This time we have a guest blog by one Ramona, who is one of our interns at Dogs in the Park. Thanks Ramona for your great description of helping Bella overcome her concerns about garbage trucks.
Bella, our fourth Pembroke Welsh Corgi, came to live with us in June of 2017. She was just shy of 8 weeks of age and having never had a puppy before, we went to Dogs in the Park for puppy class the second day we had her. Part of our “socialization” homework was to introduce Bella to as many different people and situations as possible. Dogs In The Park refers to this more appropriately as Systematic Environmental Exposure. She never had any issues with kids on skateboards or bikes or people wearing various costumes or uniforms. We were even able to expose her to a person on crutches with a big cast at an early age, thanks to our son’s friend who had broken a foot.
On garbage day, we took Bella outside with leash on, good treats in hand, and parked her on the sidewalk outside of our house. As the garbage truck approached, she didn’t appear very comfortable with the noise that it was making. We live near a townhouse complex and the garbage truck picks up at least 15 bins before it gets to our house. Bella stopped taking treats and tried to get back into our house. After that, garbage day was not a fun day at our house. Bella would hear the truck long before we could hear it and off she went to her “office” (our downstairs bathroom that doesn’t have any windows). The noise bothered her so much that she eventually would start shaking. The highest value treats or play with her favourite toy in the backyard didn’t work.
I chatted with Sue from Dogs in the Park and we came up with a game plan. We were going to try some desensitization! I have just completed the Applied Behaviour Analysis course with other first year interns. Desensitization is using any form of counterconditioning that reduces an inappropriate negative response to an event. Counterconditioning is the use of Pavlovian conditioning to undo the adverse effects of earlier conditioning. The sound of the garbage truck caused a fear response in Bella and I wanted to reduce or eliminate that fear! I should also mention that we live on a cul-de-sac, so the truck passes our house not once, but twice as it enters and then leaves the court.
The first step Sue suggested, was to remove Bella from the stimulus, ie. the garbage truck noise, for a number of weeks. We did this by leaving the house on Monday mornings, usually to drive children, or Bella, to appointments. On the days where we were unable to leave, I put Bella’s crate in the basement, put her in the crate, and played fairly loud music on a portable speaker to drown out any garbage truck noise. We did this for about 2 months and then remained on the main level of the house when we knew the garbage truck was coming. I continued to have music playing in the house and the first week after our intervention, none of us even noticed when the truck was in front of our house! We didn’t hear it and Bella made no attempt to retreat to her office. When we realized that the garbage truck was on our street, my former daycare child was eating some fish crackers and was also sharing them with Bella. We were pairing a good thing (fish crackers) with the noise of the truck.
Fast forward to following Mondays when we were home. Again, we didn’t realize that the truck was on our street since Bella didn’t do her usual stare at the front door and make her quick exit to the bathroom. I quickly grabbed some good treats and fed her while the garbage truck went past. She did bark at the noise but continued to take treats. Not taking treats or taking food with a sharklike grab could mean that a dog is stressed.
A large part of behaviour change is monitoring results. Our intervention seems to be going well, with a more positive response to the garbage truck noise. Having said that, I will continue to monitor Bella’s behaviour each week, as well as having music playing and great treats on hand when we are at home. Hopefully spring has now sprung and the warmer weather will soon be upon us. This means the opening of windows and being outside a lot more. I will have to see if our game plan continues to work or if I will have to take a step back when open windows let in more noise.
It’s good to know that owners don’t have to let their dog deal with events that induce fear. I am very thankful to have Dogs in the Park to help support me and the welfare of my dog!
One of the biggest motivators for students to come in for training is a dog who is doing things we don’t like. There are some basic ways that we can help dogs to learn not to do what we don’t want them to do, and most trainers are really good at these. Once you understand what a trainer is driving at and why they have chosen the method they have, everything becomes much easier to follow along with.
The first thing I do when a client has a dog whose behaviour is a problem is define what the problem behaviour is. The solution is going to depend upon what the problem is. There is no single solution to every single problem, and the solutions I choose will depend upon the problems and the situations they occur within that are presented.
Controlling or managing the environment is often a great solution, and is usually the first thing I do in every case. If you can control what is happening to cause the problem, then you can avoid the problem at least for a period of time. If the problem is that the dog barks at the window, then the very first thing I am going to do is to get control over that window. If the dog is confined to the room with the window and is barking six hours out of every eight, then why would I expect the dog to not bark at the window when I am trying to take a quiet moment? The very first thing to do when looking at a behaviour we don’t want is to avoid the situation where the behaviour occurs.
In some cases this is a forever solution. If a client has a dog who jumps into the front seat of the car while she is driving, then my solution is going to be traveling in a crate. Traveling in a crate is safer for the dog in any event, but beyond that fact is that the dog is safer in a crate when traveling, so that is a permanent solution.
Our puppy traveled to us in an airline crate and has traveled in a crate in vehicles for his whole life.
Some problems cannot be permanently solved by changing the environment for the dog. Take jumping on people to greet. Your dog can be kept separate from people for a period of time, but that is not a forever solution. In this case I am going to choose to reinforce not jumping. There is a great game you can play with jumping dogs where you have three people who come in and out of a room. As they enter the room, as the dog approached but before he jumps, you drop a treat and then leave again. The next person comes in and does the same thing. You keep doing this until the dog gets the idea that the reward is going to come from below. At that point you can switch the game up a bit and ask the dog to sit before you drop the treat. Once the dog understands that everyone coming through the door is going to do the same thing, you can start working with a wider group of people and finally with strangers at the door.
Reinforcing for alternate behaviours (the learning theorists call this a DRA or DRO which stands for a differential reinforcement of alternate or other behaviour) is helpful if the dog is thinking about what he is doing, but not helpful if the dog is behaving badly because of fear. Consider a dog who barks when approached by a stranger and tries to hide behind the owner. This dog is afraid and he is not barking because he wants to greet, but because he is concerned about the stranger. This is the kind of dog whose behaviour can be successfully changed by pairing one thing with another. To do this, you get a stranger to appear and you give really good treats to the dog. Then the stranger disappears and you stop treating. The stranger reappear and you treat again. The stranger disappears and you stop again. You keep repeating this until the dog anticipates the treats when the stranger appears. From there it is a matter of teaching the dog that the stranger can come closer and closer and treats will keep coming, but don’t let the stranger get so close that the dog is overwhelmed.
In our group classical conditioning class, the focus is on pairing the approach of a stranger with food to make a pleasant association while keeping all the dogs in the room below threshold.
This sort of pairing is called Classical Conditioning. Classical conditioning is an effect originally noticed by Dr. Ivan Pavlov who was studying salivation in dogs. He would ring a bell and someone would bring in a bowl of meat. Dr. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate when the bell rang, before the meat appeared. They formed an association between the bell and the meat. Once you understand the effect, you can use classical conditioning in a huge variety of creative ways to teach your dog what is safe and what is dangerous.
Some behaviours are really persistent. The dog isn’t frightened or concerned, and the dog might not be learning to do a different behaviour instead of the undesired behaviour, and you cannot avoid the problem. In these cases, we sometimes have to pull out punishment. Punishment is anything we do to decrease a behaviour. Previously all the solutions were aimed at either avoiding the situation where the unwanted behaviour happened, changing the unwanted behaviour for a wanted behaviour, or changing the motivation for the unwanted behaviour. Sometimes none of these alternatives are helpful. In these cases we may need to consider using a punishment to change the unwanted behaviour.
Punishments come in two flavours. It is important to understand both of these because one of them can cause more problems than the other. The first kind of punishment is negative punishment. That is the kind of punishment where you lose access to something that you want due to your behaviour. When you use negative punishment the dog may lose the chance to play, or may lose the toy he was involved with or may lose access to the person or other dog he was interacting with. For the jumping dog, you can sometimes change the situation completely by going into the bathroom every time the dog jumps on you. You withdraw your presence every time the dog jumps up and pretty soon, if the dog cares about being with you, the jumping stops. In most cases of negative punishment, the dog is not greatly upset or distressed.
The other form of punishment is positive punishment. This is when you DO something unpleasant to the dog when he does something you don’t like. Positive punishment is the one place where we see the most problems in training and the greatest misuse. You really cannot go wrong with management of the environment, DRO or classical conditioning. Negative punishment is difficult to create trauma with, but with positive punishment there are huge risks. If you are too tough, you can create fear. If you are not tough enough, you can create tolerance of bad things. If you give it at the wrong time, you can decrease behaviours you like and want. If you don’t give it every time that the unwanted behaviour happens, you can teach your dog to gamble that he might get to do the unwanted behaviour this time. If the positive punisher occurs in the absence of the bad behaviour, the dog won’t learn what not to do, but rather will learn not to try new behaviours that might be better. There is also the risk that some classical conditioning will happen in reverse to what you thought might happen; so your dog might think that the positive punisher might be related to something that is actually safe.
