AN EDUCATED DOG GETS TO DO MORE

This week I have been reflecting that my dogs have had the opportunity to do much, much more than most dogs do.  One of my recent clients came for help to get her dog to stop lunging and barking at passersby while in the house, but she had no, zero, interest in teaching her dog to do anything else.  She didn’t want one of those “fancy trick” dogs; she wanted her dog to be his authentic self, but without barking and lunging at passersby.  She didn’t see the connection between the relationship that is built during training those tricks and the ability to cope with people passing the house.

The thing is that when you teach a dog to do “tricks “you are preparing your dog for things that might happen, for those passersby, for all of the weird and wonderful things that occur in the human world.  When I am teaching a dog new behaviours, I am not just teaching him skills although that is an important part of the equation.  I am also teaching my dog to be flexible in how he thinks and what we do together.  Training is really a joint activity; I cannot train without the dog and the dog cannot train without me.  This special relationship is what keeps me training-it is the foundation upon which everything else is based. 

My ultimate goal with my own dogs is to be able to give them enough education to be comfortable in whatever situation I might need them to be in.  In short this means that if I need my dogs to go to the emergency vet clinic where they have never ever been before, I want them to have enough experience and background to be able to confidently and happily go to the vet clinic without any hassle.  I want them to know what is expected of them and how to do what I need them to do.  I expect that they will not protest when the vet needs to look at their injury.  I expect that they will tolerate the tech restraining them, even if she has long purple dreadlocks and is wearing a surgical mask. 

Likewise, I don’t ask my dogs to do things I have not prepared them to do.  I was at the Canada Day Celebration this year and watched one lady with a pair of stunning German Shorthaired Pointers.  Both dogs were on prong collars and the woman’s bicep was HUGE.  Why?  Likely because she never ever allowed even an inch of slack in those dog’s leashes.  She held them with their necks up high for over two hours, in the heat and when one of the dogs shied away from a frightening parade act, she strongly corrected both dogs.  Neither dog was prepared for the event.  It was sad to watch.

When I was partnered with a service dog, he had to be able to tolerate and even enjoy a lot of things that regular dogs don’t have to put up with.  Stuck in security in the heat in the airport without water for two hours while they figure out what to do with a service dog? No problem.  Came off a flight delayed five hours and need to toilet?  He can pee on a sewer grate…No Problem!  Walking through downtown Montreal and we encounter a brass band walking along and they honk us?  NO PROBLEM!  Why?  Because we trained for such a wide variety of things that this was just one more thing for him to do.

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Look closely! This is one of my favourite pictures of D’fer with a statue. The giant spider is in Ottawa, and Deef is on a sit stay while we take the picture. How did we do that? Quite simply we taught him the skills necessary for sitting and staying no matter what else is happening! Photo credit: Melanie Woolley

Training for difficult events is my responsibility should I want to take my dog places.  When I visited a friend in Ottawa with my service dog, we had a grand evening playing around the statues that surround Parliament Hill.  D’fer was a great sport and tolerated and even enjoyed himself quite a bit, posing with bronze statues of all types.  This kind of an activity is the sort of thing that I do to help my dogs to learn to accept strange circumstances, and it is a lot of fun for both of us.

Every week through the summer, the advanced students in our Levels Program meet in downtown Guelph near the splash pad in front of city hall.  We practice down stays in public.  We meet people.  We greet people.  We do tricks and leash walking and we sit down and socialize for a little while with one another.  All around us we have children running and playing and the splash pad splashing and buses pulling up and stopping and one memorable time a large protest and a few hundred motorcycles.  We practice what we have learned in class out in the wider world.  These are dogs who will be able to do more.

There is a small issue to consider and if you don’t consider it, you will soon face a BIG issue.  That is taking your dog out to do more when he is under or unprepared.  Training of tricks like sit, come when called, look at me before we start doing things, lie down and wait while we set things up and even sit and stay while we take your picture are all tools that the dog needs in order to be successful at picnics, ball games and family gatherings.  If you have not taken the time to teach your dog all that he needs to know and then taught him to do all those things in a variety of places, you are going to struggle with a dog who really doesn’t understand what to do.

