COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles.  I love muzzles.  Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us.  In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised.  Do my dogs NEED the muzzles?  To be completely honest, I don’t know.  I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way!  My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.

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This is one of my dogs, D’fer, having his foot looked at. He had a very deep laceration and the vet needed to have a look. You can tell that he is pretty stoic by the look on his face, but he was willing to co-operate. He was wearing his muzzle not because I thought that he would bite the vet, but because I don’t want to take the chance that this could happen.

A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once.  When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him.  We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart.  The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily.  After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep.  If only I could hear his heart, I could help him.  I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped.  He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that.  Just the opposite.  I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on.  He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with.  His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease.  With treatment, he lived another 18 months.

The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite.  Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple.  My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick.  My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.

I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression.  I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog.  More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?”  The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog.  I am good, but I am not magic! 

Close up of a dog muzzled
This is a groomer’s muzzle. They are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and easy to fit. When teaching a dog to wear a muzzle, this kind of a muzzle can really help your dog to learn that wearing a muzzle is fun because it is easy to give treats through it.

When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel.  When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase.  More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for.  In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult.  I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know.  A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.

So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles?  I start early for sure!  When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space.  Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom.  When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth.  I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head.  The elastic should be fairly loose to start with.  And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle.  Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun.  If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days. 

Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle.  My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco (https://www.jafcomuzzles.com/ ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have.  I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front.  I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure.  From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened.  In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle. 

Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent.  You have to practice regularly.  In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays.  Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.

simple muzzle training
Here is my handout outlining how to get a dog started on muzzle training.

Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies.  Babies don’t like wearing shoes.  They don’t enjoy having their feet confined.  Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either!  If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so.  Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter.  That is a topic for a whole other blog though!

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

WHAT’S THE POINT?

For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling.  I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either.  I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point.  Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?

For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies.  The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on.  I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time.  If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.

Miniature Poodle Puppy
Teaching a young dog that click means treat and that they can control the click is an important part of foundational training, but clicking and treating hundreds of times would be tedious and is unnecessary.

Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months.  Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more!  Sit?  Got it.  Not worth the kibble any more!  This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms.  The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again.  The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?”  I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it.  At this point in training one of two things needs to happen.  Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog!  Both strategies are useful.

So let’s look at sit.  If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away.  It isn’t difficult.  I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this.  In the kitchen?  Yup.  The living room?  Yup.  The bathroom?  Oooohhh!  That one is trickier!  I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house.  Then I start to add in places outside.  Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park.  When I run out of places, I add in objects.  Can you sit on a mat?  A cushion?  That one is tricky!  A boulder? A stump?  A wall?  A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle?  The technical term for this process is generalizing.  I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts.  You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training. 

There are other ways of generalizing too.  Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it?  When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother?  Your daughter?  Your best friend?  Your trainer?  I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching.  I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.

Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?”  Why should he sit?  What if he doesn’t want to?  What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble?  I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it.  the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward.  This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context.  When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.

So how do we give context to behaviours?  Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch.  We start to put the behaviour into other activities.  Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it.  In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl.  The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal.  The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on.  The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog. 

Dog at summer
Once your dog knows how to sit, you should start asking him to do that in a wide variety of places and conditions. Just because he can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean that he will necessarily sit on the front lawn, in the park or at the vet’s. And just because he can sit on the floor doesn’t mean that he will sit on a mat, on a chair, on a stool or on a low wall. Generalizing the behaviour means that your dog will do the behaviour anywhere, anytime and no matter who asks him to do it!

We can go one better than that though.  We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly.  Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!).  The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities.  Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog. 

You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however.  If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t.  There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game.  You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use.  As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours.  Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise.  You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose.  When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner.  In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.

Cute little Shiba Inu dog sitting on doormat at home
When there is context to a behaviour, dogs are more willing to do the behaviour. Many dogs know that if they sit by the door, it is quite likely that someone will open the door for them. Once the dog has the context for the behaviour you need not reinforce the behaviour with a treat; the door opening is certainly a reward, however, it is also part of the communication that we share with our dogs as part of the activity, and this is all part and parcel of having a well trained dog. When he understands the behaviour in context and the behaviour is part of the formula we don’t need to reward it every single time.

You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog.  At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play.  We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions).  By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them. 

It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?”  Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

Every day when I go to work, I see people’s dogs who decide that I am more interesting than their handlers are.  It can be very frustrating to my clients when they are struggling with training their dog to do something and I approach and the dog will disengage from them and come to me.  It can seem like the dog just doesn’t care about what their family member might want, but really does care about what I think.  This can be incredibly frustrating for the dog owner.  Understanding what might be happening is really helpful.

I like to think of dogs as being the world’s best mathematicians.  When you get up in the morning and you ask your dog to get out of your way, and he does, but you don’t acknowledge your dog’s behaviour in any way, he takes that as a mark in the “you didn’t reward me column”.  Then you ask your dog to sit by the door before you open it, he sits and you open the door and the dog makes a mark in the “you rewarded me column”.  All day long, the dog is keeping track; you asked me to lie down while you picked up the papers off the floor…no reward, one more mark in the no reward column.  You asked me to sit to put on the leash, and then we go to on a walk…mark in the reward column.  You asked me sit for a bowl of food and I get my food…mark in the reward column.  You ask me to come away from play and stop doing fun stuff….mark in the no reward column.  At the end of the day, they add up the columns and work them out against each other and consider how many things they were asked to do that brought no consequences, how many things brought good consequences, how many things brought bad consequences, and how many things avoided unpleasant experiences.  And then there is your dog trainer.

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Sit is a behaviour that gets a lot of reinforcement so it is a really strong behaviour and your dog will most likely do what you ask if you ask him to sit!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

I walk up to you in your very first class and your dog tries to jump on me.  Quickly, I step out of harm’s way.  One to the unpleasant consequences column.  The dog sits and I crouch down and greet.  The dog tries jumping up again.  I step away.  The dog sits and I greet.  The dog does the math and comes up with an interesting answer.  Sitting is a behaviour that gets attended to, and jumping up loses my attention.  Hmmm.  Maybe this is a trick!  Some dogs only have to try the equation once or twice to get the right answer.  Some dogs have to ask over and over and over and over again, but they keep track, and when it comes to me, they learn that the math is always adding up to the same thing.  Sitting gets attention and jumping up doesn’t.

Many weeks later, your dog has figured out a lot of things and been passed off on a variety of tasks on our chart and I walk up to you.  Your dog sits as I approach and disengages from you.  This often happens if the dog is in the middle of something that is confusing to him.  Am I magic?  No!  I don’t even really have a magnetic personality.  I just have predictable outcomes.

I hear from my clients all the time that they feel the need to be consistent.  Consistency in dog training is a bit baffling because people are already consistent.  Pay attention over the next day and figure out some of the ways you are consistent.  Which foot do you put your sock on first when you get dressed?  It will almost always be the same one.  Which hand reaches for the cupboard door?  Again, it will almost always be the same one.  When you are putting your dog’s leash on, which hand grabs the collar and which hand holds the leash clip?  Most people will consistently do these little tasks with the same hands or feet over and over again.  We are very consistent.

Where people get confused is in figuring out what consequences they want to apply to behaviours that they ask of their dogs.  And notice something about my example above.  If you go back and reread, you will notice that sit gets rewarded a lot, by a lot of different things.  At least in Canada where I live, sit is a behaviour that most dogs will readily offer even if you aren’t going to reward it, because sit is rewarded more often than almost anything else.  We are already consistent, what we need to be is more aware of our contingencies and decide what we want to do when a behaviour happens.

