JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD

At Dogs in the Park, we have two mottos.  The first is “It Depends..” It is on all of the staff uniforms to remind people that the answer to dog training questions are dependent upon many variables.  The second is less commonly said, but almost all of my students will eventually hear me say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  I was reminded of this by one of my staff the other day.  She had been challenged by a colleague at school to train a dog to do a trick.  The problem is that the trick required the dog to roll back onto his very arthritic and dysplastic hips.  My staffer replied “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should,” and she is right.  She COULD teach the dog to do the trick, but she shouldn’t because it will cause the dog more injury than not.

I have an exercise I used to do when I ran my fun-gility workshops.  Fun-gility is informal agility.  I would get out all the cavellettis (small light jumps for teaching dogs to take off and land smoothly; they are about four inches high), and place them as close together as they can go.  There is about four inches between each jump.  Then I ask all the humans to walk through the twelve or so jumps.  People with really big feet slide their feet in sideways, and people with little feet slip in between the jumps toe first.  One very athletic man in the last workshop danced through them like a ballerina on point, pronking up and down in the manner of a gazelle.  Once everyone has walked through these, I challenge everyone to go through as fast as they can.  The only person to every run through these successfully was the man I just mentioned-but he said afterwards it was really difficult and uncomfortable. 

Next I spread the jumps out so that each is one of my foot lengths wide.  Everyone expresses relief at the ease at which they can place their feet.  When they run through though, they are once again frustrated by the lack of room to solve the problem of where to put their feet.  Some people just take two jumps at once and then congratulate themselves on coming up with such a neat solution.  At this point I ask them; “Would it be okay if your dog chose to do two jumps at once if that was easier for him?”  Most folks who have been through the exercise reply that yes, it would be okay with them if the dog solved his problem that way.  If I were to ask someone who is serious about agility though, the answer might be different-the person might decide that the dog must take each obstacle one at a time, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be for the dog.  That brings back the statement of “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should”.  Just because I can make the dog take jumps at an uncomfortable striding, doesn’t mean I should.

I come across this situation when I work with dogs with behaviour problems.  I have had clients with dogs who are noise sensitive.  I prefer to resolve problems like this by working below threshold, so that the dog is not being set off repeatedly.  When the dog gets to relax a little, they often become bolder and more willing to accept some noises they weren’t previously.  Recently, I was at a community event and I saw a little dog sitting terrified under her person’s chair.  I approached the person and told her that I thought her dog was afraid of the noise of the crowd, and the owner replied that yes, she was, but the dog had to accept that this was part of life and must get over her fears, and so she was brought out to as many noisy events as possible.  I bit my tongue but what I wanted to say was “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”  When it is my client who is doing this though, I try and help them to understand that just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should!

54380485 - border collie weaving through poles at a dog agility trial
It takes a long time for a dog to learn to weave properly and efficiently and when you want him to do so. Many dogs sort of learn to weave and they may go through the obstacle to your satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean they are truly ready to compete. This is the sort of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” situation that gets competitive trainers into a lot of trouble! Copyright: herreid / 123RF Stock Photo

 

I think we need to consider this carefully when we work with dogs and other animals.  We CAN make a dog go out in public when he is afraid to do so, but should we?  We CAN make a horse jump over a fence when he is physically uncomfortable, but should we?  We CAN make a child stand up in front of a group of people and recite Evangeline…but should we?  As trainers and teachers, we hold a very powerful position, and Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should applies to our jobs on a daily basis.  Just because we can make a student take a risk we are comfortable with when training our own dogs doesn’t mean we should make our students do so too.  Part of what we need to teach when helping people to train their dogs, is that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Keeping “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” in mind when you are training your dog can really help you to do two things.  The first thing it helps with planning your training.  Many of us have asked our dogs to participate in sports they don’t really have the skills to succeed in.  Often the dogs “fake it till they make it” and we feel like we are able to do the sport even if we haven’t trained for it.  This is the classic case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  Better by far to teach your dog to do the skills and then participate in the activity. 

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We cannot tell what is causing this dog to be afraid for the pinned back ears, the giant pupils and the tense paws and muzzle all point to a dog who is being exposed to something he is deeply uncomfortable with. Here is a case of just because you can, does not mean that you should make this dog get close to whatever is freaking him out! Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

The second thing that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” helps with is acknowledging what the dog is struggling with.  If the dog is shy, let him leave when he has had enough.  If the dog is bold, don’t put him in situations where he is going to take risks that are dangerous to his health and wellbeing.  If the client lacks confidence, I don’t put them in situations where they are going not going to succeed.  Setting up for success means a lot more than just setting up to get the right answer, it also means taking into account that sometimes, the dog cannot or the human cannot do something and allowing them not to do that thing, all the while balancing that they need to be challenged sufficiently to continue to move forward.

 

 

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD

MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

Recently a number of Good Dog clients have started my program after having gotten only so far with obedience classes with us or other schools, and there seems to be a trend in why their training is not working for them.  Micromanagement is how we describe what is happening when people tell the dog about every single thing that they are supposed to do.  They often have a spectacular leave it, but only when they tell the dog.  The dog will wait nicely at the door, but bolt on through if you haven’t specified that this is one of the times that the dog must wait.  The dog is more than willing to get off or stay off furniture if he is told, but in the absence of information, he is right up there and on the couch.

