer is get a good feel for what the job is.  There are two basic types of dog trainers-those of us who take dogs in to board, known widely as pro-trainers, and those of us who are actually teaching people as training instructors.  Figure out which job interests you.  There are spaces available for each type of professional, but what you want to do is going to dictate how you go about developing your craft.  Pro-trainers tend to have a specialization such as working with gun dogs, or protection or detection dogs.  Instructors tend to have a solid base of pet owners to work with and then a few clients in the upper levels of a particular discipline.  A very small number of people train medical service dogs-the demand for these dogs is very high, and thus they are very, very expensive to purchase, but the overhead for the trainers is also very high and you will find that if you want to go into this field, you need to have a very extensive knowledge of disabilities and disability related issues on top of your training and teaching experience.  Explore the field carefully before you decide what you want to do, because if you do end up in this field, you will work long hours and many days without days off to make it work.

Next, train a dog through to a minimum standard.  I don’t mean teach a dog to sit after you have asked him three times, or after you have waved a steak under his nose or when you have physically forced him to do it.  Train a dog through a title, where a third party has looked at your dog, and has determined that your dog knows all the things he must know to pass a test.  If herding is your sport this means training a dog to the upper levels in that sport and passing at least a Herding Intermediate test, not passing the Herding Instinct Certificate.  The same is true of obedience (you should be able to train a dog through Companion Excellent at least!), retrieving (Master Hunter) and Agility (Agility Excellent).  If competitive sports just isn’t your thing, then train a Service Dog from puppyhood to placement, train a Search and Rescue Dog and work that dog.  If you haven’t done work with a dog to the extent that you have taught him to do tasks and done them with him, then you aren’t a dog trainer, plain and simple.  You should try and get out to three to five events per year where you can strut your stuff with your dog, and if you can get out once a month, so much the better.

This handler is competing with his border collie.  Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge's clipboard on the right side of the picture!  The judge is marking the team on their work together.  Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo
This handler is competing with his border collie. Sending a dog away from you is difficult to train and you can see the judge’s clipboard on the right side of the picture! The judge is marking the team on their work together. Copyright: alfredhofer / 123RF Stock Photo

At some point, you will need to start to get experience with a variety of dogs and in front of groups of classes.  If you are someone who describes yourself as someone who prefers the company of animals to that of people, you may want to rethink working as a professional in the field of dog training.  If you are intimidated by job interviews, then working as a pro-trainer for individual dog owners is not for you-because every dog you train comes with an owner who should and often will grill you about your credentials, the dogs you have trained and the titles those dogs have earned.  If you don’t love people to the core of your being and if you aren’t willing to bend and flex and change how you do things on a day to day basis, then training service dogs probably isn’t for you either-your clients in this case will need your very best efforts at understanding how they learn, and figuring out how to make things work for them.   Service dog training is the ultimate in customer service, and the stakes are high-do your job wrong or poorly and instead of contributing to someone’s quality of life, you will decrease it.  If standing in front of a group and explaining concepts and activities and making abstract ideas into the concrete doesn’t thrill you, then reconsider being a training instructor.  So with all those caveats, where can you start to get some experience?

Borrow dogs.  There are loads of dogs in your life who would benefit from training and at this stage you don’t need to take them to classes.  Keep training notes and get commitment from the owners to allow you to work for a specified period of time.  At this point in the process, there is little to be gained from fixing behaviour problems.  Learn to teach skills before tackling behaviour modification, which is a whole field unto itself.  If you are so inclined, work with shelter dogs-but beware that you will be limited in what you can teach them due to time constraints and the limitations that shelters put on volunteers who are learning to train.  You cannot learn to teach a dog to come from two hundred metres if you are not allowed to take the dog off leash, or to leave the facility.  Some rescues may allow you to do this, but they are not all that common.  The time to work with dogs in rescue and shelters is when you know enough to be effective quickly.  It is important to respect the dogs in rescue and not use them as guinea pigs for your learning.  When I hear about people using shelter dogs to practice basic training skills when they don’t have any background, I think that we are chipping coins into a pot of disrespect and disposal-this dog is a throw away item, and can be assigned to whatever person who comes along.  Go and spend time with these dogs by all means-but don’t learn your trade on the backs of the disadvantaged.

Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog's chances of being successfully placed.  Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help.   Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find.  Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Dogs in rescue or shelters need help, and this may seem like a great place to start practicing your training skills, but if you make a mistake and teach a dog something unsafe such as jumping up, bolting or pulling on leash, you decrease the dog’s chances of being successfully placed. Once you have some good skills, volunteering at a shelter may help you to publicize your skills, but leave shelter training until you have the skills to really help. Some newer shelters have train the trainer programs and these can be really great if you can get into one, but good programs can be hard to find. Copyright: adogslifephoto / 123RF Stock Photo

If you have come this far with your own education, it is time to invest (yes, that means spending money!) on some more formal education.  All the way along, you need to participate in on line discussion groups, read blogs like this one, and borrow or buy books, but at this point you need to get serious.  You need to spend the money to go to seminars, to get books and training equipment and sometimes to take university or college courses.  The investment in time and effort and money will only pay dividends, even if you walk away from the seminar thinking “well, there is something I won’t do”.  When attending seminars, I strongly urge students to NOT take their dogs at least at first.  Go to the seminars, listen, take notes, record if you are allowed to do so, but leave Fido at home.  Why you might ask?  Simply because Fido is not there to learn; you are, and he is not likely trained to spend eight hours in a day hanging out at a seminar.  From the standpoint of a dog, these activities are BORING!  If you really want to give it a shot, book a private session (yes, more investment!) with the speaker after the event.  Clicker Expo is on my list of must see events for all trainers at least once, and preferably twice.  Beyond twice, I don’t think there is much to be gained.  Suzanne Clothier seminars are good too, and so is her book.  Ian Dunbar is entertaining and worth the price of admission at least once.  Beyond these three, there is such an incredible amount of information out there that it is worth researching other speakers and considering them.  You should plan on attending three to five weekend seminars a year for the first five years of your career.  Minimum.  If you can get to one a month, that is even better.

If you are starting to think that this sounds like about as much work as a university degree, you are right.  It is about the same amount of time, effort and money to do a three year degree program as it is to learn to be a professional dog trainer.  And at this point in the process I am describing you haven’t made a nickel to show for your efforts!  You should however have a broad network of professionals who have helped you, who are willing to continue to help you and who can give you suggestions about where you might like to end up.  This is the time to use that network to find a placement for your “co-op” so to speak.  You need to find someone who is willing to mentor you through assisting in classes or assisting in protraining dogs in a given discipline. THIS is the part that I missed, and it is really the most important thing you can do.  When my students had problems that I didn’t know how to solve, I didn’t have a mentor to turn to (I do now, by the way!).   You may be fortunate enough to have two or more mentors or a school you have attended to help you get even more exposure and experience.  By this time you should probably also be looking at your second dog; and you should be very picky about what you are looking for in that dog.  That dog should be your business card and your thesis paper all rolled up in one.  That particular dog should help you to move from the point of being a student to the point of being a professional.  Look for characteristics that will help you, not challenge you; because you want to be able to train that dog to the extent that you can bring him to a job interview and count on him to show off what you can do. (tip; keep notes and video of everything you do in choosing, training and developing this dog!  You never know when you may be asked if this is REALLY your work!)

You should plan on being an assistant for one to three years depending upon how much time you have to do this, on how good you are, on how much education you have and on the mentor you have.  Your goal should be to be doing elements of the end job as you gain competency.  Some people will get to that point quickly and some people will take longer.  You need a mentor who is willing to coach you and give you challenging things to do and teach and you need to devote the time to making that worth your mentor’s time.  If retrieving is your discipline, that means volunteering to chuck ducks in the cold and mud for hours at a time, in odd hours and in your spare time.  If you are hoping to become a training instructor, expect to sweep the training hall, hold leashes and check off enrolment forms.  If you are hoping to become a service dog trainer, expect to spend a lot of your time cleaning kennels, walking dogs and helping set up training scenarios.  This phase involves a lot of grunt work and some of it unpleasant but in my opinion it is an important phase of development.  I learned more about horses from the time I spent cleaning stables than I ever did during my riding lessons, and the same is true of dogs and the dog industry.