What makes me a more magnetic personality is in part that I have decided what contingency I want to offer for each behaviour.  If a dog jumps up, I step out of his way.  I do this reliably.  I am practiced at it.  When I see the paws lift off the ground, I don’t have to think about being consistent because I have already decided what I will do, and I do it.  If the dog sits, I greet.  I don’t have to think about that either because I have decided and I am ready to do that too.

Most dogs are really good at sit because we have chosen that particular behaviour as the “please, may I” cue.  If you have your leash in your hand and you don’t put the leash on until the dog sits, then you have taught your dog to say “Please, may I go outside with you?”  If you are standing near the door and your dog sits, you open the door in response to his “Please, may I go out in the yard?” and if you don’t let your dog out of the car until he is sitting, you have responded to his “Please, may I get out of the car?” behaviour.

How does this apply to training your dog?  Keeping in mind that the dog is a great mathematician, and he is noticing all the time what pays and what costs, you can predetermine what you are willing to pay for and what you are willing to not pay for in your daily interactions.  A not very well kept secret in the world of dog training is that every interaction is a training moment between you and the dog.  Often when I approach a new client, I may pull out my clicker and help with things like click and then treat.  The dog notices that when I click, it causes you to treat.  Many dogs must think I have some sort of magic power over you!  I click, you treat.  I click, you treat.  The math on that one approaches 100% because if you don’t treat, I prompt you to treat.  When the dog notices that I click and you treat, then when I approach, if your timing is off, or if you are clicking for random behaviours, the dog will often look at me for information; I am sure they are thinking “please, just explain this to her one more time, and then she will understand”.

Not only can I make treats come out of the dog’s human by clicking, my timing is usually better than my student’s timing.  This is normal and natural; I have been professionally training dogs and teaching clicker training for almost twenty years.  I see the thin slices of behaviour that contribute towards the end goal.  If I am helping someone to teach their dog to touch a target, I might start out clicking the dog for flicking his eyes towards the target, where the handler might only click if the dog actually touches the target.  So I am not being consistent at all; I just have a better sense of the trail of crumbs to get the dog to success.  This also means that if I am helping out, the dog gets clicked and treated more often when I am there than when the handler is alone.  This points to the need on the part of the trainer to understand what they are training and what the steps are to get their dogs to success.

So what is it that makes me magnetic to my clients dogs?  It is pretty simple really.  I have a plan for my interactions.  I know what I am going to do when the dog does something.  Believe it or not, dogs don’t actually behave randomly.  They behave in very predictable ways.  If you think they don’t, spend more time watching your dog and looking for links between events and your dog’s behaviour.

I am very aware of what the dog wants and what he wants to avoid.  If the dog is jumping up, it is usually in order to greet me; they want to get up close to my face.  If I step back, then his plan to greet me fails and he will try something else.  Knowing that he wants to greet me, I can use his desire to greet as a reward to increase the likelihood of him doing something that I like better and that is socially more appropriate.  I also know that dogs want to continue to interact with other dogs and people, that they like food, that they may enjoy chasing something, and that most of them don’t want to be hugged and a good number of them don’t enjoy being patted.  Knowing these things allows me to preplan a lot of different interactions so that I control the stuff the dog wants or wants to avoid.  Preplanning and awareness together make me very attractive to dogs.

When I want to teach a dog a new behaviour, I am aware of all the steps between not knowing the behaviour and understanding what the behaviour is and when to do it.  When I am teaching a dog to target something, I let the dog arrive at the behaviour through a series of baby steps towards that goal.  I teach the dog the pattern by capturing behaviours that happen in their entirety, such as sit or lie down, and then I manipulate the steps towards the end goal by thinking of all the little tiny amounts of behaviour that the dog does towards the end goal.  If I want a dog to target a spot on the wall with his nose, then I will start by clicking for glancing at the spot, and treat away from that spot so that he has to glance back to get me to click again.  Once the dog is glancing back towards the target reliably, then I will click for head turns towards the target and again treat away from the target so that he has to repeat head turning to get the click.  By teaching the behaviour as a series of steps I can develop very complex behaviours such as “if I am about to have a panic attack, could you please come over here and tell me about that so I can take my medications”.  Combining awareness of what the dog likes and avoids, preplanning, and divisions of steps towards an end goal helps a lot in making me magnetic towards my client’s dogs.

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Preplanning is important in training; if you are working on touch my hand with your nose, don’t change you mind half way through training and click for lying down or doing a cute trick.  What you click is what you keep in clicker training!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

When you are training, you cannot suddenly change your mind about what the plan is.  When I am using the clicker, I stick to the plan.  I don’t click the dog for behaviours that aren’t in the plan.  This is perhaps the biggest problem people have with clicker training.  They change their mind about what they are working on in mid stream.  If you are working on targeting and the dog offers you a down, don’t click that!  That isn’t what you were working on!  When you click you give the dog a unit of information that says “that thing there is what you were working on, and that thing there is part of the end behaviour”.  If you click for glancing at a target but you were working on down earlier and he offers the down and you click it, then the dog will be confused about what it is that you are actually working on together.

The final part of this is that I don’t live with your dog.  I am novel, which makes me interesting to most dogs.  I never ask the dog for a behaviour without some sort of feedback to the dog that confirms or denies what I was asking for.  I am really no more consistent than anyone else, I just know what I am going to do when a behaviour occurs.  That makes me magnetic to the dog.  You can be magnetic too!

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

 

Originally posted in June 2013

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

First:

“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.

Second:

“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.

Third:

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

I feel like “Fair is not Equal” has begin to replace “It depends” as my motto at work these days.  I have a number of cases these days where people want to give perfectly equal treatment to two dogs in the house.  On the surface of it, the idea of treating everyone the same way seems like a good idea; after all you would not want to be excluded from a party because you are the only woman, or the only tall person, or the only dog trainer in a group!  That would not be fair at all.  The problem is that when you try and give equal treatment to two people with very different needs.

When we have a baby and an older child, we often see people around us try and give equal treatment to both children.  If grandma comes to visit and she brings a toy for the baby, then she will most likely bring a toy for the older child too.  This sounds fair, right?  If you have two dogs and you bring home one special chew bone, and give it to your favourite dog, the other dog is likely going to be pretty upset about missing out.  This in fact is likely a quick way to a dog fight!  When we try and make fair equal, we can actually get into trouble though.

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These brothers have different needs, abilities and interests. Treating them equally would not be fair to them! Instead if we engage them in activities that take advantage of their differences, they will both be happy and successful.

Consider for instance what the older child might think if grandma arrived with two rattles both designed for a child of about 6 months of age.  If the older child is two, he may or may not care, but if he is 5, he is going to care a lot.  The same is very true of our dogs.  If you have a puppy and a middle aged dog, the pup is going to be interested in very different things than is the middle aged dog.  This is the situation that prompted my blog today.

I have a client who has a 7 year old retriever with degenerative disc disease.  Her 7 year old has been her constant companion for his whole life and they have done all sorts of cool things together; from hiking in Northern Ontario to sports classes locally, and road trips across Canada, to quiet family dinners with her aging parents, my client has taken this dog on every possible dog adventure his heart could wish for.  Now that he is suffering from back pain though, he isn’t allowed to do as many things as he used to do.  The one thing that they still do together is sit on the floor with her head on her lap while she grades her high school student’s homework.  Every night after dinner, she sits down with a pile of paper on one side, and her special buddy on the other.  They have done this ritual for the past seven years, from September till June, at least five nights a week.  Recently though, this client has been missing some of the training activities she did with her 7 year old, so she brought a new puppy into the family.

