WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

 

For anyone who has been in my classroom, you likely have realized that I am not going to ever be a supermodel.  Aside from being 40 years too old, and the wrong body type, I just don’t care about clothing, hair and make up enough to bother.  Incidentally, if you are curious, it is Sue writing, not John, but he probably would not be a super model either.  Aside from being the wrong gender, and the wrong body type, he really just doesn’t care enough about clothing, hair or make up to bother either.  Which brings me to a thought about our dogs.  How many of our dogs are being asked to do jobs they just don’t care about?

Training is the way that we acquire skills and it doesn’t matter if you are a human, a dog or a dolphin, skills are important.  In theory I have the skills needed to be a supermodel; I can walk, and wear clothes and if pressed, I can sit around while someone plays with my hair and puts make up on me.  Maybe I don’t have the fine tuned strut that a model needs, but I can wear clothing, and I can walk, so what is preventing me from being a super model?  Opportunity?  Nope.  I just don’t have the patience for the work!  I would need a great deal of training and incentive to do that and you would have a very hard time convincing me that the work is relevant to my wellbeing.

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This is just not me! I would not be happy doing this type of work. Sometimes we ask our dogs to do work that they don’t understand or like. We should ask ourselves if this is actually a good idea. Copyright: fashionstock / 123RF Stock Photo

So what about our dogs?  You will hear me say over and over again that trained dogs get to do more, and that we should be willing to teach our dogs to do different things, so why not take up whatever sport the handler wishes?  Recently, one of our instructors came to me to let me know that she had pulled out of one of our advanced classes, not because she and her dog were not learning things but rather because her dog was not enjoying the work.  “My dog is doing this to please me, but she doesn’t actually like it” was the message I got.  And good for the handler in recognizing that.

There are behaviours that I want every dog of mine to learn, regardless of how they feel about it; coming when called, not dragging me down the street, allowing the vet to examine them and lying down and staying for instance.  These are the skills that allow our dogs to live successfully with us, but they are not their job.  Have you thought about what your dog’s job might be?  Many of us come to obedience classes because that is what we are supposed to do with our dogs, and then slot them into the jobs we want them to do without much more thought than that. 

The problem with this is that many of our dogs are not actually interested in doing the work we wish them to do.  As a behaviour consultant this is a daily frustration, as the Good Dog students probably all know.  Consider what happens when we breed a dog to herd sheep 8 hours a day, and we expect that he is going to enjoy sitting on the couch day in and day out without any exercise.  What might happen?  Might that dog begin to engage in behaviours such as racing around the house and barking at traffic going by? 

Many of my students want their dogs to participate in sports such as rally or agility and for most dogs, they really get into that.  Some dogs don’t though.  Some dogs prefer things like nosework, or tracking.  When we put together our advanced classes, some of our students try and take as many of them as they can, and while we encourage everyone to give each class a try, it is really important to stay tuned in to your dog to discover which of these classes make you both happy. 

All this preamble is probably bringing you to the point of asking yourself what to do if your dog doesn’t want to do the one thing that is really important to you?  What do you do when you love agility and your dog just doesn’t like it?  Or maybe the only thing that matters to you to do with your dog is hiking and your dog just doesn’t like to go out in anything other than the ideal weather?

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Agility is a sport that many different dogs like, but even in such a middle of the road sport, there are dogs who don’t think this is fun. It is important to listen to our dog’s preferences especially as we ask them to perform more and more difficult or advanced work! Copyright: mackland / 123RF Stock Photo

The first thing I like to do is to is to try and figure out why the dog doesn’t want to engage in the behaviour.  I once had a client who purchased a husky to go and run with him.  As it turned out, we happened to have a very hot summer when he was just the right age to start running at about 18 months.  The husky learned very quickly that running gear meant that he was going to become hot and uncomfortable.  The husky was no dummy!  He learned that running was uncomfortable so he didn’t like running..  He LOVED to run, but not with the owner or on leash.  The only thing we had to do to change the activity was to choose running times when the weather was cooler.  By taking the dog’s comfort into account, we were able to teach him to like the activity.  As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every dog who was uncomfortable in the desired activity, I would be a whole lot richer! 

Sometimes the dog is behaviourally unsuited to the work that the owner wants to do.  Recently I saw a post on a hunting list I follow.  The person on the list wanted a dog to go duck hunting with, but his wife wanted a German Shepherd.  The person asking the question wanted to know how good German Shepherds might be at duck hunting.  As it happened, I once had a German Shepherd who was pretty decent at fetching ducks.  He enjoyed it and he was technically good at it, but there were a few problems.  Firstly, he got a LOT of water in his ears.  There is a really good reason why retrievers ALL have dropped ears!  Secondly, once he was wet, it took a long time for him to dry off and if I had asked him to retrieve in the late fall when goose hunting usually happens, he would have gotten very wet and cold and likely he would not have thought that retrieving was quite that much fun.  Even though he was good at retrieving, including in water, he much preferred to do tracking.

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This dog is big enough to pick up a goose and carry it and he has enough coat to tolerate the kind of weather in which goose hunting happens. He should also like to swim, and be tolerant of gun shots to be good at this work. In other words, this is a job for a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, but likely not for a Yorkshire Terrier! Copyright: schlag12 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sometimes something happens during training that makes the activity you want to do more difficult for your dog.  If you keep changing your mind about the behaviours you want when preparing do to an activity, the activity itself can become very frustrated.  I did this to one of my dogs early in my obedience career.  I kept changing how I was approaching training with this particular dog, and ended up just confusing the dog.  The dog got to the point where she was confused, annoyed and frustrated and just really didn’t enjoy obedience competitions.  I had a coach who noticed that I was creating frustration and we were able to work through it however, if I had persisted I might have eventually caused much more damage to the relationship I had with that dog.  We went on to have a great relationship once I straightened out my training program.