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This is the sort of close quarters situation where untrained dogs get into difficulty. Notice that both dogs are on very tight leashes, likely because their handlers know that there is a risk that they will become unruly. Training and handling your dog so that you don’t put him into this kind of a situation is the best way to make sure that he doesn’t get in trouble!

Learning is an interesting phenomenon.  As an experienced adult learner you likely feel like you can learn anything you need to know and apply it when needed regardless of the context.  For a young child or for a dog, learning is not that simple.  It is important that when you teach a dog a new trick you practice that trick in a number of different places and contexts.  Just because your dog can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean he will understand to do that on the edge of a fountain or in the park or even at school.  With dogs we must teach dogs that they can use their skills in a variety of places. 

The easiest thing to do is to start out by taking your dog to new places and feeding him.  If he can take food, then try clicking and treating.  If he can take treats after a click in a new place, then try asking for a simple behaviour.  I call this going on a field trip; we go new places and practice what we have learned already.  We learn to work together in the field as it were.  Teaching a dog the rules of the game is not difficult but it is unfair to ask him to play if he doesn’t know what to do.  Step by step, little by little, teaching your dog what to do and when and then practicing together in a variety of places and contexts can be a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, you will have a dog who is more able to connect with you in order to do fun stuff than you could ever believe.  Those “fancy tricks” translate into a pretty cool relationship.

 

 

AN EDUCATED DOG GETS TO DO MORE

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

 

Originally posted in June 2013

In my last blog about walking puppies off leash (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/ )I had a few comments on the Dogs in the Park Facebook page about how this made owners of reactive dogs cringe.  One respondent said that my last blog was too nuanced for beginner trainers, and could lead to people letting their dogs off leash in places where they might encounter her large strong dog reactive dog.  Let me just excerpt a couple of sentences from that blog to make certain that if you are reading about going off leash with your puppy you are clear about my intent

First:

“The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere.  Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.”

In case people are not clear, being able to take my dogs off leash implies that I will take more into account than just removing the leash.  Choosing to do so when it is dangerous is not my intent.  There are a number of issues related to taking a puppy off leash, and the first of those issues is choosing to do so only when it is in your pup’s best interest.

Second:

“The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind.  I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know.  That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience.  I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.”

Again, if you are unclear, I want you to steer clear of the dogs who might be reactive or who might carry diseases or who might be upset by your off leash puppy.  If I don’t know your dog, I don’t let my youngster off leash.  I am not as worried about what my pup might do to your dog in this case, but I am worried about what your dog might teach my puppy.  If you have a reactive dog, I don’t want my puppy to learn anything from him, and so it is the responsibility of the dog owner to act in their dog’s best interest, which means not bringing my pup into a place where your dog might get upset and my pup might be frightened.

Third:

“I don’t want to run into predators either.  Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy.  Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada.  Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it.  Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of.  About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned.  Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.”

This advice could also include roads, cars, bikes, and anything else in the environment that could cause harm to my puppy.  In the last blog I was very specific about the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog safe.  Now I want to address that same issue with reactive dogs in mind.

When you live with a reactive dog, you have a huge responsibility to keep your dog below threshold.  By keeping your dog below threshold, you are taking active steps to avoid situations where your dog is not going to go off and become reactive.  If your dog is reactive to children, then please, don’t go to the local school yard or playground in the name of training your dog.  This is neither fair to your dog or to the children you are exposing him to.

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Allowing your dog to get triggered is not only unfair and unsafe to the public at large it is very unfair to your dog.  As the owner of a reactive dog it is your job to prevent this from happening by choosing your walk locations both on and off leash carefully.  The more often that your dog is triggered, the more he is going to behave this way.  Image credit: fouroaks / 123RF Stock Photo

If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then taking him through a park where other dogs run is irresponsible, even if it is against the law for those dogs to be running there.  If this sounds like I am condoning dog owners breaking the law let me assure you I am not.  I would really like everyone to follow their local leash laws, but the fact is that people ARE letting their dogs run illegally and if you walk your reactive dog into that situation, then he is going to react.  You are your dog’s advocate and he doesn’t know what the risks are when choosing your walking route.