This particular lady wants to be fair to both dogs, but sometimes she gets fair confused with equal.  The first way she got confused was when she signed her puppy up for puppy class.  She felt guilty that her older dog wasn’t going to training too, so she signed him up for a class as well.  The problem was that she didn’t have time to devote to two sets of classes, so some of the time she missed class with her older dog and then she felt bad about spending money on a class she didn’t attend.  Not only that but her older dog was often stiff and painful after his class, which really wasn’t fair to him at all.

The next place she got confused was leash walking her puppy.  Young pups don’t actually know how to walk on leash.  When she brought her youngster out for a leash walk with her older dog, he just got all tangled up and annoying!  No one was happy; not the lady, not the puppy and definitely not the older dog. 

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Sometimes this is what I think people think that they are aiming for when they make absolutely everything the same for two dogs in the home. Instead of trying to make everything equal, try making everything fair by taking into account what each dog needs.

My client knew that puppies need to eat more often than do adult dogs, and she wanted to be fair, so when she fed the puppy, her adult dog always got a meal too.  He got his normal two meals a day, plus a little extra at lunch time.  Her adult dog gained a few pounds, and that was hard on his joints, which meant an extra trip for him to the vet, and extra medication for pain.

Perhaps the least fair thing that this nice lady did for her two dogs was let the puppy have free run of the house with her older dog.  She just didn’t feel good about her puppy being in his crate much of the time.  The puppy took to harassing the older dog, which resulted in a grouchy adult dog, and an overtired, overstimulated puppy.  The last straw came when school started in September though; on her first day sitting on the floor grading papers with her nice sedate adult dog, her cup of tea and her whirling dervish of a puppy.  Within minutes her neatly organized evening came apart at the seams with papers strewn all over the room, her adult dog snarling at the puppy, and a hot cup of tea all over the floor.

When we met, my client said to me “I don’t remember puppyhood being so much work with my older dog!”  The thing to reflect on with a case such as this is that at the time she didn’t have another dog to compare to, so instead of trying to give her first dog exactly everything that she gave to another dog, she just gave him what he needed.  Fair, is rarely if ever equal.

So how did we resolve this?   We acknowledged that fair is not equal and she stopped trying to give everything to the puppy that she gave to her adult and vice versa.  Her adult dog does not need an extra class or a daily extra meal.  Her puppy does not need a leash walk, or freedom of the house just yet.  Once we stopped doing things that weren’t good for each of the dogs, we could really look at what each dog needed. 

In the first few months, puppies need a lot of extra attention, training and structure.  It isn’t forever, but it is important.  We stopped all leash walking and added in two ten minute training sessions each day.  Instead of wrestling a young strong dog on leash around the block with one hand, while trying to encourage her older, sedate and slightly painful older dog to keep up, all the while trying to avoid the inevitable tangling of the leash, she returned to her fifteen minute strolls around the block with her old friend.  Her young dog benefited from the extra training sessions and her older dog got the time and attention that he needed from his normal routine.  Not equal, but fair.

To address the lunchtime habit, we moved the older dog’s walk from first thing in the morning to lunch time, so that the puppy could have quiet alone time in the house with her lunch, while the older dog got what he needed.  This helped to take weight off sensibly, and avoided the issue of the older dog mooching around the pup’s food bowl.  Fair is not equal but each dog can get what they need when their needs are properly addressed.

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Using a crate for meals can make room for you to address the needs of another dog while this dog is having his needs met. Fair is when both dogs get what they need, even when what they need may not be the same thing.

Finally, we addressed the issue of the pup having free run of the house with an ex-pen in the living room.  This allowed my client to have time with both dogs in the room, but without trashing her student’s assignments, spilling tea or harassing the older dog.  Over time she will be able to give the younger dog more and more freedom as long as she is minding her manners.  These few changes took the household from equal but completely unfair to not equal, but much more fair. 

I think it is easier to identify when fair is not equal when we are talking about medical issues.  My client was really trying hard to make things both equal and fair, but each dog had different needs.  When her older dog was sore from gaining weight and being too physical, she didn’t feel the need to bring the younger dog to the vet for medication; that obviously would be neither fair nor equal.  Likewise, she did not feel that she needed to revaccinate her older dog; her older dog was not due for vaccines for another 18 months, so just her puppy got vaccinated.  When it comes to medical issues, we are much more clear about fair and equal and we do what is fair.  When it comes to the rest of our dog’s lives, we are much more muddled.  We try and do the things that we do with one dog with both, even if it would not be fair.  To be fair, we have to take in the needs of the individual instead of the activities that we do with one or the other dog.

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

THE KILLER WHALE AND THE KETTLE

Originally posted July 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

THE KILLER WHALE AND THE KETTLE

IF YOUR ARM TURNS BLACK AND FALLS OFF, DEFINITELY CALL THE DOCTOR

 

About a month ago, I had an accident where I nearly amputated my thumb.  I was trying to medicate my horse’s eye and she was tethered to a wall, and she panicked.  In the melee that ensued, the clip on the end of the tether ricocheted off my thumb, split it wide open almost to the bone and tore 2/3rds of my thumbnail right off.  Needless to say this has been an incredibly painful injury and has negatively impacted my ability to do a number of things.  The problem is that post injury, in spite of all the pain, there really isn’t much that the doctor can or should do.  After getting it stitched up and getting a prescription for antibiotics, we just have to wait and see what will happen.  Once in a while though, something funky happens that is a bit worrisome, which leads to the title of today’s blog.  I was sitting in a meeting the other day looking worriedly at my thumb when one of my colleagues said to me “what’s wrong?”  “My thumb is changing” I replied.  And it had; it was painful and the scar had begun to swell.  It wasn’t significantly different, but it hurt more than it has and it was different enough that I was concerned.  “I am not sure if I should bother the doctor with this though” I said, still looking intently at the very slight swelling.  “Well” replied my colleague, “if your arm turns black and falls off, you should definitely call the doctor”.  What can you say to that?  It really reflects how people treat problems though!

We see this all the time when it comes to behaviour problems.  I have worked with families who have lived with a behaviour problem for many years, allowing and sometimes supporting the problem to continue, because the problem doesn’t feel serious enough to address.  Usually in such cases there is some single event that makes the behaviour problem relevant enough to get help, but by the time that happens, often the problem is so deeply entrenched that it is a lot of work to resolve.  Often, if the family had come for help early on, there would have been some simple solutions to carry out.  When behaviour problems are allowed to persist, they don’t usually get better all on their own.  Most of the time, behaviour problems just get worse and worse as the dog practices the undesired behaviour successfully.

18897011 - jack russell terrier chasing tail view from above
Tail chasing is often though about as a cute quirk that a dog may exhibit, but if it goes on too long, or if the dog cannot be interrupted, it may actually be a behaviour problem. It can be difficult for the family to tell when the behaviour is just a quirk or when it is an actual behaviour problem. The best thing to do is to ask a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant or Veterinary Behaviourist if this is a problem or not.

 

So when is a problem bad enough to seek help for?  This is the conundrum I face with my thumb.  It is always somewhat painful, so I am aware of the problem most of the time.  Never the less, as my vet would tell me “it is a long way from the heart”, meaning that the discomfort caused by the healing injury just isn’t something that the doctor can do much about.  In fact, this time, I did go see the doctor and she looked at it and said that she was glad that I had come in, but that it was healing nicely and that there was nothing that we could do; the swelling was likely due to scar tissue forming.  Just like my doctor, I am always glad to speak to people about behaviour problems; they may not be serious, however, they could be, and I can usually tell after speaking with my clients if there is a simple fix, or if we need to engage in a full blown behaviour modification program.