If an activity with a dog is really important to you, consider that BEFORE you get the dog and choose a dog who is going to start out with an aptitude and an interest in that activity.  There is a reason that we usually choose hounds for trailing, and herding dogs for rounding up sheep.  These dogs have been bred for a long time to do that work, and allowing the dogs to do what they were bred to do helps a lot. 

If you already have a dog and he doesn’t like doing the activity, you may want to either do less of the activity, or stop doing it altogether.  If you have a dog who does a lot of things they really like, and you only ask the dog to do something you like that the dog doesn’t some dogs might be willing to “play the game” to humour you if you don’t ask him to do the activity too often.  The key is take your canine partner into consideration, and like the trainer at our facility, choose activities that both you and your dog will enjoy.

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

FOOD

Dogs love food.  Well, mostly dogs love food.  Food is such a contentious issue.  People don’t always like to use food in training, and often even when people do use food, they either don’t use it effectively or they struggle with a dog who doesn’t want to take treats.  In the training hall we often see people making all sorts of food errors, so it is time to write a blog about how to use food.

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Most dogs really love food and spend a lot of time thinking about it. When food isn’t working in training, there are often things we can do to help!

The first issue we see is the “switcheroo”.  The switcheroo happens when a dog hits early adolescence and growth slows down.  Most families get a young puppy and are astounded at how many calories that little perpetual motion machine can suck back.  Let’s say that a pup is 3kg when he comes home, and he is eating one scoop of dog food in total each day.  Within 6 weeks that puppy is now 10kg, and eating three scoops of dog food each day!  Skip forward another two months and the puppy is 20kg and eating five scoops a day, and then 8 weeks more and he is 30kg and eating 7 scoops a day.  This brings our pupster to about 7 and a half months of age and all of a sudden Fido stops eating.  In a panic, the average family goes out and spends a pile of money on a different bag of dog food and Fido resumes eating.  A week or so later, Fido goes on strike again, and the family spends more money on a third brand of food.  Fido resumes eating and two weeks later goes on strike.  At about this point, Fido who should be 35kg is a solid 40kg, and has become a picky eater, and the client tells me in class that Fido won’t work for food.

So what is really happening in the “switcheroo”?  Often what is happening is that Fido has stopped growing and doesn’t need 7 scoops of dog food!  When you change dog foods, novelty will get Fido to eat again, but he doesn’t really need all the extra calories, so a week or two later, he self limits his food and you worry that he isn’t eating enough.  You switch again and the novelty entices him to eat for a bit and then he hits another point where the calories are just too much and he stops eating again. 

So what happens to food training when the old “switcheroo” is at play?  Often the dog stops wanting to work for food because he is already getting far too many calories in his bowl.  The first thing that I do is check with the family to make sure that there is nothing going on that would indicate the need for a vet visit.  I do a quick visual inspection of the dog and feel his ribs to see what his body score is.  The easy way to tell what your dog’s body score is would be to first feel your dog’s ribs and then find the part of your hand that is most similar to your dog’s ribs.  Use the pictures below to determine if your dog is overweight.  If your dog is overweight, but everything else is normal; he is drinking and exercising and toileting normally, then the first thing I would do would be to feed a bit less food in his bowl.  Dogs love to eat, but they are also usually really good at self regulating when they get overweight and then they get fussy about the treats they want for training.

Usually with an adolescent dog who has had several different foods because he has become picky, we see his appetite normalize and his willingness to work for regular food return when we remove some of the calories from the bowl.  This is the easiest situation to resolve when it comes to food and training.  Once you figure out how much your dog should be eating, take the total amount for the day and divide it by three.  Feed 1/3 at breakfast, 1/3 at dinner and save 1/3 for training class.  Let’s look at my German Shepherd Eco as an example. 

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There are so many options when it comes to feeding your dog and it can be tempting to just change foods if your dog is not eating reliably. If your dog is already eating a quality diet, consider trying decreasing the quantity of food that you are putting in the bowl before changing the diet. If your dog is not on a good diet or if they have a medical issue, you should talk to your vet before changing your dog’s diet.

When I got Eco at 7 and a half weeks of age he ate a whopping 2/3 cup of kibble each day.  Total.  By the time he was 12 weeks he was eating 1 ½ cups, and at 16 weeks he was eating 2 ½ cups.  His intake steadily increased over the weeks and months until at 7 months he was about 40kg and was eating a total of 12 cups a day divided into four meals, and he was a lean, mean fast moving doggy machine.  I remember thinking at this age that I sure hoped he would slow down soon as I was going to go broke feeding this dog!  Predictably at about 8 months he started to skip a meal.  That meant that all of a sudden, he went from eating 12 cups a day reliably to eating 9.  Whew!  That was cheaper!  I started to feed three meals a day, but instead of feeding three cups per meal, I fed 2 cups per day and kept 3 cups aside for training.  At about ten months of age, Eco started to pretty reliably skip one of his three meals each day, so I took another three cups of food out of his daily ration, which brought us down to a much more reasonable 6 cups per day, and divided that into three, making 2 cups per serving, Eco went to two regular meals and two cups set aside for school.  By the time Eco was four he was normally eating about 4 cups of food a day, and just got a few treats in class.  Mostly in class at four, he would work for play.

The next thing I have seen in class is the dog who will only work for ultra high value treats.  A number of things can be at play there.  The first of them is that when the dog is very stressed or overwhelmed, he cannot eat.  This should not be a surprise; the same happens to people too.  Consider what it might be like to be in a car accident and then have someone offer you a nice dinner.  Most of us would find that situation too stressful to allow us to enjoy eating.  The same thing can happen when the dog is extremely excited, and that is also true for us.  Most of us don’t feel like eating when we are engaged in something like riding a rollercoaster.