In my opinion, off leash activities in natural areas are important not only for dogs but also for children.  The child who has never set foot in a natural area is much poorer for the lack.  As a former outdoor educator, I am keenly tuned in to what happens when we isolate ourselves from nature, and the results of children being isolated from nature are huge.  This is also true for dogs.  So what do you do when you have a reactive dog who is unable to get out to walk off leash in the natural world?

The first thing is to get out a map, or open up Google Earth and take a close look at your neighbourhood.  What is the closest green area on the map?  In many suburban environments, you will now find causeways between housing developments that allow water to run off naturally.  These green spaces are often un-used and available to bring your reactive dog to for exercise and stimulation.  The areas under hydro allowances are also often available.  Then there areas of crown or state land that are open to the public but little used.  When you look at Google Earth, you will find green in very unexpected places.  One of the most common places that I find green in urban areas is abutting industrial basins.

Once you have looked at the map, go visit without your dog.  Really.  This is the important preplanning that you must do to avoid the puppies I am sending out to do normal off leash walking.  When you go, spend time looking for evidence of other humans in the area.  Yes, there are stray dogs and that is a risk, but you can often find areas in very urban settings where there is green space available to walk along, where few people go.  You are looking for things like fresh litter (the semi decayed and crushed water bottle that is half covered in mud is not recent; the whole shiny chip bag that has been stepped upon is), footprints, bike tire prints, pawprints, and crushed vegetation.  If you are finding a lot of fresh evidence mark that location as a possible, but not likely place.  If you actually meet people there, then cross that location off the map.  Visit several places, and if you find one where there is no evidence of people, you have scored a walking area.  If you have found some places with some evidence of people walking there, visit a few times and see if you can determine when you can avoid people.

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This is an excellent site for working with a reactive dog.  I can see if there are other people or dogs in the distance and take steps to avoid problems while allowing my dog the opportunity to walk in a very normal way.  If I am concerned about my dog biting, I will muzzle him even if I don’t expect to meet anyone.  Muzzling is more preplanning you can do to help your dog have a successful off leash experience.  Preplanning is all about making sure that if it could go wrong, it doesn’t.  I teach all dogs including non reactive dogs to wear a muzzle.  In this case, Eco was wearing a muzzle because he was on our reactive dog walk where all the dogs wear muzzles as a safety precaution.  I also teach a rock solid down at a distance so that I can put the brakes on if I need to do so.    Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

This link leads to the map of where I hold my reactive dog walks.  http://tinyurl.com/jvpuy8e . Over the four years I have been walking there with dogs with behaviour problems I have never met a person or dog there, and yet it is right in a neighbourhood full of hundreds of people who could walk there if they wanted to do so.  If you look at the “A” marked on the map, that is where Dogs in the Park is, so this is a short three minute walk from the training hall.  I visited this location every Sunday for three weeks before moving my walk there; I wanted to be certain that I would not run into people with my crew of reactive dogs.  Preplanning pays off.

Not only must you preplan where you are going to take your dog, but you must preplan what you are going to do.  If you are the owner of a reactive dog, you have a responsibility to always attend to that dogs’ behaviour.  If you are not able to attend to him at all times, then you may not be able to work with your dog off leash.  While walking your reactive dog off leash, you need to be aware that on public property, anyone could show up at any time and you need to be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to call your dog back to you and leave if it is no longer in your dog’s best interest to have him off leash.  Keep in mind this isn’t about your right to do this activity; this is all about your responsibility to YOUR dog.  Being responsible to YOUR dog keeps my dog safe.  This is not an activity to do with your kids, or when you have a head ache; this is an activity to do when you can give your whole attention to what you are doing.

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This is our off leash reactive dog walk called the Good Dog Walk.  All of the dogs have behaviour problems of one sort or another.  Everyone is paying attention to the dogs in order to assure that we can prevent any problems from happening.  If you are unable to attend to your dog, then don’t take him out!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

If the area is not fenced and you think your dog might bolt, then dragging a long line is a great idea.  30 metres of long line dragging will allow you to catch your dog at any time, but allow the line to drag.  Don’t try and hold onto it.  Use a piece of bright tape to make off 10, 20 and 25 metres, so that you can see when your dog is getting far enough away that you should take action.  Call first and if he does not come, step on the line.  I like to call dogs when they are at about twenty metres and stop them by stepping on the line at 25 metres if they haven’t come.  This teaches the dog not to stray, but doesn’t interfere with his normal and natural behaviour.

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Long lines are great tools to help your dog to stay close to you while he is learning to work off leash.  Notice that this dog is calm and under control?  This is the behaviour you want before letting your dog go and explore.  If your dog is straining at the leash and staring at things, then wait till he is calm and relaxed before starting out.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Just what do I want the dog to do?  Pretty much whatever he wants.  If he wants to sniff around, let him.  If he wants to lie in a puddle, allow that too.  This may be the first time that your reactive dog can just choose to do what makes him happy.  Most of the time when we are working with reactive dogs we are micromanaging what they are doing to avoid them going over threshold.  You see another dog in the distance?  You ask the reactive dog to look at you and not engage in the other dog, and then ask him to sit or lie down.  Every action that your dog does may have been micromanaged, possibly for years.  This level of micromanagement may keep your dog from going over threshold, but it sure doesn’t help him to be relaxed and confident and that is part of what being off leash gives us.

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Although you want to have control over the situation, off leash walks should be an opportunity for your reactive dog to do things he wants to do; picking things up, sniffing and looking where he wants to look are all things that he cannot do when you are micromanaging a walk on a leash.  Micromanagement makes reactivity worse, not better.  If your reactive dog has dog friends, taking them for walks together is even better because your dog will learn through social facilitation what is safe and what is dangerous.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

The other thing that you must do is move.  Your dog should get ahead of you, engage in the environment and then lag behind.  You should encourage checking in, but you should also be checking what interests your dog.  There is a huge difference between the conversation that you have when you have a reactive dog and you are orchestrating every little motion, and the conversation you have when you go over to look at the raccoon fur that is snagged on a branch that your dog has found.  Developing a two way conversation with your reactive dog can go a long way to helping him to relax and enjoy himself.  In my opinion, this is an essential step in success with a reactive dog.

In truly urban environments it can be very difficult to find a truly natural safe environment to explore with your dog.  I have had good success with these dogs in taking them to places like blind alleys and allowing them to explore the local dumpster on a long line.  The opportunity to be in a place where they are not going to be startled and be able to just smell things and explore things and toilet when they want to do so is essential to good mental health for all of us, and when we cannot get to a rural place, sometimes we have to compromise.  Always we have to keep in mind our responsibility to keep our reactive dogs below threshold, not only because of the risk to others, but because every time that a reactive dog goes off, it is a penny in the bank account of anxiety and frustration, which only leads to more reactivity.

As a final word, I would like to mention that walking your reactive dog down the street on leash, through the triggers that will set him off is at best a fool’s errand that will never result in the relaxed companion you are aiming for.  So where do you walk?  If you have a vehicle, my best place for leash walking is a grocery store parking lot.  You will see few other dogs, it is a large area where you can see people approaching and there are loads of places you can duck into in order to avoid triggers.  Walking your reactive dog should be an exercise in developing confidence and relaxation for both you and your dog, and if you are constantly hyper vigilant to the things that might set your dog off, you are never going to teach him to accept his triggers; at best you are going to teach him to trust that you are his best early warning system.  At worst you are going to teach him that hyper vigilance is the normal state of being.

OFF LEASH WITH REACTIVE DOGS

STUNTS

Originally posted May 2013

I have been seeing a lot of people lately engaging in what I would refer to as stunts.  One of these stunts is sometimes marketed as “reality” training, where dogs are left on a down stay outside of a store while the owner goes in.  The dogs are unattended and un-tethered.  These dogs are really clear that a down stay is a down stay is a down stay, but let’s think about this.  Is this really a good idea?  I have dogs who could do this if I asked them to do so, and in fact, I have done this in times past.  Learn and grow I always say.  I learned and I grew, and now, I don’t do it unless there is an emergency.  I cannot think what that emergency might be, but I will never say never.  I will just say that I would have to be pretty convinced that an out of sight, public down stay might be necessary.