Humans are a species that gather information verbally.  We listen to details like “don’t get on the couch” and store that information for later use.  If we are told “don’t get on the couch” every time we go to get on the couch, most of us store that information and don’t do that behaviour.  Dogs are a little different.  Although dogs readily learn “if I get on the couch in the presence of the human I will be told to get off” they don’t seem to generalize that information to “never get on the couch”.  I suspect that this is a reflection of a few things, including how we train them.

The first thing that this reflects is that dogs don’t have language in the same way we do.  Yes, they have communication, where they are able to send units of information to another individual who can receive and interpret them accurately.  Think about the last time you saw two dogs interacting; if one dog wanted to play, how can he convey that information to the other dog?  Dogs have a whole lot of gestural communication including (but not limited to!) play bows, play faces, head tilts, paw lifts and tail wags.  The receiving dog will either accept the invitation, and a play session will start (full of rich gestures that convey all sorts of information between the players) or turn it down and we can tell which choice the recipient made based on the behaviours we see.  None of this information conveys anything like “later on, when you go home, please don’t touch my toys that I left behind the couch”.  Canine communication is immediate.  It happens in the moment and it pertains to the moment.  Even wolf communication involved in hunting runs more along the lines of “let’s go hunting”, “okay”, “I hear caribou over this way”, “I will flank the herd”.  The last guess may in fact be more than they actually convey in their gestures, but it makes for a better story to illustrate the point!

Next we should consider that when we train our dogs we teach them to attend to what happens next.  Sit when I am making you dinner?  Then I put your dinner within your reach to eat.  Jump up on me?  Then you can have a quick trip to your crate.  Harass the other dog while he is trying to rest?  Then you can have a turn out in the yard on your own.  Lie down nicely in front of the cookie cupboard?  Then you can have a cookie.  On and on, both formally and informally we teach our dogs to pay attention to immediate outcomes.  Practically this is the most efficient way to teach dogs what they should and should not do.

Dogs do learn what your habits are of course, but most often those habits come with predictable immediate outcomes.  Dogs learn for instance that every day at 3pm the school bus passes by and the kids arrive home and when the kids arrive home, you almost always get to play ball.  Some dogs will anticipate this sort of activity by bringing the ball to the children as they come in the door.  This most likely evolves when the ball is handy and the kids are available and the dog puts two and two together, not because the dogs are preplanning the equipment needed to make the activity work better.  Over time and with repetition, dogs can develop sophisticated routines that look like preplanning but there is little concrete evidence that dogs are preplanning in the way that we do.

So what does this have to do with the Queen?  Or my brother in law?  Or my students who are struggling with micromanagement?  Simply this.  If you were invited to the UK to visit the Queen, you would have a meeting with a very nice person who would explain what was going to happen, what you were supposed to do and what you were not permitted to do.  When you arrived at the Queen’s “house” (castle, palace or what have you), there would most likely be a nice person to point you in the right direction and prompt your every step.  Stand here.  Turn that way when I signal you that her Majesty is coming.  When you first see Her Majesty do this.  When you are greeted say that.  When she turns away from you, do this.  If she hands you something take it like this.  Don’t touch her.  Don’t initiate conversation.  Answer in this way.  Every little detail is preplanned and organized so that you know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it.  And if you goof, then it is most likely that someone will help you out and make a suggestion about what you should do instead.

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Meeting Royalty is a very carefully scripted event and for most of us, we need the help of someone like a protocol officer to guide us through the experience without any glitches. This is not real life for the vast majority of the world however, and it is a stressful and difficult way to interact because it necessitates someone else directing your every move.

This is how many of my clients treat their dogs.  The client behaves like the Queen’s protocol officer!  They walk up to a door and say “sit”.  Dutifully, the dog sits.  They open the door and the dog, not getting another immediate prompt drags them through the door and into the training hall.  There is a dropped treat in front of the dog, and the client says “leave it” so the dog quite politely does, but when there is a treat the person doesn’t notice, the dog snarfs it up before the client even has a chance to do anything!  How often I have been greeted by an otherwise normal human being chanting “be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice” as though saying these two words fast enough and for long enough will ensure that the dog will “be nice”.  Invariably the human effort at being the protocol officer fails and the dog greets me by launching himself at me like a canine cannonball.

I would argue that if you were taking your dog to somewhere truly different and out of the ordinary, you might want to be the protocol officer.  So if you have to take your dog to say a ballet recital, you might possibly want to play protocol officer.  But UNLESS you are asking your dog to do something truly difficult, such as meeting a world leader, your dog needs to be able to just fit in.  This is where visiting my brother-in-law comes in.

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This is a difficult situation, made more difficult by the fact that the dog who is on leash is pulling and thus being pulled back by the handler. If instead the dog had been taught that when she wanted to play with a friend, she should sit, and offer eye contact and then look at the other dog and look back at the handler, the situation would look much different.