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Both of these ladies are really excited. One of them is happy about her excitement and the other lady is a little more concerned. Neither of these ladies would probably want to eat a sandwich if I were to offer them one, because when you are really excited, you are not really interested in food!

Other things can contribute to dogs only wanting to take high value treats too.  When your dog comes to class overweight, they are going to be really picky about what they will take as treats.  Similarly, if he comes to class right after eating a large meal, he will be willing to take dessert class treats, but not lower value treats.  One thing that people often try is to completely deprive their dogs before class.  This can backfire too; often dogs who have been deprived enough can be so deeply focused on any food at all that they cannot even think.  It is far better to feed more sensibly, and come to class with a dog who is neither overweight nor completely deprived. 

Dogs definitely have preferences, and there is a lot of value to knowing what your dogs prefers.  I have worked with dogs who do not like liver and making a dog take a treat he doesn’t want works against you as a trainer, even if it is a treat you want your dog to like or if it is a treat you think your dog will like.  I have also worked with dogs who like really unusual things like cooked squash, raw celery or blueberries.  When I have a dog with strong preferences, I often rank the treats.  When I know for instance that a dog likes liver best, and then rollover and then cheese and then bread and finally kibble.  I will sometimes take some time to teach the dog to take lower value treats.  Working in a low distraction environment I will offer the dog his lowest value item.  If he takes the treat, I reward him with the next value treat.  In this case, I will offer kibble.  If the dog takes a piece of kibble, then he gets a piece of bread.  I then offer the dog another piece of kibble.  Most dogs will look longingly at the bread.  Hold out.  If the dog takes the kibble, he gets another treat but THIS time, he gets the next level up; so I would feed him some cheese.  Next I will offer him another piece of kibble.  He will likely look out for another piece of cheese.  Hold out.  When he takes his kibble, he will get the next thing on his list; in this case the rollover.  Then offer more kibble again.  When the dog takes the kibble he gets his top value treat; in this case the liver.  I keep working with the dog offer kibble to get a better reward.  I keep working on this until the dog will willingly take a low value treat regardless of the situation, in the hopes of getting a better treat.

Perhaps the most common error I see in the training hall is reinforcing every single behaviour without any differential between good iterations and not so good iterations.  If you ask your dog to sit and he lies down, and you give him a treat because he did SOMETHING, anything, you are in fact teaching him that trying random behaviours is really valuable, but it doesn’t teach your dog that when you say sit, you mean sit, or when you say down, you mean down.  You can actually use treats very constructively to teach your dog the difference between a really, really valuable behaviour such as a fast, accurate sit, when you ask the first time, and a slow reluctant sloppy sit.  To teach the difference between a fast snappy sit and a slow casual sit, you can simply choose to reward the best sits to reward with the favourite treat, and then reward the sloppy undesired sits with a low value treat.  Dogs can learn really quickly that a good sit gets a good treat, and a poor sit gets a less preferred treat.

 

Dogs also need to learn about self control around food before you start training.  If your dog thinks that if he can see the treat, he can have the treat, then he is going to have a harder time learning to get the treats by doing something to earn them.  I like to start all training by teaching the dog to control himself around food (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/11/12/the-dog-controls-the-dog/ ).  Once your dog has learned not to snatch treats as soon as he sees them, you can start to use your treats much more effectively.

As with many tools, treats are a good servant but a poor master.  When used well, food is perhaps the best way that you can teach a dog.  When used poorly you can teach your dog all sorts of bad habits. 

FOOD

PRO SOCCER

If you are reading this, it is more likely that you are a dog owner or trainer, than a professional soccer player.  You might be an athlete, but you are unlikely to be in the top 10% of physical fitness of all humans on the planet.  You might be, but it is unlikely.  I want you to just take a moment and evaluate your own level of fitness.  Are you a typical North American, fit enough to run for the bus, or run for mayor, but not really a marathon runner?  Are you a weekend warrior, who plays hard on the weekends, but sits at your desk all week long?  Are you a gym rat, making it out to the gym at least 3 days a week?  Or are you amongst the elite athletes who seriously exercise each and every day, come what may, even on vacation?  Unless you are an honest member of this last group, I am betting that dropping you into the middle of a professional soccer game, 90 minutes of aerobic intensity, would not be much fun!

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Are you a soccer fan? Do you dream of getting on the field yourself? ARe you actually fit enough and skilled enough to really enjoy 90 minutes in the company of these guys? I think this is how many of our dogs feel when they are dumped into a play group where they cannot escape, and they may not be able to keep up. They may cope, but coping isn’t the same thing as having a great time. Copyright: tnn103eda / 123RF Stock Photo

Oh, the first few minutes might be a thrill, especially if you are a soccer fan.  But a whole game would likely be exhausting, overwhelming and possibly frightening.  Those guys run REALLY fast!  And if you run into one of them, you are likely going to be flattened.  And if you have a coach on the side lines encouraging you to play harder throughout the whole game, you are likely going to feel really pressured.

Maybe a soccer practice would be more fun for you.  But wait!  Being immersed in a group of highly fit, world class athletes who know their work can be pretty overwhelming too.  Especially if they are all familiar with one another, know what the other guy will do and already have all their social pecking orders worked out.

This I think is often what occurs to the dogs that get tossed into unstructured play groups, especially in confined areas as you might find in the typical daycare.  If you have ten dogs who are already involved with the group, and you add in number 11, the eleventh dog is not really likely to be successful.  Dog number 11 will have to be equally fit and socially savvy to make the cut right away.  If the eleventh dog is intolerant of other dogs being rude, he is going to pick fights.  If he is the kind of dog who harasses other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games, he is going to struggle.  If the eleventh dog is either more or less fit than the rest of the group he is either going to tire and get frustrated, or he is going to harass the other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games. 