Taking the example of the dog who jumps up; you could use a can of compressed air to stop him from jumping up. There are big risks with this though, and they aren’t really very obvious. Let’s say that the dog jumps up on guests at the front door. You come to the door prepared and the dog predictably jumps up. You spray him with compressed air and he gets off you right away. Your dog looks around and notices the spray can in your hand, and figures out that the spray can is the source of the air (this is an example of a classical association). The dog learns an interesting rule. “Don’t jump up if the person is holding a can of air.” This means that the dog may learn to check if the guest has a can of air before he decides to jump up. The dog hasn’t learned to do anything different, he has just learned that if the guest doesn’t have a can of compressed air, the guest is fair game.
Then there is the situation where the can of air is not at hand, but the owner wants to punish the dog for jumping up, so after the dog has jumped up, she goes to get the can and spray the dog. In this situation, the dog, not knowing what the owner is up to, follows the owner to where the spray can is kept and then gets punished for following the owner. If the owner is the person who applies the air, the risk is that the dog learns that the owner isn’t safe. This kind of damage happens all the time, and again this is classical conditioning at work; the dog has learned to associate the owner with danger. Not the desired outcome by a long shot! The dog may also learn that the rule about jumping up is to only jump up in the absence of the owner. Again, we have an outcome that looks good, but isn’t quite what we had hoped for.
Finally a bad situation can occur when the dog experiences the same or a similar bad thing when he is behaving the way we want him to behave. Consider the dog who is lying quietly on the grass by the driveway and someone comes out of the garage with an air compressor to fill the tired. The whooshing noise that the compressor makes sounds like the compressed air can and we have caused the dog to stop lying on the grass and minding his own business. We have taken the single event and spread it around to the environment and taught the dog a lot of things we wish he had not learned.
Positive punishment can be a safe and effective tool, but it is tricky. In order to use it safely, we need to follow some rules. It must be tough enough to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. If the positive punisher is not tough enough, you just create a situation where the dog learns to ignore the unpleasant consequence. If the dog described above didn’t care about the air can, the jumping wouldn’t stop and he would just learn to tolerate the air can. On the other hand, if it is too tough, that can cause both physical and emotional harm. If you used a spray can of mace for instance, you might damage your dog’s eyes and it is quite likely he would be very frightened of spray cans, compressed air and possibly you. There is a huge responsibility on the part of the trainer to chose the right degree of unpleasant consequence to get a good effect quickly and efficiently, but not so much that you harm or frighten the learner.
You also have a responsibility to use a punisher that is unique. Compressed air canisters are being sold now as behaviour solutions in pet stores, but people forget that we use compressed air in a number of ways. We use compressed air to clean our computers, we use it to fill our car tires and if you have someone in your home who uses medical oxygen, the hose might detach and hiss the way a can of air does. Compressed air canisters are very handy for breaking up dog fights, but should not be used to teach dogs to stop doing specific behaviours.
The punishment must happen every time the behaviour happens and never happen if the behaviour is absent. This means you cannot allow the undesired behaviour to happen unless you have the punisher at the ready and available. You also cannot allow the punishment to happen when the behaviour hasn’t happened. If the punishment is happening when it shouldn’t or isn’t happening when it should, the dog learns to gamble on the punishment, and every time he does the unwanted behaviour and doesn’t get punished, the absence of the punishment is in fact a reinforcer, and makes the undesired behaviour stronger. This gambling is the route to building the strongest behaviours, which makes the mis-use of punishment potentially the best way to strengthen behaviours.
When used carefully and properly positive punishment is a fast and effective and humane way to stop unwanted behaviours. When used improperly there are huge risks. Why aren’t there such risks with managing the environment, DRO or classical conditioning? Let’s look at that. When you manage the environment you are avoiding the problem. This means that you don’t see the problem behaviour, which just isn’t a problem! When you use differential reinforcement of an other behaviour, then if the dog offers the unwanted behaviour, he doesn’t get anything he wants, but he does get what he wants when he does the other behaviour. There is no risk to your relationship with the dog, to physical or emotional harm, or that he will gamble that the unwanted behaviour might be safe at a given time. The only risk you have is that the dog may learn when rewards are available and when they are not and may try the unwanted behaviour when rewards are not available. We can work around that by using a marker such as a click or yes, to tell the dog when he is making the choice we want him to make and then using that marker to bridge the time between the behaviour and going to get the treat. Finally with classical conditioning, there is no risk that the dog will get injured or frightened at all; we are just treating him in the presence of a particular stimulus. The worst thing that will happen is that he will learn that a particular stimulus will produce food.
With so many options available for training, it is important that we keep in mind the old medical adage of “first do no harm” and reach for the least harmful option first. I would never want a doctor to not learn to do surgery, and I would not want a professional trainer who didn’t understand the use of positive punishment and how it works. Never the less if your doctor only knows surgery, you may not get the best health care. The same is true of trainers who only use punishment; they can cause more harm than good. Before you reach for a positive punisher, think carefully. Is there a better alternative? There are times when there isn’t a better alternative, but often there is, and it is worth considering what your alternatives are and develop a training plan before you reach for something that may cause harm.
Teaching Treibball at DogzWorth in Montreal was tremendous fun and I had the chance to reflect on a lot! Thanks to everyone who attended and to the hosts Ally and Melody!
Originally posted May 2013
I am on the train home now, after a fantastic weekend teaching Treibball with Dogzworth in Montreal. Great dogs, great people and a fantastic time. AND sushi for lunch. When I do workshops like this I often have the opportunity to visit people who are excited about a new sport or activity with their dogs and who are keen on learning new things. I get this at our own school too, but it is interesting to see a whole group of people who are new to me and watch them develop skills and tools to become really proficient at something brand new to them.
There are a wide variety of sports you can play with your dogs now. Obedience is possibly the oldest dog sport still widely played, where the handler and dog negotiate a series of activities directed by the judge, including walking on and off leash, allowing a stranger to pat the dog, and coming when called. Rally Obedience is an offshoot of obedience which allowed us to be marked on the preparatory exercises that we do to train for obedience trials. Agility is the fast sport of jumps, tunnels and obstacles. Flyball is a relay race you play on a team of four dogs and their handlers. The dogs race over four jumps, grab a ball out of a box and then run back and another dog goes. There are other sports too; protection, tracking, herding and retrieving all have their own competitions. And now there is Treibball.
In the group I was teaching we had a wide variety of dogs with a wide ranges of backgrounds and talents. Of course there were a lot of flyballers and agility people there, but there was also a really talented Belgian who does obedience. I had a great chance to reflect on what doing sport gives us with our dogs, and what in particular Treibball gives us to support other activities.
First and foremost, I do sport with my dogs because we enjoy it. I love teaching sport because the dogs and the people are generally so happy. Especially when I am teaching a one day workshop. The only people who come are those who actually want to learn about what I am teaching; they are not coming to resolve a problem or to make a point; they are coming to have some fun while they learn something new with their dogs. Some folks get themselves all stressed out about competing and many people train for the sport and play on their own to avoid this stress. It is essential that we remember that we do this to have fun with our dogs, so if it is stressful, find another sport or find a way to play without the stress.
Secondly, dog sports, regardless of which ones, are activities that you and your dog do together. Your dog cannot go to class without you, and for the most part, people are not going to go to dog classes without their dogs. This joint activity makes for an interesting and fun way to connect with your dog. If for no other reason than the connection, dog sport is something I highly recommend for people who want to have a better relationship with their dogs. When you do sports with your dog, you have the chance to travel with your dog to places where you will meet with other dog people and their dogs. I have spent many happy days in the company of my dogs at obedience and rally trials. About two years ago, one of my instructors and I went to a trial together in Belleville. She drove and I slept; I haven’t been able to live that down yet. We had a terrific time together, cheering for one another when we won ribbons and sharing our disappointments when we made mistakes that prevented us from qualifying. Our dogs travelled beautifully together in crates side by side and we walked together in the morning before breakfast. Dog sports is all about relationships, both between you and your dog but also between you and the other people who play the sports with you. At the workshop this weekend, many people knew each other from previous events and their dogs knew one another too.
In order to play dog sports, you have to have a set of skills. Obedience classes cover skills, but often we don’t have much context for those skills. We love our obedience classes, but one of the reasons that our students come to us is usually because they want to solve a problem such as pulling, not coming when called or not staying when told. When you put obedience skills into the context of a sport, the dogs and the people both get more out of the experience. Yes, there are foundational skills to develop in order to play the games, but really, if you only ever developed the skills and never used them for anything useful what motivation would you have to maintain those skills?
As I taught the Treibball workshop yesterday, I was able to make ties between the skills we were teaching and a number of other sports. We do a one hour down stay. This teaches the dog to relax and to watch things around him. Dogs who watch things carefully are tuned into what their handlers want and what is happening around them. This is useful in obedience, rally, flyball, agility, protection, and herding. A dog who will lie down and stay for an hour is also a dog who is easier to live with. When you can ask your dog to lie down and stay for an hour, you can weed the garden, change the oil in your car, bring in and put away the groceries or bathe your baby all in the company of a calm and self controlled friend.
We teach a long go out in Treibball. Distance work is a big part of a number of other sports; agility, flyball and utility all include being able to send your dog away from you. We actually teach this in a number of ways; there is the go to mat, convenient for agility pause tables, and the go round directional control which is also useful for agility. The dogs who understand that we want them to go away from us and DO something can do all sorts of things, either at home or in sports. If you have your hands full and you want your dog to move out of your way, a good send out is really helpful. In context most dogs like to do things that are difficult when taught in isolation. If the dog doesn’t see the point of you sending him away from you, then the ONLY reason he is doing it is for the treat. If you teach your dog to go out so that he can jump a jump or go through a tunnel, then it makes sense to him and the food becomes a quantum of information that tells him what and how, within the context of why. Without the why, many dogs just don’t get the point and even though there may be a treat in it for them, they baulk or refuse outright.
We also teach the dog to go in the direction that we tell them to go. This can be extremely handy when you have a dog headed to the wrong obstacle in agility, or if you want him to change directions in a search or when retrieving multiple items. In obedience the dog who understands directionals is going to have an easier time of the directed jumping and retrieving because you can cue the dog more precisely where you want him to go.
An interesting paradox in dog training is that although we set up the situation, the dog is really the expert in how to do much of the job. In agility, I can tell you how to handle and how to set the dog up to succeed, but it is the dog who knows where to put his feet on the teeter and when to shift his balance to make it tip. In flyball, it is the dog who knows how far each jump is away from the previous jump and although we can teach the dog to do a swimmer’s turn and to grab the ball at just the right moment, and we control the moment at which the dog takes off, we cannot do that for the dog. Sport forces us to let the dog do his part of the job. There is no human fast enough to gather sheep into a group and then balance them through a gate and into another pasture. We cannot do the dog’s job!
Conversely, the dog is ill equipped to do our job. I like to think about dog sport in terms of me deciding what and when, and the dog deciding how. As a partnership, my role is to make the choices and take the actions that I am suited to and my dog must be permitted to do his part of the job in the way that works the most efficiently for him. I remember once getting some coaching from D’fer’s breeder about retrieving ducks. D’fer had been taught how to hold a dummy and a dumbbell and he had held some real ducks, but I was having all kinds of difficulty getting him to take the duck by the body when I threw it in the field. He would grab the duck by the wing tip and try and run back with it. He would stop and regrip. He had even been known to throw the duck out of his way when he was frustrated by tripping over it. Amy suggested letting Deef figure out what the best way was to hold the duck might be. She suggested and quite rightly so, that I stop trying to micromanage his part of the job. We set up a couple of dozen short retrieves for him and allowed him to make all the mistakes he wanted. At about fetch number fifteen he decided that picking up the duck by the body would work best, and he learned through trial and error, not because I told him how to do his job. By doing my part well (directing him and allowing him to work it out) he was able to figure out how to pick up the duck (the way I wanted him to!).
This weekend’s workshop really pointed out to me how nicely Treibball can tie together many other sports and skills. If you have a puppy, you may be reading this because you are thinking about sports to do with your dog. There are so many benefits to playing games and sports with your dog. As I travel with D’fer I can see how our years and years and years of demos and teaching and doing dog sports have tied us together. I can tell him where to go and how to get there and although he may not always see the point right away, we have done so many things together that when I ask him to do things, he doesn’t ask why; he knows there will be a point to what I am asking. This trust is a testament to the relationship we have built, together over the years. The trust runs both ways too; if Deef tells me that I am making a mistake or if he wants to do something special, I trust that it is important to him and that I will ultimately benefit if i follow his lead. I have rarely been disappointed when I have followed my dog’s lead. This is what I would love to offer to every student of mine who comes in with a puppy. A means to communicate with your dog, while you have fun and do meaningful things together. If you are at the beginning of your training journey and you haven’t yet thought about it, try a sport.
At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to more than 15 classes a week with their dog and learn about dog training. When they have passed enough basic exercises, advanced classes open up to them. When dogs come to training classes we always tell people to practice their skills regularly and often. What we intend is that you will learn skills in the classroom that you will then take out and practice in the rest of your world. If for instance, your dog has learned to sit at school in the classroom, we expect that you will practice at home, in your yard, at the park and on the street. What we don’t expect is that students will attend all of our classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.
The problem with going to school every day is that the dog never gets a chance to experience something important called latent learning. Latent learning is the kind of learning that happens when you are not paying attention. Latent learning is the kind of learning that creates eureka moments for you. One of the greatest learning moments of my life came about when I was struggling with a pamphlet to advertise my previous business. I had been struggling off and on with my printer, the software and my computer to try and figure out how to make a double sided colour pamphlet using just the tools I had. I tried all sorts of things and nothing was satisfying my vision. Eventually, as we all do, I gave up the struggle with my problem and went to bed. At about four in the morning I sat bolt upright in bed with the solution. I rushed down to my home office and tried out my idea and then spent the next four hours printing exactly what I wanted. Let’s examine the steps that led to my moment of clarity.
The first step was getting a sense of what I wanted to do; I defined the problem. This is a bit like when your dog is first exposed to a behaviour in class. The dogs get a sense of the problem and they sort out what it is that you are driving at. Sometimes this phase of learning can go along for a very long time. For some dogs and for some people they need to probe the question for a long time to discover what it is that they are driving at. There comes a point though, when probing the problem just needs to stop in order for the learner to reflect and make the connections between the pieces of the puzzle.
The next step is trying out solutions. With my problem I tried changing the settings on my printer, and changing the format of my document. This is the same stage of learning that dogs go through when they try out variations on their idea of what you are driving at with training. This is the stage where the dog may try not doing the behaviour to see what the outcome is. As a trainer this can be a very frustrating stage to go through and we can make life a lot harder on our dogs by endlessly drilling at this point. Most dogs, like me, need to have the chance to give their ideas a try and fiddle a bit but then they are better off to take the time to back off and think about the issue for a bit. Trainers benefit too because when they reflect on the issues they are working through they may come up with novel solutions and better ways of explaining what they want to their dogs.
After fiddling for a bit, I went through a very annoying phase. I would have been better to have gone on and done something different after I had fiddled with it, but being that I am stubborn and try really hard, I decided I would try even harder. I see some of my students going through this phase when they attend a daily levels class but don’t go away and think about what they are teaching their dogs. They don’t go away and think about alternatives. They don’t leave the behaviour alone and let the dog think about the work they are doing. Like me, they just push and try harder and they frustrate themselves, their instructors and most of all their dogs.
When you get stuck in this phase of learning something, you start trying things that normally you would not try. I once caught myself picking up my printer with the intention of dropping it to see if that would prompt it to print. In case you are wondering, dropping the printer won’t make it print. If you have ever been frustrated by a print job that just won’t work, you have probably also been tempted to shake up the printer a bit. It just won’t work. The equivalent to that in dog training is when the trainer abandons the lesson in favour of the result. I watched one student of mine lift the dog onto a piece of equipment and then reward him, over and over again during this phase. The dog learned that being on the equipment predicted treats, but he didn’t learn how to use his body to get onto the equipment, so in the end, the dog didn’t learn what the trainer had set out to teach him.
The “leave it alone and let the dog think” method of problem solving usually gets you better results. Allowing the dog to have some time between when you first explain the behaviour to them and when you next ask them to offer the behaviour can yield some surprising results. Often the dog needs a chance, just like I did with my print job to just let the training percolate a bit. If you allow the dog to have the time and space to think about what they are doing, you can end up with faster more effective learning.
I should be clear though; latent learning won’t work if you don’t lay a good foundation and revisit the exercises from time to time, but if you just hammer away at the problem for days on end, you never give your dog the chance to just think about it. So often I have watched a dog come along very quickly after they have had a few days off, if they have had a good solid exposure to the things you are teaching first. If they don’t have a solid exposure, then they don’t make those leaps. Latent learning is especially important for the intermediate and advanced dogs; they have a lot of education and learning under their belts and to deny them the chance to use that experience to support what they are learning by reflecting is really unfair.