My brother-in-law is a nice guy.  He likes to sit out on his front porch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper on a Sunday morning.  He likes to go cycling.  He is pretty approachable, and will invite you in for a beer if you walk by on a Saturday afternoon while he is puttering in the garage.  He doesn’t own a crown, or a thrown, and he doesn’t care if you turn your back on him when you are in his presence.  He goes to work Monday to Friday, he enjoys his family, he is the master of the bar-b-que.  In short, he is a pretty laid back typical Canadian guy.  And if you visit him, there is no protocol officer to tell you where to stand, what to do or not do, how to dress and what to say.  No one will micromanage your behaviour when you visit my brother-in-law.

This doesn’t mean that there are not expectations for your behaviour while in my brother-in-law’s home.  He would prefer you didn’t break his stuff, and please don’t eat all his food all at once.  Please don’t take his things away when you leave, and please do take off your shoes when you come in the house.  The thing is that his expectations for your behaviour are common enough that you don’t need someone to explain what to do at every step.

Commonly Micromanaged Behaviours and Their Alternatives
Behaviour Common Micromanagement Strategy Alternate Strategy
Dog snatches any edible item within reach Teach the dog to leave things on cue and tell the dog to leave it Teach the dog that he must automatically leave any edible items he finds UNLESS you tell him to take it
Dog jumps on guests Teach the dog to cease jumping up on cue and tell the dog to stop jumping Teach the dog that a guest approaching means that he should sit or lie down
Dog bolts out the door Teach the dog to sit on cue and tell the dog to sit when you see the door opening Teach the dog that an opening door means that he should sit
Dog is more engaged with other dogs or people when he sees them than he is with the handler Teach the dog to make eye contact on cue and ask for eye contact Teach the dog to make eye contact with you and then look at the dog or person he wants to greet and then re engage with you
Dog barks at passersby Teach the dog to “hush” on cue and then tell the dog to “hush” when he is barking Teach the dog that passersby do not need to be barked at
Dog chases the cat in the house Teach the dog a solid leave it on cue and then tell the dog to leave it when he is chasing the cat Teach the dog that chasing the cat is not permitted at all, ever
Dog grabs the toy before you can throw it Teach the dog to leave it on cue and then tell the dog not to touch the toy until you have thrown it Teach the dog that you will throw the toy when he is calm and not touching you, or even when he is sitting and making eye contact

 

The problem I see with many of the dogs who come through my door at the training hall is that the human partner in the team seems to think that day to day interactions need to be handled like a visit to the Queen.  I see people telling their dogs to sit at the door all the time.  And to leave the treats that are within reach.  And not to jump on people as they approach.  The problem with this strategy is that if you aren’t there to micromanage the dog, the dog will do just as he pleases.  If you don’t tell him to sit at the door, he might barge right on through.  And if you don’t tell him to leave the treats on the floor, he will just dart out to take them.  If you don’t prevent him from jumping on guests, then he will greet impolitely and possibly with disastrous consequences!  None of this is what the human wants, but the only solution they have tried is to remind, remind, remind, remind and then remind again.

What if instead of reminding we took what we know about how dogs use information and taught them an expected behaviour.  What if we taught the dog that the door itself was the prompt to sit and wait?  Or if instead of teaching your dog to leave a treat when told, we just taught him to keep his nose out of treats that you haven’t told him belong to him?  What if we taught him that a person reaching out to say hi means that he should sit or lie down?  What if we looked at training as if we were preparing someone from a different country to visit my brother-in-law?

63553113 - cat and dog, abyssinian kitten and golden retriever looks at right.
This sort of interaction doesn’t happen by accident! Likely these two animals were posed for the picture, however they would not be completely relaxed in the image if the dog had been taught that he could chase the cat unless told otherwise. Dogs need immediate relevant consequences to teach them what they should do. If this were my cat and my dog, the dog would learn very quickly that every time he chased the cat, he would have a turn in his crate for a short period of time. This works especially well with young dogs. Copyright: dikaya37 / 123RF Stock Photo

Turning the training paradigm around so that we are no longer teaching the dog to do as he is told, but instead to know what the conventions are is a very easy way to resolve a lot of problems.  To do this, you must spend some time thinking about how to accomplish making the trigger to the behaviour the cue to the alternate behaviour, and some of the time it means providing a consequence such as going to your crate or losing a turn at play to stop the undesired behaviour.  It usually takes a little longer, but in the end, you have an adult dog who knows what to do, when to do it and doesn’t need a protocol officer to micromanage all of his behaviours!

MICROMANAGEMENT, THE QUEEN AND MY BROTHER IN LAW

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY I AM NOT A SUPERMODEL

FOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

FOOD

PRO SOCCER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are dogs turned loose in an enclosure without supervision? 

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

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

Is there only one person on site? 

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

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

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

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

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

What does the facility look like?

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

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

How are groups separated and sorted?

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

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

PRO SOCCER

CRYING AT A FUNERAL

FIRST published April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Yes go ahead.

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

  1. Thanks..

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

No. Thanks. Bye.

Thank you for calling BB & I Mike.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING