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.

 34495910_s
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.

14899949 - young couple training dog in the park happy teaching pet
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.

 

 12217910_s(1)
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.

 

 15545563_s
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.

 20160124_175355
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.

5478114_s
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.

11744270_s
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!

19009872_s
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.

2309147_s
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

WHEN NOT TO SOCIALIZE!

Originally posted May of 2013

I own horses.  I also own an electric fence.  The idea is that the horses won’t leave and people and animals won’t come in and harass them.  Sounds like a good idea in theory, but it doesn’t always work out.  People come to the fence to “visit” the horses.  And sometimes, they bring their dogs.  Recently I lamented this fact on my Facebook page and a long discussion ensued.  One of the posters talked about how she would use animals behind fences to socialize her puppy when she had the opportunity.  Well meaning, this person just didn’t understand the whole issue.

When you have a puppy, you can say with fair certainty that he is going to be unpredictable.  He is going to do things you wish he would not.  He barks at the most inopportune moments.  He pulls on his leash and sometimes he dashes forward only to backpedal vigorously.  In short, the reaction a puppy gives is not always going to be constant or predictable.  Ideally, you would set up multiple socialization opportunities for your dog to learn about the world around him in a safe way.  And that is where my electric fence comes in.

Horses and other livestock are very different from dogs.  First off, they are herd animals.  They don’t like to be separated from their herd members.  We have three horses so I will use them as examples.  We use a highly visible, white rope that contains stainless steel wires to conduct electrical current to keep them in our pasture.  We don’t have a lot of pasture so at this time of year, we rig up temporary paddocks around the house.  The house is about 20 metres from the road and across the road is a hill.  At the top of the hill is a public park.  There is a tree line between us and the park and over the years we have had occasional visitors from the park to our property.  Most folks recognize that this is private property and don’t come into our farm, but once in a while, we see people coming over to our land.

We had one very aggressive dog off leash on our land and his person said to us that they were taking as much care as they could because they were walking their dog where they didn’t expect to meet other dogs.  I pointed out that I live here with a large van that says that I am a dog trainer and that meant that there would likely be dogs here.  It is endlessly frustrating to have other people’s dogs on your property and worse still when owners feel entitled to run their dogs at large on your property.

Now that we have the fences up and the horses are out, it seems like we have created a magnet for every person who passes by to come up to our fence.  People have been approaching my fence all week to look at the horses, and by and large the people who approach the horses know little or nothing about the horses or what they are doing.  I feel a little bit like I have become a public museum for the travelling public; come, see the horses behind the fence.  Put your arms through the electric fence ropes and touch them.

I have very friendly horses.  They are very tolerant of poor handling, mistakes by people and my dogs.  The thing is, they are still horses.  They are still herd animals.  And they don’t like strange dogs.  When you are socializing your puppy, and you see horses behind a fence, do not use them as an opportunity to socialize your dog to horses.  First and foremost, you don’t know my horses.  You don’t know if my horses are friendly.  And if you don’t know horses you don’t have the skills to recognize when they are nervous or stressed.

As herd animals, groups of horses behave in ways that may appear friendly to the uninitiated.  In the case of my three mares, if there is a stranger at the fence, two of them will graze and one of them will approach the fence and stand there with her head up.  Many people interpret this as friendly behaviour.  It is not!  It is the horse guarding the herd.  If the stranger becomes dangerous, the guarding mare will bolt and the other horses will cease grazing and follow her lead.  Often the guarding horse will go right up to the fence and she may even extend her nose to sniff the people.  She is attempting to find out if she knows you; horses have a terrific sense of smell and often they will identify people by smell if they are not sure.

 20130514_194227
This is Kayak guarding the herd.  Ten minutes before I took this picture, I watched as the whole herd spooked when a truck rumbled by.  They came back and Kayak stood guard between the source of danger and the other horses.  Without the information that I just gave you, she might appear to be a friendly horse, standing close to the fence.

If you bring a puppy to my fence and my mare approaches your pup and sniffs him, and if he does something unpleasant to her, there is a pretty good chance that she will behave defensively; it looks like a good greeting, but there are some big problems.  The first is that the horses are unknown to the dog handler.  This means that the dog’s handler has no idea if the horses are friendly or not, or if they have had exposure to dogs or not, or if they are dangerous or not.  The second is that there is no one handling the horse.  This means that you are depending on an animal you don’t know to be friendly.  And then there is the whole issue of the electric fence between you and the horse.  You are hoping your puppy will learn to tolerate horses.  If he ducks his head under the fence, and then raises it, he is going to get hit by that fence, and that fence really, really hurts.  He will scream and bolt and your effort at teaching him about horses will result in a dog who is afraid not comfortable around horses.

Furthermore, if you spook the horses you contribute to the horses being more difficult to handle.  Let’s just suppose for a moment that the horse you are attempting to meet is a spooky timid horse.  She looks friendly, but she is in fact guarding the herd.  Your dog gets hit by the fence and squeals and bolts.  Twenty minutes later, the rider, unsuspecting that the horse had a bad experience comes out to the field to catch her horse.  The horse is difficult to handle and the rider is thrown.  Cause and effect can be a tricky thing.  You would likely never choose to cause a horse to throw its rider, but if you spook a horse then that is the effect you may have put into play, and it is an effect that really is not fair to the horse or rider.

 5163231_s
This is exactly the sort of interaction that can go badly wrong for the horse, and sometimes for the dog too.  This dog is not relaxed about the horse and if he suddenly lunges (notice the prong collar?  This tells me that the handler knows that something might go wrong!) the horse might spook or he could even strike or bite the dog.  Image credit: kyolshin / 123RF Stock Photo

Too often I hear people talking about farms and farming and farm animals in a way that is very different from the reality I experience.  Just last week a client of mine asked me if I thought there might be a farmer who would take her very reactive, aggressive, under socialized dog who grew up in the city.  I wonder what she thinks farmers DO all day.  Let me clue you in.  A farm is a business.  Its business is to grow crops and animals for the use of people.  I have yet to hear anyone hope that some machine shop owner would be willing to take their problem dog, but there is a perception that a farmer will.  As a farmer, I don’t have time to rehab your dog.  I am not here to provide your dog with socialization opportunities.  I have two horses of my own and a horse who lives here and contributes to some of the costs of maintaining the farm.  If that third horse is spooked by your puppy and gets hurt bolting away, then I will have to take time out of my busy day to nurse that horse back to health.  That will mean less time for me to ride my own horse and less time to do chores around my farm.  My farm, small as it is, is a business and I don’t have time to add fixing the problems that the public creates and still make a viable living off it.

If you really want to socialize your dog to the sight of horses I have no problem with you standing at a significant distance and classically conditioning your dog to my horses.  That is fine.  But don’t approach the fence.  If it is really important to you that your dog meets a horse, you need to arrange that with a horse owner who can control the horse so that you and your puppy are safe and that the horse is safe too.  The same goes for other livestock.  By all means teach your dog to not bark at horses, sheep, cattle and goats from a distance, but don’t enter a herd or a flock that is not yours. When you do this, you interfere with those animals’ ability to graze peacefully and safely, and you interfere with the farmer’s ability to make a living.

Socialization of puppies is crucial for their success.  We know that if a puppy hasn’t seen something by the time it is 20 weeks old, there is a risk that they won’t tolerate that something terribly well as an adult.  What isn’t fair is socializing them to animals or children that are unattended and who don’t have a guardian to ensure their safety during the activity.  Doing this is unfair to the animal you are trying to socialize but also the target of your socialization, and that defeats the purpose.

WHEN NOT TO SOCIALIZE!

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

Originally posted in October 2010

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

“Hello, this is Dr. Mike.”

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

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

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

Sigh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE TRICK PONIES

Originally posted in December 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

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

ONE TRICK PONIES