Sometimes play groups have a human who can make matters either better or worse.  If the human is very savvy about play, they can intervene and pull out the trouble makers and help them to self modulate.  Sometimes interventions back fire though, especially if the human thinks they need to pin the dog to the ground to make the point.  Pulling a dog who is causing trouble out should be gentle and allow the dog to decrease his arousal and then re-integrate.  Pinning the dog may work, or it may create collar shyness in the dog, who then learns to dart away from the people running the group.  Other times, the humans can make matters worse by doing things like throwing objects and creating competition between members of the group, or encouraging shy dogs to get in over their heads. 

There is almost nothing I enjoy more than watching dogs play.  I love to see them cavort and interact, and large groups are much more fun than small ones, however, there are some caveats about this; firstly, I prefer to have mostly trained dogs that I can control with a solid off leash down, even when things get really active.  When we have this sort of a group, I like to hike with the dogs.  When dogs and people walk together, we see a lot more normal chasing and then running together sort of interactions.  We don’t see the puppy wrestling that people enjoy, but for the most part our dogs are not puppies either.  When a puppy is integrated into an established group of dogs who are hiking, it doesn’t matter so much if there are fitter or less fit individuals because the fitter dogs have space to run farther.  And the harassment we see in an unstructured group in a confined area doesn’t happen either, because the dogs can get away from that if they aren’t having fun.  If the overall arousal of the group gets too high, we can ask the trained dogs to lie down and that solves about 90% of the problems we see. 

You may be thinking to yourself “but what about daycare groups” or “but I want to send my dog to a crate free boarding facility”.  As with many things there are good alternatives and less good choices out there.  Before sending your dog to such an activity, spend a few hours there watching how the staff interact with the dogs.  Here are some of the issues we think you should consider:

Are dogs turned loose in an enclosure without supervision? 

If the group is a long term group of stable individuals, this may work out.  When we think long term, we think of groups that might live in a family.  When we had 5 or more dogs who lived with us for six months or more, they might get turned into the yard together alone, but only if they were really familiar with one another and polite together when we were supervising.  We didn’t just add a dog to our family and hope for the best.  The dogs had to show us first that they were safe to be together outside unattended.  When dogs are turned loose without supervision and the group changes every day or even every few hours, there is a high potential for things to turn out badly.  We don’t recommend sending your dog to a facility where the dogs are not supervised by people who know what they are doing.

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This interaction could end well, or it could end in a disaster. The chain collars that these dogs wear are easy for teeth to get caught in and then the friendly game of neck grabbing can go badly wrong. If there are no people there to help, this is a risky interaction that can go badly quickly. Copyright: madrabothair / 123RF Stock Photo

Is there only one person on site? 

This is one of the worse ideas we see on a regular basis.  When a facility is run by one individual, what is the plan for the dogs in the event of an emergency?  People often don’t think of the worst case scenario, and the fact is that something CAN and might go wrong.  Years ago, when we did board training, I was alone at home with our three dogs and a guest dog.  The guest dog had an anaphylactic reaction and stopped breathing.  Luckily, the three resident dogs could stay home loose together without an issue and I was able to carry the lifeless dog to the car and get him to the vet in time to save his life.  If I had had more dogs or dogs who could not be left home and loose together, the guest dog might have died. 

If you are paying to send your dog to a day care or other play group type of activity, you should be sure that there is more than one person on site, especially when there are many dogs who don’t know one another.  There is no hard and fast rule for how many dogs should be there for each staffer, but we know of facilities that have 25 or more dogs on site and only one staffer available.  This is dangerous for the staff and for your dog!

Does the facility have a plan for what to do if a dog fight breaks out?

You may be thinking to yourself “surely they would not accept an aggressive dog” however, a fight can break out with even the nicest, easiest going dogs.  I saw a fight break out one time in a dog park when one dog caught a tooth in the collar of another dog, and then both dogs panicked and started to scream.  A third dog jumped in when the screaming started.  The third dog was not caught on anything, but it was really difficult to get these three dogs separated because you could not tell exactly what was going on.  Two of the dogs had to get stitches, and one of those dogs ended up staying in the veterinary hospital for several days. 

Any place where dogs are being left loose together should at least have a can of compressed air or citronella to break up scuffles and they should also have break sticks and a catch pole available.  Staff should also be trained to use these tools. 

What does the facility look like?

Many years ago, a dog of mine was killed while in the care of a veterinarian when the tech opened a crate door and the dog got out of the clinic.  The clinic had a habit of leaving all the clinic doors open to air out the facility at the end of the day.  Every door between the kennel room and the street was wide open and my dog left and was struck in the road and killed.  As the owner of a dog training facility, my building is fitted with doors and gates and we include door safety training in our obedience program.  Too often I have seen images of day cares on the net where the dogs could easily get over a short flimsy gate, or where the gate doesn’t close completely.  If the gate cannot contain your dog, don’t leave your dog there!

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This is a very nice looking facility but that is a lot of dogs in a pretty small enclosure. On the plus side, the footing looks safe, there is shade and the fence is high enough to contain the dogs. The dogs all look fairly relaxed, and they don’t seem to be targeting one another; likely because the person who is supervising is doing a good job. Copyright: jb325 / 123RF Stock Photo

How are groups separated and sorted?

Puppies are baby dogs!  Any dog under 16 weeks can probably be turned loose in a group of other puppies the same age with very little risk.  After 16 weeks though, there are definite age related issues that dogs face.  Adolescent dogs can be pushy and bully younger, smaller or weaker dogs; it is the nature of adolescents to do that.  Adolescents may also harass adults in the hope of getting them to play.  It is best if dogs are sorted behaviourally.  Puppies under 16 weeks can be left in fairly unstructured areas (you will see that they spend an awful lot of time sleeping if you do this though!).  Young adolescents should be sorted by speed, playfulness and tolerance into groups that allow them to enjoy one another.  There are definite play types; dogs who ramble and roam are not going to enjoy chasing one another much.  Dogs who race and chase don’t enjoy those who wrestle so much.  And adult dogs may not play so much as they did when they were puppies or adolescents.  Geriatric dogs should not be left in a group of young fast dogs either; it just isn’t fair!

You may be asking at this point if I think that there is any place for day cares.  I do, but you have to choose carefully.  Know the staff.  Know what their protocols are for trouble shooting.  Be aware of their plans.  Get to know the staff and the people you will be asking to care for your dog.  And don’t be afraid to just skip the daycare and go for a hike; consider what it might be like from your dog’s point of view to be in the set up you are considering.  It is very possible that it would be a lot like getting dropped into the middle of a pro soccer game and although you would come home tired, you likely would not come home very happy.

PRO SOCCER

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

FIRST published April 2013

Imagine for a moment that a good friend has died.  Someone you love dearly and you are close to, someone you could call at two in the morning and they would come give you gas money to get home if your wallet was stolen.  Someone who has shared moments and hours and even days with you.  Someone you love.  In the days following your friend’s passing, you pull up pictures on your phone, and you fill the vase she gave you with flowers from your garden, and you grieve.  Sometimes, you cry.

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How do you feel when you go to a funeral?  Do your emotions influence your behaviour?  Don’t you think that your dog’s emotions might influence his?  Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kzenon’>kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

A few days later, you go to the funeral home to say your public goodbyes.  There is a casket and dozens of baskets of flowers, and a picture of you and your friend, nestled in amongst so many other good warm memories shared by the community who shared your friend’s life.  You are sad and there is an empty part inside of you where you used to hold your friend, and it feels like the memories aren’t enough to fill that hole.  When your friend’s sister gets up to share the eulogy, she mentions you, and you start to cry.

Imagine now, that the person who is sitting beside you in the funeral home looks at you and says “Just stop it.  I HATE crying.  Don’t.”  How does that make you feel?  Sit on this reflection for a moment.  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel good about the person sitting beside you?  Do you want to share tea and sandwiches after the service with this person?  Do you want to trust your memories of your friend with this person?

Let’s rewind one paragraph now and imagine that the person beside you quietly and calmly reaches into their bag and pulls out a hankie and gently gives it to you.  You reach for the hankie, and he offers you his hand to hold.  With one hand, you wipe your eyes and with the other you hold hands with your friend.  Deeply sad, you lean in and your seat mate puts his arm around you and holds you close.  Assuming this is someone who knows you well enough for physical contact to be appropriate, how do you feel now?

I have seen hundreds of dogs in our training hall.  Many of these dogs are happy, but there are a ton of dogs who come through our doors who are traumatized and fearful, and who are expressing their feelings with growls, snaps, snarls, whining and recently one poor dog who shivered and shook for an entire hour while I took a history.  The thing that amazes me, day in and day out, is that these dogs keep hoping that the people they live with will see that they need help, and offer them the equivalent of a hankie and a hug.

It is well known in behaviour consulting circles that owners take a long time to seek help for their dogs.  One of the biggest reasons for this is that if the behaviour problem isn’t a problem for the owner, there isn’t a lot of impetus to get help.  The dog cannot dial the phone and call for help, and neither can he send me an email to describe his problems.  Often the dog has been doing everything short of biting in order to get attention, but they aren’t being heard.

When people come into my training hall, they often tell me how difficult it is to live with a dog who is barking, lunging, growling, snarling, pulling, and chasing.  I am often told about methods that have been tried to stop the undesired behaviour.  These people really care about their dogs, but they often don’t understand that the behaviour the dogs are exhibiting means.  The fact is that dogs don’t act randomly.  Behaviour is always functional on some level.  Consider what it might be like to behave truly randomly.  If you were to randomly stop reading this paragraph, and get up out of your chair and twirl around the room and go outside and come back in and jump as high in the air as you are able and roll on the ground and pick up a pen and turn on and off your computer, how would that feel?

Random behaviour is rare.  When people behave truly randomly, it is usually an indication of something being wrong with them.  When I took animal behaviour in university, the professor talked about an animated Bugs Bunny toy he did an experiment with.  He set the toy off a thousand times, and recorded the “behaviour” of the toy.  He found that 30% of the time, the toy gave a predictable “What’s up Doc”, and then there were nine other phrases that he uttered on a variable schedule.  It turned out that the chip that ran this toy was set on pretty tight parameters, which gave a specific number of repetitions within a thousand repetitions.  Ironically, we know that there are two things about this toy that keep kids playing with it and drive parents nuts.  From the kid’s perspective, they keep triggering the toy to get the rare and uncommon response.  From the parent’s perspective they have to put up with ‘What’s up Doc” 300 out of every thousand repetitions.  This random behaviour is annoying and frustrating beyond the interest of animal behaviour professors who want to figure out how often a behaviour happens, and the kid who really wants to hear Bugs say something truly novel.

The other thing about random behaviour is that it is out of context; like the Bugs toy, the last response doesn’t predict the next response.  Living with someone who is truly random would be really annoying.  Living with a dog who is truly random would also be really annoying.  Most of the dogs we meet and live with are actually very predictable.  There is an easy little experiment that helps us to understand this.  Spend a half an hour watching your dog.  Watching Eco right now now, sleeping on the floor beside me, I can sample every minute and say what he is doing and what he is going to do.  When I get up out of my chair, he will lift his head and if I leave the room he will wake up completely and follow me.  When I sit back down at my computer, he will wander around the room and check out the water bowl, the toy box and the window in the door and then he will lie down again and go back to sleep.  He is very predictable and that is part of what allows me to change his behaviour.  His behaviour is not random and it never happens in isolation from his environment.

Knowing this, and understanding that dogs are deeply emotional animals, allows us to modify problem behaviours quite easily, but there is one more piece to the puzzle.  Skills are under the direct control of the outcomes.  Eco standing up and following me happens because he likes the outcome of being with me.  Eco barking at the door happens when he is startled and alarmed.  The barking doesn’t happen because of the outcome but rather because of the input, and the input is emotional.  Could I change the barking behaviour through the application of pain?  Sure.  But it wouldn’t change how Eco felt about people coming to the door, so treating this as a skill might be more like being at a funeral and being told sternly to stop crying.  I could also change the behaviour by getting him below threshold and pairing the situation with something pleasant.  The difference being how well I understand what is going into the behaviour to begin with.

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Giving treats to your dog can sometimes serve to increase behaviours, but often it can serve a different purpose. When your dog is concerned about something, you can give him a bunch of freebies, and he will relax and feel good about the thing he was worried about. This dog may be learning that having his picture taken is a safe and fun activity to do. The sit may be happening incidentally; the important part to know is that he will be relaxed and happy about having his picture taken. Copyright: limonzest / 123RF Stock Photo

A question that is often asked is if feeding the bark will make more barking.  Let’s go back to the funeral example.  Which would make you cry more; someone who was supportive and brought you a cup of tea and sandwiches, or someone who told you to quit it?  When barking is emotionally based (which is more often than not), then removing and feeding is going to help the dog to regain his composure and improve his behaviour.  When you do this often enough, you develop in the dog a pattern of barking and then seeking you out.  When this happens, the dog is moving out of the emotional state and into the operant state, or the state where he can control his behaviour.  Much like at a funeral, if I can get the person who is crying to have a cup of tea, they are often able to calm down and reflect more effectively, and then they can chat comfortably, often about the very thing they may be upset about.

A common tactic when dealing with dogs who are emotional is to give them something else to do.  If a dog reacts to something in his environment, then in theory, if he is busy, he won’t be worried about that thing.  There are two problems with this tactic.  The first of them is that if the dog is upset enough, then he is not going to be terribly compliant.  In these situations people start to get pushy and demanding about their dog’s behaviour and it is for exactly this reason that many people turn to aversives in their training; they are asking more than the dog is ready to give them in a given circumstance.  For instance, making a dog look you in the eyes so that he stops looking for the frightening things that can creep up on him will only make things worse; he may stop looking but he won’t stop worrying.  In this particular case, you rob the dog of the ability to try behaviours other than the undesired one because he is glued on the new behaviour of looking at you, and while he is looking at you, there is always the risk that his trigger will surprise him out of the corner of his eye.  This is the second issue with this tactic; you may have compliance, but the dog is still worrying about what might come out and surprise him.

When I was out and about this weekend, I met a woman who told me that her friend had been to every other trainer in town.  She told me that this woman was ruining her dog by feeding it when the dog is clearly misbehaving.  The popular thought is that if we use food, we can only use it as a reinforcer to get more of a particular behaviour.  When you put this into the context of a funeral, and what you would do if someone was upset, it becomes really clear that much behaviour is motivated by emotion and that being clear with your learner does not only mean reinforcing, or punishing behaviours or putting them on extinction.  Sometimes, perhaps even often, it means addressing the underlying emotions before even thinking about the behaviours at all.

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Yes go ahead.

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

  1. Thanks..

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

No. Thanks. Bye.

Thank you for calling BB & I Mike.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

NEVER TURN YOUR BACK!

Originally posted May 2013

Controlling unwanted behaviours is something that drives a good number of my clients to see me and more and more I am seeing clients engaging in a tactic to try and control behaviours that they don’t like. The tactic is to turn your back on a dog who is misbehaving. I even had one client tell me that this is the tactic they use with children who are being naughty. The idea is that when the learner cannot see your face, he is upset that he is not getting attention while he is misbehaving. Nice in theory, but there are some problems with this idea.

The very first problem is the premise that dogs or children will do something they ought not do because it gets them attention and negative attention is better than no attention at all. This points to a whole raft of problems in how we apply behaviour modification, to dogs, to children and even to adults we interact with. If behaving in a desired way gets you nothing, why bother modulating your behaviour at all? Why shouldn’t the learner just behave the way that makes them happy? If there is no benefit to changing your behaviour, then why would you? The fact is that if you are not attending to the behaviours that you want, then behaviours that you don’t want will creep in.

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Actually…you don’t have eyes on the back of your head.  All too often I see students in class turning their back on their dog when the dog does something he ought not do.  You cannot train a dog you cannot see!  Photo copyright Sue Alexander 2016

When the learner is clear about the consequences for undesired behaviours, and unclear about the consequences for desired behaviours, then believe it or not, the learner may sometimes decide that the known outcome is a safer and better bet than the unknown outcome. Certainty is much easier for some learners than uncertainty. This means that if you set out a consequence for an undesired behaviour, and the learner doesn’t find that consequence unpleasant, then there is no reason for the learner to not do the behaviour you don’t want. Let me get a bit more concrete here for a moment. If the dog likes jumping up on you and doesn’t mind your back being turned then turning your back isn’t going to stop the jumping. The dog jumps, you turn away and then the dog jumps again. Not a big deal from the dog’s perspective, so he can go on jumping up without any concerns. At least not for him.

Some dogs jump up because they want attention and when jumping up doesn’t work the first time because you have turned away, they can then grab clothing at will. Now we have a situation that is outright dangerous, and often people will attempt to counter cue at this point. So the dog jumps up, the person turns away, the dog grabs and the person says “off” or “leave it”. If the dog jumps off as eventually he must, then the owner may attend to the dog and create a string of behaviours that are reinforced. Now the dog is left thinking that the way we want him to interact is to go through this sequence of jumping up, turning away, cuing and then attending to the dog. Sometimes though, instead of this sequence what happens is that the dog jumps up, you turn, he grabs clothing and he gets a great game of tug going. Tug, tug, tug, rip! And now the owner is really upset, but the dog doesn’t know why.