Some of the time, what appears to be a small problem to my clients appears to be a great big problem to me.  This means that I may be delivering bad news to my clients, and that can be tough for everyone.  If you have a problem, ask someone who knows.  A Certified Professional Dog Trainer will know, and so will a Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant.  The lady in the park who has always had dogs may have an idea, but like my colleague who suggested that if my arm turned black and fell off, I should go to the doctor, the lady in the park really isn’t qualified to give you an opinion on how serious a behaviour problem might be.

All of this begs the question of when is a behaviour problem a problem, and that really isn’t an easy question to answer.  I have sat through numerous professional conferences where researchers have told us that people don’t try and resolve their dog’s behaviour problems until the behaviour directly impacts the people!  I also know from personal experience that many people don’t address their dog’s behaviour problems when they don’t know that the problem exists.  What do I mean by that?  If you think that a behaviour is normal for a dog, but it isn’t, then it is a problem, but you won’t seek help.  I have for instance had clients whose dogs have still been having regular toileting accidents indoors at the age of four years.  This is definitely not normal, but the clients I am thinking of didn’t realize that dogs should be house trained by about 17 weeks of age; they had been waiting for some magic to kick in that would somehow or another resolve the problem!

From my point of view, if any behaviour is not normal for a dog, then it is definitely a problem.  By normal I mean behaviours that are outside of what dogs in general do.  Behaviours in this category include things like spinning, chasing lights or shadows, licking the wrists, barbering the fur, licking walls, getting “stuck” and staring at things.  Dangerous behaviours are similar; if the dog is chasing cars or jumping out of windows, then the behaviour is a problem for the dog even if it isn’t for the humans who live with the dog.  Some problem behaviours may pose health risks to the dog, such as eating feces or non food items such as rocks.  It is not fair to the dog to not address these problems, but when the humans who live with the dog don’t consider them problems it can be a hard sell to convince them to work to resolve the issue.  In the video below, the Australian Shepherd is showing a behaviour that some people consider funny.  I would consider this behaviour to be a problem, and if the family waits to get help, it will become so entrenched that it may not be possible to resolve.

 

Any behaviour that negatively impacts the life of the family should also be considered a problem behaviour.  Even when the behaviour is a fairly normal behaviour for the dog, if it interferes with the family’s enjoyment of life, then that would count as a problem behaviour.  This category of behaviours includes things such as jumping up on guests, and getting into the garbage.  Unruly behaviour can create so much chaos for families that living with the dog becomes very frustrating for everyone concerned.  Although it may take work to overcome these behaviours, usually it is less effort to work on the behaviours than it is to live with the problem.

Once in a while the family may feel that a behaviour is a problem when it isn’t.  Inguinal checking, self grooming and humping inanimate objects are behaviours that people often ask us about, and unless the behaviour is happening to excess, I am likely to just tell you that the behaviour is normal and something that dogs just do.  I don’t mind being asked, however, unless these behaviours happen all the time, there is really no reason to interrupt the dog; in fact with inguinal checking and self grooming, stopping the behaviour interferes with the dog staying clean and healthy.

Puppy licked himself ass. isolated on white background
This puppy is checking his inguinal area. Many people are very put off when their dog does this, or cleans himself there, but unless this is taking up most of his day, most Certified Dog Behaviour Consultants are going to tell you that this is a very normal behaviour!

Finally, we come to the group of behaviours that everyone can recognize as problematic; things like aggression, and separation anxiety.  These behaviours are more than a nuisance, and most folks recognize that and seek help.  In some respects, these are the easiest of situations to deal with because the problems are obvious and the people recognize that the problems exist.

The take away here is that if you have any doubt about your dog’s behaviour, ask us or ask another credentialed trainer!  We are trained to recognize when the problem is a problem, and when the problem is not, and we have the skills to help you when the problem really is a problem.    Usually, the sooner you start to address a behaviour problem, the easier it is to resolve.  You don’t have to wait till your arm turns black and falls off to call the doctor!

IF YOUR ARM TURNS BLACK AND FALLS OFF, DEFINITELY CALL THE DOCTOR