Is the dog under control?  Yes.  The dog understands that he must not move.  In the world of protection work for instance, the goal is to train to this level and the dog understands that if he moves, bad things will happen.  This looks like a great idea and it is a wonderful piece of theater.  I remember revelling in my earlier days as a trainer, doing stunts like this.  Then I grew a little bit and I started to realize that doing this is pretty darned disrespectful of my dog.  The dog may be under control, but there is no plan “B” for what will happen if the dog is startled or spooked out of his stay.  What will happen to the dog if he is stung by a bee, spooks and runs into the street?  What might happen is that the dog could be hit by a car.  Worse, someone might swerve to miss the dog, and hit a child.  Control is not the only element that should be taken into consideration.

I am seeing other stunts around town too.  Today I saw a small dog being led around the downtown core by a toddler who was maybe three or four years old.  Cute?  Yes.  Safe?  No.  The child doesn’t understand the risks of leading the dog and the dog doesn’t understand traffic and if the dog spooks and runs into traffic, then not only is the dog dead, but so is the kid.  This is a stunt, and mom may have thought that she was amusing both the kid and the dog, but it just wasn’t a good idea.

And then there are the dogs I am seeing off leash, with joggers and cyclists in the city.  These dogs are really the victims of stunts, because they are often being run through traffic.  As a runner in traffic, you are at risk but at least your body is usually taller than the hoods of most cars.  Your dog is not, and if the driver doesn’t realize that there is a dog loose in traffic, then he is are real risk for being hit by a vehicle.

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Fun?  You bet!  Safe?  No!  This is a recipe for disaster.  Image credit: sonyae / 123RF Stock Photo

Not all stunts are set up on purpose.  A colleague of mine lives on a corner lot in a beautiful neighbourhood.  She has a service dog who is completely reliable.  One day, the dog was let out to toilet and the family went back in the house for a few moments.  A couple of minutes later, they looked out and the dog was out of sight.  They called and she reappeared and came in the house.  Not a big deal, until you find out that a neighbour observed a car slow down and someone get out and try and coax the dog out of her own yard and into a car.  When you cannot observe your dog directly, you are depending that everyone around you is kind and honest and not intending to do harm to your dog, and sadly, that just isn’t the case some of the time.

Another stunt I regularly see happens in barns with horses.  I am a recreational rider, and I often see dogs in barns, off leash, just doing their thing.  On the surface, this doesn’t look like a stunt, but in a dog who doesn’t live with horses, and horses who don’t live with the dog, this sort of stunt can result in danger to both the horse and the dog.  Worse, if you are mounted and coming back into the barn yard and your horse is faced with a loose dog she doesn’t know, you risk that the horse will spook, the rider may fall and the dog may get injured by the horse, or the horse by the dog.  No one wins in this sort of a situation.

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If this was my pony and your dog, I would be really annoyed.  Even when the horses and the dogs know one another, supervision makes for safer interactions.  Image credit: virgonira / 123RF Stock Photo

Every day I see stunts around me in the name of training.  Doing an off leash heeling routine in a public square away from traffic is one thing, but doing the same thing through traffic is another.  Doing a sit stay by a statue (something I have been doing with D’fer for many years) when I am right there is relatively safe; leaving that dog at the statue while I go out of sight is grand standing and doesn’t respect my dog.

When you have a dog in modern society, you have to take into account a number of really important things.  The dog is incapable of understanding the risks of the environment he lives in.  A hundred and fifty years ago, putting your dog out to toilet was not a big deal.  Horses could hurt a dog, but there were many more horses and the dogs learned early how to behave around them.  Dogs who didn’t learn, learned the ultimate lesson and were killed.  It was a slower time and there were fewer people interested in stealing or harming a dog.  You knew more of your neighbours and people didn’t show up randomly in your neighbourhood as often as we see now.

So what can you do in public with your dog?  In traffic, please keep your dog on a leash.  Walking your dog off leash just isn’t safe and it is a stunt that could cost your dog his life.  If you need to go into a store, tie your dog and ask him to stay.  Yes, my dog CAN stay out of sight for a very long time (I once left a dog on a down stay in the training room to answer a phone call and came back forty minutes later to find him snoozing on the floor where I left him!), but I have no need to risk my dog’s life to prove that fact.  Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.  If you want to take a picture of your dog in public, by all means use your stay to the level you have trained it, but don’t leave the vicinity and hope for the best.

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In an urban environment where traffic and dogs and people share space, a leash is a must no matter how well your dog is trained.  Image credit: vvoennyy / 123RF Stock Photo

If you want to introduce your dog to horses, make sure that one person is controlling the horse and one person is controlling the dog while you train your dog to do things that are safe around your horse.  If your dog is frightened of your horse, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  If you want to spend time with your dog and your horse together, orchestrate what you want them both to be doing.  When I am grooming my horse if my dogs are around, I will put out a mat or send the dog to a bale of hay to lie down while I am grooming.  If I am riding, I will have a spot for my dog to do a down stay in the event that I am in an arena or riding ring where it is safe for my dog to be.  If I want my dog to heel with me, I will teach both my horse and my dog to work together instead of hoping that they will both figure it out.

The bottom line is that we are responsible for both what happens because of our dogs and what happens to our dogs and it doesn’t matter if we are there to observe the activity or not.  If you leave your dog on a down stay out of sight and a child comes up and teases your dog and your dog bites the child, you are responsible.  If you are crossing the street and your dog is off leash and he darts between the cars and is hit, that is also your responsibility.  An important lesson to consider is that it need not be your fault in order to be your responsibility.

STUNTS

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

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

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

Little toddler boy, playing with his little brother at home
These brothers have different needs, abilities and interests. Treating them equally would not be fair to them! Instead if we engage them in activities that take advantage of their differences, they will both be happy and successful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAIR IS NOT EQUAL

THE KILLER WHALE AND THE KETTLE

Originally posted July 2013

Just today, someone sent me the link to Blackfish, the documentary film that re-examines the deaths of three whale trainers attributed to Tillikum, the killer whale.  This documentary led me to do some reading again about the work that is done with killer whales, and what the industry thinks about punishment and aggression and how these things are linked.  I have also been getting a lot of posts on my Facebook page about how we don’t use punishment with zoo animals and thus we ought not use punishment with our dogs.  Most of the time, I agree that punishment is not the right tool for the job.  Some of the time though, it may be the best alternative.  To be clear, punishment is anything that decreases behaviour.  I don’t touch the hot kettle on the stove because it will hurt.  My touching of hot kettles is a very low frequency behaviour because I understand intimately and deeply that it will hurt if I do so and I really don’t want that outcome to occur.

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I would not reach out and touch this hot kettle; I know that I would hurt my hand if I did.  I also don’t worry about it if I am sitting next to it.  I understand that I can control if I will get hurt or not.  When I touch such an item by accident, I am not traumatized, in part because I am flexible and can cope with a certain amount of unpleasant experience.  Image credit: comzeal / 123RF Stock Photo

If you read through my blogs you will see that I DO use positive punishment and sometimes intentionally and sometimes fairly heavy positive punishment. If you are on my farm, regardless of who you are; a dog, a squirrel, a bird, a raccoon or a coyote, or a person, and you touch the hot wire on my fence, you will get hurt.  The hot wire is an electric fence wire that runs on the top of my fence to keep dogs in and critters out.  It is a simple rule that no one on the farm gets particularly stressed about. It is very much like the rule about hot kettles.  If you touch the kettle when it is hot, it will hurt. It is a simple rule that everyone in the house understands and to my knowledge no one in the house is stressed about.

When I am training, I always ask the animal about how he experiences the process, and there are tons of questions to ask. Did you understand me? I have seen many, many trainers who don’t understand that confusion is incredibly aversive, and they are busy feeling great about the fact that they are only using R+ but the dog is more and more stressed because he is confused. At a seminar John went to once he came home and told me about a clicker trainer on stage trying to get a dog to do something; the dog was confused and stressed and the trainer kept talking about breaking the behaviour down into smaller increments; the problem wasn’t the method of the training; the problem was that no one had asked the dog if he was comfortable or happy.  Heck no one had asked the dog if he wanted to be on stage!