Turning away from a naughty dog or child just makes it impossible to train because you cannot mark the behaviours you like. You cannot mark them because you cannot see them and if you cannot see them, then your marker is never going to come at the right time. And what is a marker? It is a signal to the dog of a consequence that is coming. If for instance my dog jumps up, I mark that behaviour with “that’s enough”, before his feet touch me. If he gets right off without touching me with his feet, then I will mark that by saying “thank you” and attend to him with attention, toys or treats. If he doesn’t, I give a second marker and say “too bad” and gently remove him to his crate.

In many families when mom turns her back, the children know that they can misbehave and then scape goat one of the weaker children in the group. Dogs do similar things; they take advantage of the turned back to get into things they know they ought not get into. Turning your back is at least going to provide your dog with the chance to make the wrong choice and at most put him in a position of learning that you cannot mark his behaviour and tell him what the outcome is going to be.

This past year, I met a dog who showed an extreme version of what happens when you turn your back on a dog who is jumping up. He had been thrown out of his doggy day care because he was running behind the staff, and jumping up and tearing off their shirts and then running around the day care playing tug with the employees clothing. With multiple dogs on site chaos predictably ensued. This behaviour became so dangerous that in the home the dog knocked over a child and ripped several items of clothing.  I have actually met several dogs who do this, and they have all had handlers turning their back when they jumped up.  Understanding how this developed, we were able to start interrupting the behaviours creatively and non confrontationally. The sad thing is that the dog now has a bite record and isn’t allowed to come back to day care.

When we are trying to resolve a behaviour problem there are a number of steps we need to take. First, we have to identify the problem behaviour. Let’s take jumping up as an example. We need to decide when the behaviour is a problem and when it stops and starts. The dog isn’t jumping up in his sleep, so it isn’t a problem then. You might be able to define the behaviour by saying that the dog approaches the person, and when he is just within arm’s reach, he raises his front feet off the floor and puts them on the person. Notice that there is a sequence to the behaviour; it isn’t a problem until he is close to the person he is going to jump on. This means that there is a window of opportunity to teach the dog to keep his paws to himself. The trainer has the chance to mark the approach either by saying thank your or yes or maybe by clicking and then by dropping a treat on the ground. Dropping treats is my best tactic for dogs who bounce up in your face because they cannot jump up and drop their head at the same time.

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Turning your back is not always intentional. Any time we disengage from the dog, we can get side tracked and the dog can do as he wishes. This dog has been taught what to do when his person is busy, so that she can disengage and depend on him to mind his manners. One of the mistakes I often see beginners make is disengaging from their puppy before they have taught the puppy what to do. Many dogs learn that they can bark or jump up when you are on the computer or the phone because you cannot do anything to change the behaviour! Copyright: redav / 123RF Stock Photo

Maybe though, you are faced with a really quick dog who charges in and you cannot get that marker or treat out fast enough. Maybe the dog is all the way up before you are ready. Then you can use a marker that says there will be a different outcome. I say “too bad” and either I go into a bathroom, or I gently take the dog and put him in a different place where I am not. In both situations, I have to be able to see the dog in order to be able to mark when the behaviour is happening and when it is over.

If you are not able to tell when behaviours are happening, then you are not training. When the consequence of the behaviour is that the dog loses your presence altogether, either by you leaving or by him being confined, then there is a discrete predictable outcome. When you turn your back, the outcome is ambiguous and potentially dangerous. Don’t turn your back on a learner who is doing things that are dangerous. It isn’t safe for you and it often helps to develop much more dangerous behaviours in your dog.

NEVER TURN YOUR BACK!

I DON’T NEED TO SEE MISBEHAVIOUR

I work with dogs with behaviour problems every day. Some of the dogs I work with have bitten people. Some of them have attacked other dogs. Some of them leap at passersby when walking on leash. I see dogs with separation anxiety, with inappropriate elimination issues, who chase lights and shadows and who snap at invisible flies. I see dogs who don’t sleep and who eat things they ought not, and who do a wide variety of very strange behaviours. Over the years I have seen dogs who charge and lunge, who bite, who target the other dogs in the house, who have lunged at me, who have knocked me over, who have targeted another dog in my classroom and who have lost control over their bladders when I have looked at them. There is a really important thing to know about my job. I know what misbehaviour looks like. I don’t need to see your dog show misbehaviour in order to help you. You may wonder why.

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The coach probably won’t play this player until he is off crutches and completely healed. The same is true of a dog with a behaviour problem; we don’t want to re-injure your dog by triggering the problem over and over again. Copyright: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo

The very first thing to know is that triggering the behaviour problem you are experiencing is not good for your dog. It is not in your dog’s best interest for me to see your dog misbehave. If your dog has a serious behaviour problem, every time he practices that behaviour, the behaviour becomes stronger, and that is not what I want when I am helping a family. There is a medical analogy that I like to use to help people to understand. Suppose that you had a broken leg. Every time you go to the doctor for a check up on your leg, would you expect your doctor to ask you to do something that would further injure your leg? Would you agree to jump up and down on your broken leg ten or eleven times to see how much it hurts? Would you expect your leg to ever actually heal properly if you keep re-injuring it?

Every time that you set your dog up to exhibit the undesired behaviour you have come to work on with me, you are re-injuring your dog. I don’t want your dog to get worse! I want your dog to get better. I look at resolving behaviour problems by starting from the point of doing no harm. I don’t want to make matters worse. If seeing your dog misbehaving were helpful, I would be in favour of allowing your dog make as many mistakes as possible but it doesn’t help. It really, really doesn’t help.