So how do you know that you have done enough foundation work and you just need to leave it alone? To begin with, this is most applicable in training of more complex, chained behaviours. If you have been doing your foundational work with sit, down, stay, target with the nose, target with the paw and so on, then when you start putting together chains you may notice that your dog slows down a bit in his learning. Work on something for ten minutes and then give it a break. Work on something that the dog is already really good at for a few minutes. Then come back to what you were working on to begin with. Just this little break may allow your dog to regroup and be more successful. If that doesn’t happen, leave the whole thing for a couple of days. Come back to it when you and your dog are fresh again. If you still aren’t successful, leave the whole thing for a couple of days and then come back to it again with fresh eyes and a fresh start.
In the days between when you introduce an exercise, and when you reintroduce the exercise, review in your own mind to make sure you haven’t skipped steps or become so focused on the goal of the exercise that you haven’t reinforced the foundational work sufficiently that it will make sense to the dog. The time you take away from the training session will benefit you too! It gives you a chance to reflect on and analyse your training, to form questions to ask your dog when you get back to it. Down time is really important to good training for both you and your dog.
The one caveat about using latent learning is that there is probably an optimal time for each learner to leave the learning alone, and that time is probably different from individual to individual. If you wait too long between sessions, you risk that the learner will forget the foundations you have worked on. My general plan is to make a mental map that will allow me to help the dog find the way through the process of obtaining the skills towards an end behaviour. It might look something like this:
When you make a map of where you want to go in training, it is easier to see where you are going and where you are going wrong. I might teach the Foundation Behaviours months before I work on the next level of training. I might review the Foundation Behaviours in the weeks ahead of working on the next level. Then I might introduce the “Two Steps to Glue Together” as two different behaviours and work on that for a few days. Then I might leave it alone for a couple of days or even a week. Then I might go back and see how the dog is doing with that second step. If he is not getting the behaviours, then I might review the Foundation Behaviours again and try the next level behaviours a second time. Then I might let it sit for a while again. When the dog is able to give m the second level of behaviours easily, then I might introduce the end behaviour. At this point in training some dogs get the idea right away and some of them need to try it a few times before they get it and a good number of dogs need to let the idea sit for a week or two. I just keep revisiting success and then come back to the more difficult step or stage later until the dog puts the pieces together.
Latent learning can feel like a giant leap of faith. It can feel like you are not really training at all, but with advanced dogs, it can really make the whole training process easier. With my advanced students in our drop in classes, I often recommend that they attend one or two advanced skills classes each week and then one or two regular levels classes each week. By training this way they can ping pong around the more difficult behaviours and let the power of latent learning work for them. Wait a minute. Let the dog think. Reflect on your work. Are there holes to fill? Pecking away at the problem with breaks of days between is often the most effective way to train, and it is a whole lot more fun than getting to the point where you want to drop the printer or get frustrated with your dog.
When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks. The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now. We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more. My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together. I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right. That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me. I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.
As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training. Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was. Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child. This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs. The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.
We LOVE to include children in our classes, and it works best when the adults help to tailor the activities so that the children and the dogs are successful, such as at this socialization party. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
How can we make this more successful for the kids? For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids. Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with. We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class. Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.
As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world. It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse. Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses. We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work. When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse. When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges. By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.
This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony). She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment. The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved. We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse. Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class! Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo
This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs. When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together. When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.
In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively. Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part. Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating. By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things. It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat. It helps with your timing. It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity. Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.
When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training. When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training. You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children. Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows. Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat. This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer. When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog. This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment. When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once. I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.
Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat. When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours. The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning. It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.
I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape. Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal. Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay. Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with. The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down. Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat. If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down. Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.
Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child. Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently. You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom. Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team. These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged. It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.
This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do. The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance. If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!
Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context. This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer. If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities. You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down. Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog. It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.
Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child. Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog. We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated.
When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone. Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too. As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes. From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart. Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!
And what about the child who takes a class and is successful? When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need. Then the child gets what I got as a child. A magic relationship with another being. That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.
In my last blog about walking puppies off leash (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/ )I had a few comments on the Dogs in the Park Facebook page about how this made owners of reactive dogs cringe. One respondent said that my last blog was too nuanced for beginner trainers, and could lead to people letting their dogs off leash in places where they might encounter her large strong dog reactive dog. Let me just excerpt a couple of sentences from that blog to make certain that if you are reading about going off leash with your puppy you are clear about my intent
“The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere. Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.”
In case people are not clear, being able to take my dogs off leash implies that I will take more into account than just removing the leash. Choosing to do so when it is dangerous is not my intent. There are a number of issues related to taking a puppy off leash, and the first of those issues is choosing to do so only when it is in your pup’s best interest.
“The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind. I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know. That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience. I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.”
Again, if you are unclear, I want you to steer clear of the dogs who might be reactive or who might carry diseases or who might be upset by your off leash puppy. If I don’t know your dog, I don’t let my youngster off leash. I am not as worried about what my pup might do to your dog in this case, but I am worried about what your dog might teach my puppy. If you have a reactive dog, I don’t want my puppy to learn anything from him, and so it is the responsibility of the dog owner to act in their dog’s best interest, which means not bringing my pup into a place where your dog might get upset and my pup might be frightened.
“I don’t want to run into predators either. Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy. Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada. Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it. Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of. About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned. Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.”
This advice could also include roads, cars, bikes, and anything else in the environment that could cause harm to my puppy. In the last blog I was very specific about the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog safe. Now I want to address that same issue with reactive dogs in mind.
When you live with a reactive dog, you have a huge responsibility to keep your dog below threshold. By keeping your dog below threshold, you are taking active steps to avoid situations where your dog is not going to go off and become reactive. If your dog is reactive to children, then please, don’t go to the local school yard or playground in the name of training your dog. This is neither fair to your dog or to the children you are exposing him to.
Allowing your dog to get triggered is not only unfair and unsafe to the public at large it is very unfair to your dog. As the owner of a reactive dog it is your job to prevent this from happening by choosing your walk locations both on and off leash carefully. The more often that your dog is triggered, the more he is going to behave this way. Image credit: fouroaks / 123RF Stock Photo
If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then taking him through a park where other dogs run is irresponsible, even if it is against the law for those dogs to be running there. If this sounds like I am condoning dog owners breaking the law let me assure you I am not. I would really like everyone to follow their local leash laws, but the fact is that people ARE letting their dogs run illegally and if you walk your reactive dog into that situation, then he is going to react. You are your dog’s advocate and he doesn’t know what the risks are when choosing your walking route.
In my opinion, off leash activities in natural areas are important not only for dogs but also for children. The child who has never set foot in a natural area is much poorer for the lack. As a former outdoor educator, I am keenly tuned in to what happens when we isolate ourselves from nature, and the results of children being isolated from nature are huge. This is also true for dogs. So what do you do when you have a reactive dog who is unable to get out to walk off leash in the natural world?
The first thing is to get out a map, or open up Google Earth and take a close look at your neighbourhood. What is the closest green area on the map? In many suburban environments, you will now find causeways between housing developments that allow water to run off naturally. These green spaces are often un-used and available to bring your reactive dog to for exercise and stimulation. The areas under hydro allowances are also often available. Then there areas of crown or state land that are open to the public but little used. When you look at Google Earth, you will find green in very unexpected places. One of the most common places that I find green in urban areas is abutting industrial basins.
Once you have looked at the map, go visit without your dog. Really. This is the important preplanning that you must do to avoid the puppies I am sending out to do normal off leash walking. When you go, spend time looking for evidence of other humans in the area. Yes, there are stray dogs and that is a risk, but you can often find areas in very urban settings where there is green space available to walk along, where few people go. You are looking for things like fresh litter (the semi decayed and crushed water bottle that is half covered in mud is not recent; the whole shiny chip bag that has been stepped upon is), footprints, bike tire prints, pawprints, and crushed vegetation. If you are finding a lot of fresh evidence mark that location as a possible, but not likely place. If you actually meet people there, then cross that location off the map. Visit several places, and if you find one where there is no evidence of people, you have scored a walking area. If you have found some places with some evidence of people walking there, visit a few times and see if you can determine when you can avoid people.