At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished.  When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it!  Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo
At the University of You, you get to choose what you study, who you work with, and when you are finished. When you are done though, you can have confidence in the validity of your education because you chose what went into it! Copyright: mdorottya / 123RF Stock Photo

Around about this time, you need to start considering what sort of certification is going to be most helpful to you as a trainer.  The Certificate of Professional Dog Training (www.ccpdt.org) is a really good bet; it has the advantage of being administered like a board examination, and there is no single course or career path to take to get there.  The path described above will help you a lot, with the caveat that you will need to get actual teaching time on the ground under your belt if you want to take that.  Different disciplines may have other opportunities too.  Because you will be attending the University of You-you get to figure out what is going to benefit you the most.  Follow this path, and in three to five years, you too can become a professional dog trainer.

SO….YOU THINK YOU WOULD LIKE TO BECOME A DOG TRAINER?

ONE TRICK PONIES

Originally posted in December 2010

Most of the dogs I work with live with serious anxiety and or aggression issues.  Interestingly, I also live with a serious anxiety disorder.  My anxiety manifests as panic, and I have a list of triggers as long as my arm.  I am afraid of driving as a passenger in a car.  I am afraid of teenaged girls.  I am afraid of high schools.  I am afraid of phoning people I don’t know.  I am afraid of some crowds.  I am afraid of going to Downtown Toronto.  Conversely, I am NOT afraid of public speaking, sharing my vulnerabilities, taking an unpopular stand, standing up for the rights of the weak, intervening in a fist fight, or aggressive dogs.  But when my anxiety is high, I reach for my old familiar strategy of panic.  Like many of the dogs I work with, I have things I am anxious about and things I am not, but also like the dogs I work with, I am a one trick pony when I get triggered.

If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants.  Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo
If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants. Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo

One of the things that I have had to learn to do in order to cope with my mental health issues is to find new ways of behaving in the face of my triggers.  One thing I do is to use a service dog to provide me with more space.  Sometimes I hold internal discussions with myself to calm myself, or I can take medication, and sometimes I call a friend to talk me down.  The thing is, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I only had one trick; stand there and go through a panic attack with its dizziness, the increased heart rate and the shortness of breath.

This is similar to the situation for many of the dogs I see.  When faced with their trigger, they only have one trick; it might be barking and lunging, or growling or showing snarl face or something else, but essentially, it is their one trick.  When the trick they have for dealing with an issue is to charge and bite, this can be a very dangerous situation, and the key then is to teach the dog more “tricks”.

Now this sounds simple and it is, but there is a catch.  When your arousal is high, and you are disoriented, you are always going to go back to the default behaviour that has either worked best or worked most frequently.  If what has worked best or most frequently is dangerous, then as trainers we have to teach the dog to find alternate answers.  This is where environmental enrichment and trick  training become essential for working with difficult dogs.  When we do effective environmental enrichment, and we teach a wide variety of behaviours, what we are really doing is teaching  the dog to come up with new answers to old problems.

Environmental enrichment is the practice of increasing the diversity of the environment that an animal lives within.  The goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life, but at the same time, we can also use environmental enrichment to help teach the dog to solve problems in different ways.  Simple strategies such as putting your dog’s dinner in a paper bag and teaching your dog to find different ways to open the bag to get his dinner can help the dog to learn new ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking are what solving behaviour problems are all about.  Once you have moved away from free food in a food bowl to paper bags, changing the picture again is important; we don’t want to teach the dog ONE new strategy-we want to teach the dog to problem solve.

Staying with the mealtime strategies, you can then move to a rolling tricky treat ball- (http://www.omegapaw.com/products/tricky-treat-ball.html) -which requires the dog to figure out how to roll an item to get the treats to fall out.  Once he has mastered this type of toy, there are new alternatives; Kong (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQDJkW46BBk) makes one that wobbles, but doesn’t roll, requiring the dog to learn to persist in trying new strategies.  Hollow rubber toys that hold biscuits but allow them to roll to the bottom help dogs to learn completely new strategies for getting food, and once your dog has mastered these, you dog is no longer a one trick food pony.

Learning to consider more than one solution to a problem can also be addressed operantly through training.  Dogs who are anxious can be difficult to train, because the training process itself involves elements of failure, and failure contributes to confusion and anxiety.  Confidence develops when the learner is allowed to have as many successful experiences after expressing some form of effort.  Building successes can be a bit of a trick, and part of being successful as a trainer is allowing the dog many, many opportunities to guess right, when the stakes aren’t high and the arousal isn’t high either.  Errorless learning happens when the dog is able to be reinforced for almost everything he does, because the scenario is set up so that he doesn’t make mistakes.  There is a trick to making this work though; you must avoid just randomly reinforcing everything the dog does.  You still only reinforce the thing that you are training.  Errorless training can be as simple as hiding a toy in the same place every day, and then progressively moving the toy step by step away from where it was originally; you set the dog up to learn to go to that place and begin to look for the toy.  For this to be errorless, you need to begin by showing the dog that you are placing the toy, and then place the toy in the same place later when the dog is not engaging in the toy.  Over time you control two variables to teach the dog to look for the toy; if he is watching you place it, and how far from the original place the toy is left.

As the dog becomes more confident about his looking, you can go to reward based training to help him to understand that risks are safe to take.  This is where clicker training really can help a dog; the process of free shaping is invaluable to teach the dog to try new things.  Games like 101 things to do with a box can help dogs to develop the skill of being creative; essentially, you click for any interaction with a specific object, and then you progress to clicking for variations on that original interaction.  If your dog chooses to sniff the box for instance, you could click that.  Then you could click for two sniffs.  Then you can click for three sniffs, and then for a touch, and then two touches and so on.  Each time, you offer the dog the opportunity to decide for himself, what his next behaviour will be.  You don’t name the behaviour because there is really no end for an anxious dog; you want him to keep trying new things.

It is important to understand that free for all reinforcement will make anxiety worse.  Many people have noticed that parental and teacher approval often backfires, and approval in the form of rewarding behaviour can backfire in dogs too.  When support for the looser in a contest in the form of approval is offered, it can create conflict in the child.  The child knows he has lost the game and hears from the teacher or parent that he has done a great job.  Confidence is dependent upon success, but only on actual success.  The power of success can be boosted by recognition, but approval for errors is very damaging.  So if a dog is anxious, cuing and prompting and then rewarding behaviours can create a similar sort of conflict within the dog.  He may be doing the actions you ask for, but his emotional state is still anxious.  This is where classical conditioning can come in handy.

If you know what your dog’s triggers are, you can start to tease apart the criteria that he can and cannot cope with.  If your dog is anxious about other dogs for instance, the first thing to do is to figure out how far away from the other dogs your dog has to be in order to be calm.  Don’t mistake the absence of behaviour found in the shut down dog for calmness.  Being shut down is the result of being overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed is unfair to a stressed animal.  It is what I go through when I have to drive in a car with a reckless driver; I may not look stressed, but I certainly am.  To get an idea of what it is like to be completely shut down think about what it might be like to be in a bank during a robbery.  When a gunman shows up and threatens you, you don’t show your stress; the obvious person will be the target.  When you are overwhelmed, you will behave as normally as you possibly can, and hope not to be noticed.  When a dog is overwhelmed, he may appear normal but in fact be very upset.  You have to look for the subtle signs, the sweaty paws, the rapid eye blink rate, the jerky movements, to tell you that your dog is over his ability to cope well.  A very effective way to determine if your dog is close to or above threshold is to offer him treats. If he takes treats normally, ask if he can do a simple behaviour he knows well; if he can, he is not yet at threshold.   If he takes treats roughly, he is really close to his threshold for tolerance.  If he refuses the treats, he is likely over threshold.  And if you find that he has an upset stomach or diarrhoea, you can be certain that he was far over threshold even if he wasn’t showing you other signs

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You can also figure out other aspects of your dog’s triggers.  If dogs seem to trigger your dog, is it all dogs? Is it only black or white dogs?  Is it only small or large dogs?  And if you can eliminate the dogs from your dog’s life that concern him, you can begin to present the dogs who are a problem at a low enough threshold that he can begin to integrate those dogs into his repertoire.  The mechanics of classical conditioning are very simple-you present the stimulus (in this case a triggering dog) at a low enough intensity (either far enough away, or not moving or otherwise not triggering for your dog) and you pair that with the opportunity to do something he really, really likes.  Most often food is used for classical conditioning because you don’t have to take it away from the dog, you don’t have to worry about it going missing, and you do have to feed your dog anyhow.  If you have two dogs who live in the same house who don’t like one another, you can feed them separated by a barrier where they can see one another, but cannot interact.  If the dogs begin to snarl or growl at each other, you are working too closely, and classical conditioning can only happen when the stimulus is presented at a low enough threshold that the dog isn’t already triggered.

If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off?  Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw?  This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming!  Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo
If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off? Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw? This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming! Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo

I am often asked if comforting an anxious dog will make them more anxious.  It won’t.  Consider going to a funeral; mostly likely you were upset and possibly crying.  Alleviating a bad emotion comes by decreasing stressors, by having support from loved ones and by being in an environment where you can express your emotions in safety.  You won’t feel any better if the funeral director told you to hold it together, and act happy.  There is no reason to believe that this is any different for dogs.  If you have a dog who is anxious and upset by something, and seeks support and calm by getting into your lap, then let him.  If he finds comfort by leaving, then allow him to go. Do what you can to alleviate anxiety in the short term, and you will teach your dog that you are trustworthy and that you will help him to determine the best and safest thing to do in a crunch.

I often see new trainers create conflict in their dogs by setting the dog up to fail, and then rewarding the dog’s effort.  Some students are so keen to have their dog succeed that they reward EVERY behaviour that the dog offers.  Rewarding every behaviour can be a good first step in a dog who is really shut down, when we want to teach the dog that offering behaviours is acceptable, but when you want to teach the dog a particular behaviour, waffling between reinforcing variety and reinforcing a particular behaviour, you end up confusing the dog, and this means that although you are “rewarding” the dog, you are creating confusion instead of success and that is the sort of thing that makes a one trick pony dog more uncertain and less successful.  Another way that my students set their dogs up to fail is to recognize that the dog is over threshold and take him far into the territory of fear and anxiety.  Or some of the time, they recognize that the dog is in distress and make the dog face his fears anyways.  None of these tactics sets the dog up to learn more than their one trick in the face of danger.  As trainers what we need to learn is to set our dog up to learn new tactics, using what we know about triggers, thresholds, operant and classical conditioning, and remembering what it feels like when we ourselves experience anxiety.

ONE TRICK PONIES

UNRAVELLING MY KNITTING

Originally Published November  2013

Lately a few of my students have been struggling with very intelligent, high drive dogs who enjoy pushing their person’s buttons.  If you say sit, they lie down.  If you ask for got to mat, they offer a trick.  If you send them to fetch up a dumbbell, they go out, turn and face you and sit.  If you leave them on a down stay they bark.  When I work with these dogs, I can often turn them around quickly and get the desired behaviours, often to the frustration of their people.  What am I doing that their handlers are not, and why can I turn this around when other trainers cannot?  I will start with the caveat that I am NOT magic.  I just have a few pieces to the puzzle that my students often don’t have.

The key factor that I have is a better understanding of how learning works.  When we read training books, it often sounds like all learning is linear and builds upon itself.  Training plans are often presented like knitting patterns, where if you follow all the steps and you use the right wool and needles, you will get a predictable outcome every single time.  While this is somewhat true, there are a few things that we have to take into account when working on learning.

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When you are knitting a scarf from a pattern you can put the project down and nothing will likely change.  There are not knitting gnomes who come along and unravel your work or add extra bits when you are not looking.  This is not true of training.  When you are training your dog, a lot of things can change from session to session or even within a training session that can effect the outcome of your training session.  Image credit: dole / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing to take into account is that learning is only linear when the skill set upon which learning is built is solid to begin with.  If the dog has a fuzzy idea of the foundational skills that are needed for an advanced version of the same behaviour, then he is not going to be successful at the advanced version because he doesn’t have the background to understand the more difficult work.  Think back to learning how to read; if you gave this blog to a first grader they would be hopelessly muddled in multisyllabic words, clauses within sentences and my sometimes non linear route to an idea.  They don’t have the foundational skills necessary to follow along on the sentences that build upon “see Spot, see Spot run!”

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This is a very complex behaviour that is built on strong foundational skills.  In order to get this picture, D’fer had to be able to sit and stay, to follow my cue to jump the correct jump and to look in mid air for the next cue.  If the foundation is not solid then the end goal behaviours will not be solid either.  Photo Credit:  Karen Brody

Next I also understand that success is built on success.  When you are working with a dog, starting new work cold without doing a few things he is good at means that he is not starting from a point where he has gotten a few answers right.  When I am teaching something new, I usually start by getting the dog to do something he knows well for a few repetitions, and then do the foundational work with him and then start stretching his brain with new work.  In order for learning to be a fluid process, you have to start from where the dog is at when you start the training session, not from where he was the last time you worked on the behaviour.  Learning is not like knitting that can be put down and picked up and carried on from one session to another.  Learning is a much more fluid and dynamic process and in between training sessions, learning is still happening.  Sometimes that learning may impede the next session, and other times it may help that session to move forward.

Yesterday one of my staff came over to learn more about horses and riding.  He has had a couple of ground lessons with Kiki, John’s mare (whose real name is MacKenzie), and has learned to groom her, to lead her and to mount and dismount and ride on the lunge line fairly successfully.  Yesterday I asked him to lead her unsupervised through a field to where we were going to work.  He got about fifty metres into the 200 metre walk and Kiki put her head down to graze.  Kiki is very committed to grazing.  She loves grazing.  She also knows how to walk politely for a stranger.  I coached him through the final 150 metres and he eventually got her to the riding area.  Then I took the lead rope and asked her to step forward.  After twenty minutes of starting and stopping and grazing and getting reinforced for fiddling around instead of walking forward, she was baulky and difficult to handle.  Keep in mind that for me, I can walk her through a hay mow with feed pans of grain on the ground and she normally would not baulk.  Never the less she gave me a very hard time about moving forward.  Why would she do this?  Because between the last time I walked her somewhere and this time, she had learned that stopping to graze might work and that by planting her feet she could get more opportunities to graze.  The twenty minutes that she spent with a novice handler unravelled some of the training we have already done and I had to go back and review some of the “walk beside me without pressure on the lead rope” lessons we have already done!  Often in class, the work that a student is doing may be interrupted by what they have learned between lessons.

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Kiki is a wonderful mare who will do anything for John.  She will however learn tricks and undesired behaviours in between training sessions and those tricks can be frustrating to deal with.  She can for instance learn that grazing, perhaps her favourite thing ever, is a great idea if the person leading her doesn’t prevent her from starting.  Once she has started to graze, she will often keep going for a long time, and then if John or I ask her to do something else, she may drop her head and start to eat.  What happens between training sessions is as important and sometimes more important than what happens during training sessions.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Another thing that can happen is that behaviours that we don’t want get inadvertently reinforced.  I have a number of students who click after the behaviour has occurred.  When they are working on simple foundation behaviours this can actually help them to have early success because they don’t click until the dog is firmly in the sit or firmly in the down.  When you are trying to train very precise behaviours though, late clicking means that you are clicking for things you don’t want and the dog develops the habit of fidgetting or fiddling with the behaviours until the handler clicks.  In an extreme situation what you end up with is a dog who thinks that your target behaviour is not what you asked for, but a whole string of behaviours that terminate with the asked for behaviour.  I watched a dog this week when asked to sit go through the following string of behaviours; he sat, lay down, crawled backwards, sat again, stood, barked, and then sat and held the sit for a micro second.  Then the handler clicked.  This dog is very, very smart and he is pretty sure that the behaviour his person wants when she asks for sit is this long chain, because he is reliably being clicked for it.  Not only that, but he seems to be reinforced by his handler’s frustration.  The more frustrated she gets, the more fidgety he gets when she asks for simple things.  He is a brilliant dog, but very frustrating to work with because when he doesn’t get feedback in the right place, he throws in all sorts of embellishments.  While embellishments might make for a nice sweater, they can make for a very frustrating teaching experience when the trainer has an idea in mind for what behaviour they need the dog to learn.

When I watch this particular team, I am reminded of a skit I saw once of a couple at a restaurant.  They are served their meal and when the waiter returns to ask what they think of the food, they hesitate, so he whips their plates away and replaces them with a “better” plate of food.  When he returns and asks again, the diners are not fast enough to give him feed back so he takes their plates away again and brings them back with “improvements”.  This happens six or seven times, the chef is brought out, the maitre d’ and finally the manager and the closing comment is “some people….you can never please them!”

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When trainers don’t have a clear target behaviour, I think this is how some dogs must feel; nothing they do will make the trainer happy.  Like the wait staff at a restaurant where the customer gives little or no feedback, the dog keeps trying new things to make the client or in this case the trainer happy.  Image credit: lisafx / 123RF Stock Photo

I think that when the dog is not reinforced at the right time, he must be left feeling the way these diners did; like nothing he can do will meet the needs of his handler.  This is a bright dog who needs immediate feedback  for each and every iteration until he understands what is wanted.  This particular dog also tends to go through a long and protracted extinction burst when he finally understands what you want.  This can be endlessly frustrating for handlers.  I watched him working on item discrimination recently.  He really knew the item that they were working on.  When put in a pile of four other items, he reliably chose the wrong item, looked at his handler, and then repeated the drill.  Sometimes he would go to the other items ten, twelve or even fifteen times before he picked the right item.  This is a dog who really likes to be sure!  An extinction burst is a phase of learning that dogs go through that can drive trainers nearly screwy.  What happens is once the learner understands the criteria, then they go through a period of not giving you what you ask for, over and over again.  This is important because of what is happening in the brain.  It implies that the brain is not only collecting data on what earns the click, but also that it is collecting data on what doesn’t earn the click and that information may be every bit as important to the learner as what does earn the click.  While this may feel like your learner is unravelling the knitting, in reality, they are just adding some interesting pieces to the pattern.

The final issue I see regularly in class that impedes learning is when the trainer hasn’t determined a target behaviour for the dog.  If the trainer has a “sort of, kind of” definition in mind, then the dog is going to give you “a sort of, kind of” performance.  When the dog knows the behaviour and they are embellishing it, the fastest and easiest way to overcome that is to take a moment to clarify in your own mind what behaviour you want and then train THAT.  Getting upset that the dog may have known the behaviour at home, or may have known it yesterday isn’t going to help.  Likely there is a good reason for the dog fiddling around with the behaviour, but the reason doesn’t change the fact that you have to reknit when you the behaviour has decayed.  When Kiki wouldn’t walk on, I could have been angry and frustrated, but she is a smart horse and my frustration is just an indication to her that she can keep her feet still and drop her head and sneak in a bit of grazing while I am busy losing my cool, which brings me to my final point.

Dogs are the masters of picking up cues.  They know when you put your running shoes on to dash out to the car and retrieve your paperwork so that you can call your insurance agent that a walk is not imminent.  They also know when you put on your running shoes in preparation for a walk.  It can be very baffling to the trainer how the dog knows the difference when both cases involve getting the shoes out, sitting down on the bench in the hall, putting the left shoe on before the right, tying the laces, and then standing up and reaching for your keys and walking out the door.  When you are frustrated with your dog because he has yet again undone your knitting, he can tell when you are just going to deal with the behaviours you have in front of you and when you are going to actually deal with those behaviours.  He has determined the cues that precede actual training with the opportunity to play with you.  Training is a mirror image activity.  While you are training your dog to carry out specific skills and activities, he is training you.  If you are unclear on your target behaviour for the session, don’t be surprised if he is really, really clear on his target behaviour.  Every time you reinforce your dog for a correct answer, he is busy training you to give him reinforcements himself.  If sitting makes you throw the frisbee, then throwing the frisbee makes him sit; it really is a closed loop where you and the dog have an agreement about two behaviours you are willing to exchange.  The more advanced your training, the more elegant the interaction becomes.  When your dog enjoys your frustration behaviours (and yes, some dogs do!) then you are exchanging frustration behaviours on your part with your dog’s fiddling around and unravelling the knitting.  Having a rock solid picture of the target behaviour allows you to change the cycle and come to a different agreement, and ultimately to complete the knitting project you have taken on with your dog when you train.

UNRAVELLING MY KNITTING