The next reason I don’t need to see your dog misbehave is that it often isn’t safe for me, for you, for your dog or for the dogs and people who are around you. If your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, it is really risky for other dogs for your dog to practice that behaviour. It is not safe for me if your dog is practicing being aggressive towards me! If your dog is aggressive towards me, and I have to do something to protect myself, your dog could be hurt. I don’t want to hurt your dog; that is not my job!

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If your dog bites me during a consult, I cannot help him. I am not wearing a bite suit to protect myself and if he bites me, I might hurt him protecting myself. It can be dangerous for me to see the problem behaviour. Copyright: mosheruzh / 123RF Stock Photo

The final and perhaps the most important reason to avoid triggering a problem behaviour is that I likely already know what it looks like. I have seen some very wild and woolly behaviour. I have seen a dog with seizure induced aggression; I don’t need to ever see that again. It was extremely dangerous to me and I don’t think the dog was having much fun either. I have seen various types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and that is so hard for the dog to endure. I have seen in person more fear aggressive dogs, defensively aggressive dogs, and confidently aggressive dogs than I care to count. I have seen dog to dog aggression and twice, I have seen dog fights so severe that both dogs nearly died. I have seen play, I have seen affiliative behaviour, I have seen fearful urination and defecation, I have seen leash aggression and I have seen resource guarding. After twenty five years of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have seen more problem behaviour than most pet owners will see in a lifetime. I don’t need to see most of this again, but if there is some reason for me to see a problem behaviour, I want to see it on video, retrospectively. For the very most part I don’t want to see the problem behaviour if I can avoid it.

This probably leaves many readers wondering how I can help if I don’t see the problem behaviour. First off, I want to know what the problem behaviour is, so I ask lots and lots of questions about the problem behaviour. Most people can tell me what I need to know after I ask the right questions to frame the problem. Once I have an idea of what the problem is, I need to know more details to start to help solve the problem. How much does the dog sleep? What does he eat? Is there something that happens right before the problem appears? Has the dog caused any injuries? How much exercise does the dog get and what kind of exercise is it? Who does the dog live with? Who does the dog play with? How is the dog’s health? Does the dog have any pain related issues?   When I know about as many of the contributing factors as I can find, I can start to formulate a plan to help the dog and their family.

The first thing I will do after taking a history from family members is develop a management plan to avoid the problem. As with my example of a broken leg, for a period of time, I don’t want the dog to be re-injured by being triggered by the things that disturb him. I think of your dog having an episode of bad behaviour as being like re-injuring a broken bone. If you do it often enough, you are going to create a permanent and potentially worse problem. If nothing else, your relationship with your dog is not going to be as good as it could be.

Management in behavioural terms simply means setting up a successful environment. This can be very straightforward to do sometimes, but often it can be tricky. When you are talking about a dog who is afraid of men in hats, you can usually avoid men in hats for a period of time while you work on the problem. This is much trickier when you cannot tell what triggers the undesired behaviour, and that is where I am often really helpful to my clients. I have years of experience coming up with unique and creative ways to prevent exposing your dog to the things that set him off.

When we are talking about problems such as house soiling, I often have a few cards up my sleeve that you may not have thought of; it isn’t just common sense even though simple solutions are often what works. Often, coming in with experience and fresh eyes can help me to develop a plan to meet your dog’s needs even though you may have already thought up a number of solutions of your own and yet still, I don’t need to see your dog making the error to help.

The next thing I want to do is to determine what is driving or motivating the problem behaviour. If your dog is toileting in the house, but only does it on days when he or she is asked to stay home alone for ten hours at a time, then what is motivating him is a full bladder. If you get someone to come in and toilet your dog half way through the day, then he won’t have a full bladder and won’t soil in the house. That is a simple example of the kind of problem solving I help my clients with.

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2309147_s This dog is showing us all his teeth and his tongue is retracted deep into his mouth. I know what this looks like! I even know what is most likely motivating him; he is guarding his stick. I don’t need to see your dog do the same thing in order to understand what resource guarding looks like or to help you help your dog! Copyright: cynoclub / 123RF Stock Photo

Some situations are more complex though. I have worked with dogs who are afraid of a myriad of things in their environments and the first step we have to take is to teach the dog that he is safe within his own environment. Once I have done that, we can start to expand his success puddle from within the house and yard to the street, the neighbourhood and then beyond. Sometimes the motivator behind the behaviour is medical; then I need to work with my client’s veterinarian to resolve the motivation. Sometimes it is hard to tell what the motivation is, and then I get to work like a detective solving a mystery to figure out how to help.

The final step in the work I do is to help you to teach your dogs the skills they need to succeed in their new reality. When we aren’t triggering the dog over and over again, and when we change what motivates the undesired behaviour, the next step is to examine what skills the dog needs to successfully navigate the situations that used to be a problem. Sometimes when I work with aggressive dogs the aggression is triggered by a specific triggers (such as men in hats) and it is motivated by fear (perhaps a man in a hat startled the dog when he was a puppy) and when we overcome those two components, we need to teach the dog what he should do instead of being aggressive.

By now you may be thinking “gee, your work sounds pretty straightforward” and to be completely honest you are not wrong, but I still hold the card of experience. I know how to evaluate the situation and what questions I need to ask to find out what the problem might be. I can recognize when the motivation that is driving the problem might be medical instead of behavioural. I know where to start when we attack the problem you have come to see me about. And I know what skills to teach your dog to give him tools to use in his tool box.   I also know that although it might be flashy, your dog’s life is not a TV show, so I don’t need to see him exhibit the undesired behaviour!

I DON’T NEED TO SEE MISBEHAVIOUR