This is an excellent site for working with a reactive dog. I can see if there are other people or dogs in the distance and take steps to avoid problems while allowing my dog the opportunity to walk in a very normal way. If I am concerned about my dog biting, I will muzzle him even if I don’t expect to meet anyone. Muzzling is more preplanning you can do to help your dog have a successful off leash experience. Preplanning is all about making sure that if it could go wrong, it doesn’t. I teach all dogs including non reactive dogs to wear a muzzle. In this case, Eco was wearing a muzzle because he was on our reactive dog walk where all the dogs wear muzzles as a safety precaution. I also teach a rock solid down at a distance so that I can put the brakes on if I need to do so. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
This link leads to the map of where I hold my reactive dog walks. http://tinyurl.com/jvpuy8e . Over the four years I have been walking there with dogs with behaviour problems I have never met a person or dog there, and yet it is right in a neighbourhood full of hundreds of people who could walk there if they wanted to do so. If you look at the “A” marked on the map, that is where Dogs in the Park is, so this is a short three minute walk from the training hall. I visited this location every Sunday for three weeks before moving my walk there; I wanted to be certain that I would not run into people with my crew of reactive dogs. Preplanning pays off.
Not only must you preplan where you are going to take your dog, but you must preplan what you are going to do. If you are the owner of a reactive dog, you have a responsibility to always attend to that dogs’ behaviour. If you are not able to attend to him at all times, then you may not be able to work with your dog off leash. While walking your reactive dog off leash, you need to be aware that on public property, anyone could show up at any time and you need to be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to call your dog back to you and leave if it is no longer in your dog’s best interest to have him off leash. Keep in mind this isn’t about your right to do this activity; this is all about your responsibility to YOUR dog. Being responsible to YOUR dog keeps my dog safe. This is not an activity to do with your kids, or when you have a head ache; this is an activity to do when you can give your whole attention to what you are doing.
This is our off leash reactive dog walk called the Good Dog Walk. All of the dogs have behaviour problems of one sort or another. Everyone is paying attention to the dogs in order to assure that we can prevent any problems from happening. If you are unable to attend to your dog, then don’t take him out! Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
If the area is not fenced and you think your dog might bolt, then dragging a long line is a great idea. 30 metres of long line dragging will allow you to catch your dog at any time, but allow the line to drag. Don’t try and hold onto it. Use a piece of bright tape to make off 10, 20 and 25 metres, so that you can see when your dog is getting far enough away that you should take action. Call first and if he does not come, step on the line. I like to call dogs when they are at about twenty metres and stop them by stepping on the line at 25 metres if they haven’t come. This teaches the dog not to stray, but doesn’t interfere with his normal and natural behaviour.
Long lines are great tools to help your dog to stay close to you while he is learning to work off leash. Notice that this dog is calm and under control? This is the behaviour you want before letting your dog go and explore. If your dog is straining at the leash and staring at things, then wait till he is calm and relaxed before starting out. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
Just what do I want the dog to do? Pretty much whatever he wants. If he wants to sniff around, let him. If he wants to lie in a puddle, allow that too. This may be the first time that your reactive dog can just choose to do what makes him happy. Most of the time when we are working with reactive dogs we are micromanaging what they are doing to avoid them going over threshold. You see another dog in the distance? You ask the reactive dog to look at you and not engage in the other dog, and then ask him to sit or lie down. Every action that your dog does may have been micromanaged, possibly for years. This level of micromanagement may keep your dog from going over threshold, but it sure doesn’t help him to be relaxed and confident and that is part of what being off leash gives us.
Although you want to have control over the situation, off leash walks should be an opportunity for your reactive dog to do things he wants to do; picking things up, sniffing and looking where he wants to look are all things that he cannot do when you are micromanaging a walk on a leash. Micromanagement makes reactivity worse, not better. If your reactive dog has dog friends, taking them for walks together is even better because your dog will learn through social facilitation what is safe and what is dangerous. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander
The other thing that you must do is move. Your dog should get ahead of you, engage in the environment and then lag behind. You should encourage checking in, but you should also be checking what interests your dog. There is a huge difference between the conversation that you have when you have a reactive dog and you are orchestrating every little motion, and the conversation you have when you go over to look at the raccoon fur that is snagged on a branch that your dog has found. Developing a two way conversation with your reactive dog can go a long way to helping him to relax and enjoy himself. In my opinion, this is an essential step in success with a reactive dog.
In truly urban environments it can be very difficult to find a truly natural safe environment to explore with your dog. I have had good success with these dogs in taking them to places like blind alleys and allowing them to explore the local dumpster on a long line. The opportunity to be in a place where they are not going to be startled and be able to just smell things and explore things and toilet when they want to do so is essential to good mental health for all of us, and when we cannot get to a rural place, sometimes we have to compromise. Always we have to keep in mind our responsibility to keep our reactive dogs below threshold, not only because of the risk to others, but because every time that a reactive dog goes off, it is a penny in the bank account of anxiety and frustration, which only leads to more reactivity.
As a final word, I would like to mention that walking your reactive dog down the street on leash, through the triggers that will set him off is at best a fool’s errand that will never result in the relaxed companion you are aiming for. So where do you walk? If you have a vehicle, my best place for leash walking is a grocery store parking lot. You will see few other dogs, it is a large area where you can see people approaching and there are loads of places you can duck into in order to avoid triggers. Walking your reactive dog should be an exercise in developing confidence and relaxation for both you and your dog, and if you are constantly hyper vigilant to the things that might set your dog off, you are never going to teach him to accept his triggers; at best you are going to teach him to trust that you are his best early warning system. At worst you are going to teach him that hyper vigilance is the normal state of being.
I have been seeing a lot of people lately engaging in what I would refer to as stunts. One of these stunts is sometimes marketed as “reality” training, where dogs are left on a down stay outside of a store while the owner goes in. The dogs are unattended and un-tethered. These dogs are really clear that a down stay is a down stay is a down stay, but let’s think about this. Is this really a good idea? I have dogs who could do this if I asked them to do so, and in fact, I have done this in times past. Learn and grow I always say. I learned and I grew, and now, I don’t do it unless there is an emergency. I cannot think what that emergency might be, but I will never say never. I will just say that I would have to be pretty convinced that an out of sight, public down stay might be necessary.
Is the dog under control? Yes. The dog understands that he must not move. In the world of protection work for instance, the goal is to train to this level and the dog understands that if he moves, bad things will happen. This looks like a great idea and it is a wonderful piece of theater. I remember revelling in my earlier days as a trainer, doing stunts like this. Then I grew a little bit and I started to realize that doing this is pretty darned disrespectful of my dog. The dog may be under control, but there is no plan “B” for what will happen if the dog is startled or spooked out of his stay. What will happen to the dog if he is stung by a bee, spooks and runs into the street? What might happen is that the dog could be hit by a car. Worse, someone might swerve to miss the dog, and hit a child. Control is not the only element that should be taken into consideration.
I am seeing other stunts around town too. Today I saw a small dog being led around the downtown core by a toddler who was maybe three or four years old. Cute? Yes. Safe? No. The child doesn’t understand the risks of leading the dog and the dog doesn’t understand traffic and if the dog spooks and runs into traffic, then not only is the dog dead, but so is the kid. This is a stunt, and mom may have thought that she was amusing both the kid and the dog, but it just wasn’t a good idea.
And then there are the dogs I am seeing off leash, with joggers and cyclists in the city. These dogs are really the victims of stunts, because they are often being run through traffic. As a runner in traffic, you are at risk but at least your body is usually taller than the hoods of most cars. Your dog is not, and if the driver doesn’t realize that there is a dog loose in traffic, then he is are real risk for being hit by a vehicle.
Not all stunts are set up on purpose. A colleague of mine lives on a corner lot in a beautiful neighbourhood. She has a service dog who is completely reliable. One day, the dog was let out to toilet and the family went back in the house for a few moments. A couple of minutes later, they looked out and the dog was out of sight. They called and she reappeared and came in the house. Not a big deal, until you find out that a neighbour observed a car slow down and someone get out and try and coax the dog out of her own yard and into a car. When you cannot observe your dog directly, you are depending that everyone around you is kind and honest and not intending to do harm to your dog, and sadly, that just isn’t the case some of the time.
Another stunt I regularly see happens in barns with horses. I am a recreational rider, and I often see dogs in barns, off leash, just doing their thing. On the surface, this doesn’t look like a stunt, but in a dog who doesn’t live with horses, and horses who don’t live with the dog, this sort of stunt can result in danger to both the horse and the dog. Worse, if you are mounted and coming back into the barn yard and your horse is faced with a loose dog she doesn’t know, you risk that the horse will spook, the rider may fall and the dog may get injured by the horse, or the horse by the dog. No one wins in this sort of a situation.
If this was my pony and your dog, I would be really annoyed. Even when the horses and the dogs know one another, supervision makes for safer interactions. Image credit: virgonira / 123RF Stock Photo
Every day I see stunts around me in the name of training. Doing an off leash heeling routine in a public square away from traffic is one thing, but doing the same thing through traffic is another. Doing a sit stay by a statue (something I have been doing with D’fer for many years) when I am right there is relatively safe; leaving that dog at the statue while I go out of sight is grand standing and doesn’t respect my dog.
When you have a dog in modern society, you have to take into account a number of really important things. The dog is incapable of understanding the risks of the environment he lives in. A hundred and fifty years ago, putting your dog out to toilet was not a big deal. Horses could hurt a dog, but there were many more horses and the dogs learned early how to behave around them. Dogs who didn’t learn, learned the ultimate lesson and were killed. It was a slower time and there were fewer people interested in stealing or harming a dog. You knew more of your neighbours and people didn’t show up randomly in your neighbourhood as often as we see now.
So what can you do in public with your dog? In traffic, please keep your dog on a leash. Walking your dog off leash just isn’t safe and it is a stunt that could cost your dog his life. If you need to go into a store, tie your dog and ask him to stay. Yes, my dog CAN stay out of sight for a very long time (I once left a dog on a down stay in the training room to answer a phone call and came back forty minutes later to find him snoozing on the floor where I left him!), but I have no need to risk my dog’s life to prove that fact. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. If you want to take a picture of your dog in public, by all means use your stay to the level you have trained it, but don’t leave the vicinity and hope for the best.
In an urban environment where traffic and dogs and people share space, a leash is a must no matter how well your dog is trained. Image credit: vvoennyy / 123RF Stock Photo
If you want to introduce your dog to horses, make sure that one person is controlling the horse and one person is controlling the dog while you train your dog to do things that are safe around your horse. If your dog is frightened of your horse, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to spend time with your dog and your horse together, orchestrate what you want them both to be doing. When I am grooming my horse if my dogs are around, I will put out a mat or send the dog to a bale of hay to lie down while I am grooming. If I am riding, I will have a spot for my dog to do a down stay in the event that I am in an arena or riding ring where it is safe for my dog to be. If I want my dog to heel with me, I will teach both my horse and my dog to work together instead of hoping that they will both figure it out.
The bottom line is that we are responsible for both what happens because of our dogs and what happens to our dogs and it doesn’t matter if we are there to observe the activity or not. If you leave your dog on a down stay out of sight and a child comes up and teases your dog and your dog bites the child, you are responsible. If you are crossing the street and your dog is off leash and he darts between the cars and is hit, that is also your responsibility. An important lesson to consider is that it need not be your fault in order to be your responsibility.
Just today, someone sent me the link to Blackfish, the documentary film that re-examines the deaths of three whale trainers attributed to Tillikum, the killer whale. This documentary led me to do some reading again about the work that is done with killer whales, and what the industry thinks about punishment and aggression and how these things are linked. I have also been getting a lot of posts on my Facebook page about how we don’t use punishment with zoo animals and thus we ought not use punishment with our dogs. Most of the time, I agree that punishment is not the right tool for the job. Some of the time though, it may be the best alternative. To be clear, punishment is anything that decreases behaviour. I don’t touch the hot kettle on the stove because it will hurt. My touching of hot kettles is a very low frequency behaviour because I understand intimately and deeply that it will hurt if I do so and I really don’t want that outcome to occur.
I would not reach out and touch this hot kettle; I know that I would hurt my hand if I did. I also don’t worry about it if I am sitting next to it. I understand that I can control if I will get hurt or not. When I touch such an item by accident, I am not traumatized, in part because I am flexible and can cope with a certain amount of unpleasant experience. Image credit: comzeal / 123RF Stock Photo
If you read through my blogs you will see that I DO use positive punishment and sometimes intentionally and sometimes fairly heavy positive punishment. If you are on my farm, regardless of who you are; a dog, a squirrel, a bird, a raccoon or a coyote, or a person, and you touch the hot wire on my fence, you will get hurt. The hot wire is an electric fence wire that runs on the top of my fence to keep dogs in and critters out. It is a simple rule that no one on the farm gets particularly stressed about. It is very much like the rule about hot kettles. If you touch the kettle when it is hot, it will hurt. It is a simple rule that everyone in the house understands and to my knowledge no one in the house is stressed about.
When I am training, I always ask the animal about how he experiences the process, and there are tons of questions to ask. Did you understand me? I have seen many, many trainers who don’t understand that confusion is incredibly aversive, and they are busy feeling great about the fact that they are only using R+ but the dog is more and more stressed because he is confused. At a seminar John went to once he came home and told me about a clicker trainer on stage trying to get a dog to do something; the dog was confused and stressed and the trainer kept talking about breaking the behaviour down into smaller increments; the problem wasn’t the method of the training; the problem was that no one had asked the dog if he was comfortable or happy. Heck no one had asked the dog if he wanted to be on stage!
When I was training my dog Crow, as I write about in my blog (http://tinyurl.com/blc89ce) we had one big stumbling block. Leash manners. He was terrible on leash. After two years of trying to use only R+ and P-, I “resorted” to a prong collar. We were both so much happier after that, that I learned that I will never ever “resort” to pain as a training tool again. Now if I choose to use pain, I CHOOSE. I choose to use pain, and yes, sometimes making the lesson clear is much more important than avoiding all pain. Pain can be less aversive than confusion to many learners.
What most folks, (including the author of Coercion and its Fallout) miss is that pain in isolation is stressful. Pain that happens repeatedly without warning and that you cannot control is very stressful, but pain that you understand and can avoid is not. If you are not walking around in fear of your electrical sockets, your tea kettle or your woodstove then you understand this on a much deeper level than you realize. I am well educated about contingent control over behaviour. Non contingent punishment is extremely stressful. We have a special name for this; we call it torture. I do not torture my learners. But I do sometimes use P+. When I give D’fer the hairy eyeball when we are in an airport and he is in a goofy mood and is thinking about doing something funny in security, I am using P+. He understands this, and it is not a conditioned P+; he understands that my dirty look is disapproval of his behaviour, and he tones down. He is not stressed because he can control that disapproval. When I am in a bad temper though and I am stomping around a hotel room in a funk, packing and worrying about being late, he IS stressed because there is nothing he can do. He is helpless.
Coming back to the killer whales, and the other marine mammals in captivity that are being so successfully trained using only positive reinforcement, we need to understand something about the difference between a captive zoo animal and a household pet. This is that most people cannot provide that much structure to their dogs. If you are a complete control nerd, and you really like ensuring that your dog never ever encounters any stimulus that you don’t have control over, then yes, you can likely train absolutely 100% without any unpleasant consequences. The problem is, who lives like this? My life with dogs is fairly structured, but my clients certainly don’t keep their dogs in the sort of controlled environment that zoos and aquaria keep their animals within. This means that some of the time, we are faced with situations where the dog is going to have opportunities to behave in ways that aren’t what we want.
What is interesting to me is that I started out as a jerk and treat trainer and I changed as I learned more. I started out using pain to gain control over behaviours. I then switched over to being a completely R+ trainer. I was as R+ as I could be. The more I learned and listened and thought and researched and studied, the more that I learned that P+ can sometimes have a place. It is as important as any of the other quadrants, as important as classical conditioning and as important as extinction (if you want to see a stressed animal have a watch at an animal going through extinction-they are often very distressed and it is highly unpleasant for the learner and for the trainer), and yet it is trampled down and labeled as inhumane. There are a lot worse things in my life than remembering not to touch the hot wire or using a tool that will cause pain to resolve a behaviour quickly and efficiently. When I had a dog who was predatory to my chickens, yes, I used a shock collar. I guarantee that my dog was less stressed than the two chickens he disemboweled and killed. I used a shock collar on a dog who had been through several surgeries to remove rocks from his gut. That was far less stressful than the surgeries were.
I think that in the world of training we can easily become academically lazy. If you can train a killer whale without shock, why not the dog who is eating rocks? Let’s look at that. We are comparing apples and oranges. If I had a killer whale who was eating non food items, it would be easy enough to put the whale in a tank without anything non edible in it. If I wanted to teach a wild killer whale not to eat non food items using positive reinforcement only, I would be entirely unsuccessful. The world itself would put an end to this behaviour the day that the learner ate the first deadly thing. Shooting the dog is indeed, as Karen Pryor so strongly pointed out, the ultimate in end games for behaviours. Dead whales don’t eat non food things ever.
It is an exciting time to be involved with dog behaviour consulting, practice and research. So much is available to us in terms of information, research and data. The last thing we can afford to do is to be academically lazy. We must question what we know, and examine what we do each and every day. Image credit: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo
I cannot put the dog in a position where he is never exposed to rocks; he lives in a house with kids who bring things inside of the house. He goes on walks outside of the house with rocks in the environment. There are rocks everywhere and I have few choices in how to stop him from eating them. A muzzle is a good first step and in the short term, this will work, but in high heat, this will kill my learner and that is not the outcome I am looking for. In that case, I will choose to use punishment, and likely a pretty significant one. What I want to do though is to set up a contingency that the dog can learn as clearly as I understand that touching my electric hot wire is going to hurt. I make mistakes from time to time, but I don’t repeatedly touch the hot wire. The frequency of my touching the fence is about once a month or less. I never intentionally touch the wire when it is on, and I am not afraid of the fence because I understand the outcome of doing so.
And let’s look at the zoo animals. In case anyone is interested, I am as strongly opposed to keeping wild animals in captivity as most of the R+ trainers are against the use of P+. I think it is morally reprehensible and I will not be a party to it, but it does provide an interesting contrast to what we do with dogs. Let’s consider the life of your average killer whale in a tank. Do you know that they cannot properly ecolocate within the echoing concrete of the tanks they live within? Do you realize that these animals typically travel several hundred miles a day, and we keep them in tanks of less than ten acres in size? Do you realize that they are environmentally enriched less than 50% of their days? Do you know that they are likely on par with us in terms of our intellectual capacity? Can you imagine what it would be like to live in your kitchen for the rest of your life with exciting trips to the living room once a day to “interact” with a trainer? I think that what we do to zoo animals is far more inhumane and horrendous than what I do with positive punishment. Yes, we can get spectacular responses from all kinds of animals when the only game in town is what we offer them for the few hours a day that they are able to come out and train with us.
This sterile environment is where captive whales spend most of their time, with little to do and a tank that is so small that they cannot echolocate and communicate normally. We never use pain to train these incredible creatures, but we keep them in such appalling conditions, that using no pain to train seems like a small nod indeed to humane treatment of the learner. Image credit: ozbandit / 123RF Stock Photo
I want people to think about never ever again being able to say “thank you, no, I don’t want that” to your child, your spouse, your parent or your sibling. In training, punishment is the tool we use in place of “no. don’t do that”. If you want an interesting week, frame every conversation you have for the week in terms of thank you for trying, I would like something else. Never ever say no, just reframe your request in terms of “thank you, please do something different.” It doesn’t work any better if you frame everything you do in terms of only attending to the things you like without any other information. Sometimes that will work, and more often than not, it will not. What often happens in the classroom when teachers try this is that the willing students will be successful and willing, the students who don’t care will not advance at all and the students who are not compliant will become more and more and more creative in ways to try and get the information about what is not allowed. Often this tactic results in a very frustrated trainer and an even more frustrated learner.
There are two interesting and competing theories in Applied Behaviour Analysis that do not get discussed nearly often enough. They are called two factor and one factory theory. Two factor theory says that when negative reinforcement is used, both operant learning and classical learning happen at the same time. This means that not only will the learner increase his behaviour, but he will develop a classical association with the signals that the aversive stimulus may occur, and will suffer distress when the signal is present. This is the most common argument that I have heard for why people eschew the use of both negative reinforcement and positive punishment. By extension, when this concept is applied to positive reinforcement, not only will the behaviour increase, but the signal that a appetitive or pleasant outcome is available will produce good feelings in the learner. The problem is that there is some good research out there indicating that this may not in fact be happening. Pavlov may NOT be part of every single interaction you have with your learner. One factor theory says that only one thing is occurring at a time; that if you increase a behaviour through negative reinforcement or decrease a behaviour through positive punishment, the only thing that is happening is an increase or decrease in behaviour; the procedure is entirely operant. People who believe strictly in one factor theory would argue that you are simply increasing or decreasing the frequency of a behaviour when you train. Two factor theorists would argue that the learner’s well being is attached to the choice of method of behavioural change.
I would like to propose a third option; that is that some of the time, two factor theory is relevant and some of the time, one factor theory prevails. From my observations of over thirty years of training, when the animal has work that is meaningful to him, and an environment that he can predict and control through his behaviour, then one factor theory is going to control. When the animal is uncertain, his welfare is dicey and his work is not meaningful, then two factor theory will be the more important scenario. In my opinion the difference between the whale in the tank and the dog in my home is that with the domestic dog who evolved to fill the niche that was created by the detritus of the human environment is that the dog is usually a stable individual in his native environment. Of course two factor theory will prevail when you are talking about training animals who live in horrendously suboptimal environments.
Punishment isn’t something I use often, but I do use it and I support the use of it in some situations. Understanding about two factor and one factor theory has helped me to see that learners experience both or either operant and classical conditioning some of the time depending a lot on their state of mind and welfare. Most of the time, punishment is misused because it is very poorly understood. Most of the time it is not the right tool for the job. Some of the time though, I believe it is. When the conditions are right, and the one factor theory is in effect, it can be very helpful. Punishment doesn’t have to have baggage with it; sometimes it is just a kettle we should not touch. Done properly, that is exactly the effect.
Intact dogs and bitches have become a hot topic around Dogs in the Park lately. An awful lot of the young ladies seem to have come into season all at once this past summer, and we are getting a whole lot of questions! A few weeks ago, one of our regulars came into class and I could see that she was most likely in heat. I pointed this out to the human learner, and she looked disappointed, and said “we are so close to Level 3. I guess we will have to pass it when we get back.” “Back from where?” I asked. The human thought that we would not want her young bitch in class because she was in heat! Nothing could be further from the truth. As most of our “new to living with an intact dog” students do, this family had a lot of questions, and this has prompted me to write about living with, training and coping with an intact animal.
Let’s start with the boys, because in many ways, the boys are a more straightforward situation. The correct term for a male dog is a dog, just like the correct term for an intact female dog is bitch. If you read dog in this blog you know we are talking about a male dog and if you read bitch, we are talking about a female dog. If a dog is neutered, altered or “fixed”, that means that a veterinarian has surgically removed the testicles. Even in a late neuter, they don’t remove the scrotum; they just remove the testicles. If he is intact, that means that the dog still has his testicles.
A very few male dogs have had vasectomies. Usually there is a reason for the owner of the dog to choose to have a vasectomy. I had a dog that we chose to have this done for. He was a huge military lines German Shepherd dog named Eco, and he had one testicle retained inside his body. This happens from time to time, but due to the work we wanted him to do, we wanted to make sure that he would be as physically strong as possible, and to develop as normal a skeleton as he could, so we didn’t want to neuter him. Also, we had read that intact male dogs have a better sense of smell (the jury is out on this fact; we are not sure if this is true or not, but there is enough evidence pointing to this that we decided we wanted to keep the remaining testicle). Due to the fact that Eco had retained one testicle and we knew that is a strongly heritable trait, we didn’t want him to be bred, so we opted to ask our veterinarian to do a vasectomy. For us this was a very good choice, but it did mean that although he could not sire puppies, he behaved in every other way as an intact male would.
Intact males are able to breed, and they will be much more interested in the girls when they are in heat than are neutered males, but in general, living with a well trained intact male is no different than living with a well trained neutered male. Notice that I have qualified this with well trained. D’fer was my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and he was trained to do work as my service dog. He was also intact. As is true with almost all Chessies, he was an intense, passionate guy, with an opinion on nearly everything. We were well matched in that regard! I have about 5 foundation behaviours that I feel are essential to success for dogs who live with me. The first of these is the cued take it. As I like to say, the dog controls the dog! You can read more about my thoughts on this at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ . Other behaviours include the one hour down stay and automatically sitting at the door. The cued take it is important for intact dogs because that is what they must do when they meet a reproductively available member of the opposite sex, and that was the behaviour that mattered the most the very first time that D’fer met a female dog in heat.
I remember that we were at a tracking seminar, and another participant had brought a dog with her that she intended to have bred by a dog she was going to meet on her way home. This is not an unusual situation in the professional dog world; when we have a promising bitch, we may take her to meet a complimentary dog when she is in heat. She was behind a gate in the owner’s trailer, and as we walked by, D’fer suddenly stopped as though he had walked into a brick wall. He could obviously smell that she was in heat, and he was VERY interested! Because we had done the foundation work necessary to create the level of cued take it that I want, he did not pull or strain towards her; he stepped back and waited politely, until I told him not this time and we moved on. The owner of the bitch in heat was much relieved, as she really did not need a litter of Basset Hound Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppies!
There is a myth out there that if you have an intact male, he is going to be absolutely uncontrollable when he meets a female dog in heat. While this may be true in the case of an untrained dog who has been encouraged to misbehave and grab whatever he wants, this is completely untrue for a well trained dog. I feel that if you have an intact male, you have a responsibility to your dog and to the rest of society to make sure that your boy is well mannered and well trained so that he does not wander or impregnate dogs he should not. This means investing time in the first 8 to 10 months teaching your dog that grabbing whatever he wants is not acceptable, and that he must come when called regardless of what is going on around him.
Another common myth about intact males is that they are all aggressive, and that they will fight any other male dog that they meet. This just isn’t true! Intermale aggression may happen, but it is far from the universal phenomenon that people often assume that it is. I remember more than once having people explain to me that of course service dogs could not be intact because they would get into fights. I was always amused when I asked them to look more closely at my dog and have them discover that they had been sitting right beside an intact male! If you have ever seen a group of beach dogs in the Caribbean, or on a dump in a third world country, then you observed first hand that intact males can and DO co-exist peacefully. The deal is pretty simple. In the wild, males are not crowded into situations where they are going to argue a whole lot; and when conflict does arise, aggression is not usually the first choice in resolution. Aggression is only the best choice for an individual when that individual is fairly sure that he will win. This means that the male who is weaker, slower or less certain is most likely going to choose to retreat or otherwise acquiesce. The stronger, faster or more confident dog doesn’t feel the need to assert himself, and thus, he doesn’t pick unnecessary fights. Fights are really only a good idea when the outcome is uncertain; when both members of the conflict are pretty equally matched. This is not to say that aggression between males in the wild never happens; it means that aggression is relatively rare. So why is it that people think that intermale aggression is so common?
There are likely a number of answers to this. In the wild, we don’t prevent the little squabbles from happening and those little squabbles help the individuals to understand which dog is stronger and which dog doesn’t have a chance of winning a fight. Wild dogs have more choices to retreat too. And in the wild the intact males usually live in groups where the social structure is relatively stable with few individuals moving in or out at once. Compare this to the situation of your average pet dog! If he protests to another dog that he doesn’t like being that close, he will likely be chastised by a well meaning person. This means that the dog never gets to explain to the other dog what he does or does not like. I am not suggesting that permitting your dogs to squabble incessantly is a good idea, but they do need to be able to communicate their preferences! Next, our homes are set up to store our books, computers and clothing; they are not set up to allow dogs to retreat from one another easily. When I did home visits, one of the things I always looked at was if the dogs had a reasonable second way to retreat from conflict. Rarely did I find this already in existence! Next we often ask our dogs to accept a huge number of new dogs into their environment; we ask them to get along with every dog at the dog park, and then tolerate guest dogs to the home, not to mention all sorts of new people who have differing ideas about what acceptable behaviour might be. If you add into the mix the sexual tension of two males who are of similar strength, speed and agility and breeding females, fights will happen. Nevertheless, many intact dogs can and do learn to live peacefully together. I just would not suggest taking them out to the dog park and hoping for the best.
Neutering will not usually resolve aggressive behaviours in dogs, however there are exceptions to this. If you have two intact males, and they are starting to get scrappy, neutering ONE of them may help. The key is which one? This is an it depends sort of question and you should work with a behaviour professional to decide which dog should be neutered. Neutering both dogs likely won’t solve your problem. If you have a particularly social and studly adolescent dog, he may be the target of aggression from other dogs who are intolerant of his shenanigans, and some of the time, neutering may resolve this. The only two behavioural benefits that have been concretely demonstrated have been marking and neutering, and in both cases, the studies did not control for the effect of training. In my experience of living with a handful of intact males, and having trained several dozen more, I would suggest that training can overcome many of the issues that are often attributed to being intact.
So how do you live successfully with an intact male? Here are my top six suggestions.
1. START TRAINING EARLY
I want my intact males in training to learn to toilet on cue (avoiding the marking issue entirely if you make sure they understand how to completely empty their bladders and make all walks contingent on producing urine quickly and completely), to ask politely for every thing they want (cued take its), to come when called (even in the face of heavy distractions) and to lie down and stay for up to an hour at a time when asked.
2.GET SERIOUS ABOUT SOCIALIZATION
We talk about S.E.E.ing your puppy at Dogs in the Park. This acronym stands for systematic environmental enrichment and what it means is making sure your intact male dog has seen literally hundreds of other people, dogs, animals, floors, vehicles, and experiences, and furthermore that these exposures have all been done sub threshold. This means having your dog relaxed at all times when exposing him to all these things. I find that it is easiest to do this with the help of an organized puppy class, however, this is not always possible. When it isn’t, make sure that you have a plan for how you are going to expose your pup to everything.
3.TEACH YOUR MALE DOG THAT LEARNING AND WORK HAPPENS EVEN IN THE PRESENCE OF A BITCH IN HEAT
This is where group classes that include intact bitches are invaluable. If you cannot find a class that includes bitches and even bitches in heat, get yourself into the confirmation world; half the dogs at every dog show are female and many of them will be in heat. Teach your boys that they still have to perform even if there is a particularly attractive girl around.
4.KEEP YOUR DOG WELL EXERCISED
If your male dog is under exercised he is going to have ants in his pants and be unable to exercise his best self control. Properly exercised means opportunities to run and run hard, on a daily basis for a young dog (use your judgement; pups under six months should not be forced to exercise the way that an adult dog will), as well as opportunities to engage with you in directed aerobic activities. Fetch is good, however, it can become an activity that will excite your dog and create stress. Better are activities such as agility, treibball, herding, or tracking. All these activities teach your dog to engage with you while he is excited.
5.INCORPORATE SELF CONTROL AS A DAILY ROUTINE INSTEAD OF AS A CUED BEHAVIOUR
Too often I see male dogs who think that they can have anything they want if they are just fast enough about taking it. I want my boys to think that they can have anything they want if only they ask. I have written about this extensively all through this blog; if the door opens, I want my dogs to go about their day without rushing the doors. This often surprises guests because they have to invite my dogs to go outside. My dogs also have to be invited to start dinner, to get on furniture and to get in the car. Self control is just part of polite manners in our house. On the other hand, our dogs have a huge toy basket of freebies; things they can take any time they want.
6.BE SENSIBLE ABOUT WHAT YOU ASK OF YOUR MALE DOGS
The last time I shared a hotel room with someone for a dogshow, she had an intact bitch. Her bitch was not in season, so I was not worried about my intact male. Nevertheless, he slept in a crate that night. If she had wanted to share a room and bring her intact male, I would have declined to share a room. I don’t ask my boys to accept every dog I know in our home, I don’t take my intact males to the dog park and when I have a bitch in heat in class with my intact males, I don’t ask them to work at distance off leash unless I am really certain that both I and the handler of the bitch have perfect control over our dogs. When I have intact males in my classroom, I am careful about when I ask them to work beside a bitch in heat; I certainly don’t ask them to do this when they are relatively new to training. Setting my boys up for success is a huge responsibility, and it is what I spend most of my time doing.
As a final word about keeping an intact male, if your dog impregnates an intact bitch, keep in mind that you are responsible for half the costs and work of the litter. If you are going to keep an intact male, it is your job to make sure he is well enough trained and contained to ensure that an unplanned pregnancy is unlikely.
Coming up next…the girls! Please be patient; this blog was delayed by an injury to my thumb which meant that all my typing has been of the hunt and peck variety for the past three weeks! I am still pretty slow on the keyboard, but I am doing my best!
Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world. You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat. As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line. You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk. On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street. Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter. After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds. Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within. How would you feel?
Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn’t and who people are. When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do. Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do. Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo
When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game. There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them. Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules. When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well. She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking. Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down. Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game. So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?
Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience. If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this. Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point. Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found. Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works. Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word. You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again. He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together. Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective. This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.
Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience. The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak. Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work. Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait. If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room. After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time. If she lay down, her person would click and treat. At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.
When she barked, her person would step back. This frustrated her and so she barked louder. When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward. Then she barked again and he stepped back. For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner. Then abruptly, she lay down. Her partner came in and fed her a treat. And she barked. He backed up. She stopped barking and stood up. He stepped closer. She lay down, he gave her a treat. A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.
This is how I think the best training works. The trainer decides on the game for the day. The trainer decides on what the contingencies are. Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies. The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play. In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.
If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game. Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work. If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking. I see this all the time in training. The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour. This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer.
Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him. If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep. In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog. That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing. Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better. Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks. Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.
Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused. Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around. I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more. Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog. When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky. Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment. The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer. He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat. He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do. Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive. Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for. If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat.
Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe. It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don’t make sense to him or that actually put him at risk. In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks. Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo
As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore. Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with. When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing? It produces treats” This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear. Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.
When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at. Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful. If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do. Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with. Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games. If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious. Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes. When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.