When I was training my dog Crow, as I write about in my blog (http://tinyurl.com/blc89ce) we had one big stumbling block.  Leash manners. He was terrible on leash. After two years of trying to use only R+ and P-, I “resorted” to a prong collar. We were both so much happier after that, that I learned that I will never ever “resort” to pain as a training tool again. Now if I choose to use pain, I CHOOSE. I choose to use pain, and yes, sometimes making the lesson clear is much more important than avoiding all pain.  Pain can be less aversive than confusion to many learners.

What most folks, (including the author of Coercion and its Fallout) miss is that pain in isolation is stressful.  Pain that happens repeatedly without warning and that you cannot control is very stressful, but pain that you understand and can avoid is not. If you are not walking around in fear of your electrical sockets, your tea kettle or your woodstove then you understand this on a much deeper level than you realize. I am well educated about contingent control over behaviour. Non contingent punishment is extremely stressful. We have a special name for this; we call it torture. I do not torture my learners. But I do sometimes use P+. When I give D’fer the hairy eyeball when we are in an airport and he is in a goofy mood and is thinking about doing something funny in security, I am using P+. He understands this, and it is not a conditioned P+; he understands that my dirty look is disapproval of his behaviour, and he tones down. He is not stressed because he can control that disapproval. When I am in a bad temper though and I am stomping around a hotel room in a funk, packing and worrying about being late, he IS stressed because there is nothing he can do. He is helpless.

Coming back to the killer whales, and the other marine mammals in captivity that are being so successfully trained using only positive reinforcement, we need to understand something about the difference between a captive zoo animal and a household pet.  This is that most people cannot provide that much structure to their dogs.  If you are a complete control nerd, and you really like ensuring that your dog never ever encounters any stimulus that you don’t have control over, then yes, you can likely train absolutely 100% without any unpleasant consequences.  The problem is, who lives like this?  My life with dogs is fairly structured, but my clients certainly don’t keep their dogs in the sort of controlled environment that zoos and aquaria keep their animals within.  This means that some of the time, we are faced with situations where the dog is going to have opportunities to behave in ways that aren’t what we want.

What is interesting to me is that I started out as a jerk and treat trainer and I changed as I learned more. I started out using pain to gain control over behaviours. I then switched over to being a completely R+ trainer. I was as R+ as I could be. The more I learned and listened and thought and researched and studied, the more that I learned that P+ can sometimes have a place.  It is as important as any of the other quadrants, as important as classical conditioning and as important as extinction (if you want to see a stressed animal have a watch at an animal going through extinction-they are often very distressed and it is highly unpleasant for the learner and for the trainer), and yet it is trampled down and labeled as inhumane. There are a lot worse things in my life than remembering not to touch the hot wire or using a tool that will cause pain to resolve a behaviour quickly and efficiently. When I had a dog who was predatory to my chickens, yes, I used a shock collar. I guarantee that my dog was less stressed than the two chickens he disemboweled and killed. I used a shock collar on a dog who had been through several surgeries to remove rocks from his gut. That was far less stressful than the surgeries were.

I think that in the world of training we can easily become academically lazy. If you can train a killer whale without shock, why not the dog who is eating rocks? Let’s look at that. We are comparing apples and oranges.  If I had a killer whale who was eating non food items, it would be easy enough to put the whale in a tank without anything non edible in it. If I wanted to teach a wild killer whale not to eat non food items using positive reinforcement only, I would be entirely unsuccessful.  The world itself would put an end to this behaviour the day that the learner ate the first deadly thing.  Shooting the dog is indeed, as Karen Pryor so strongly pointed out, the ultimate in end games for behaviours.  Dead whales don’t eat non food things ever.

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It is an exciting time to be involved with dog behaviour consulting, practice and research.  So much is available to us in terms of information, research and data.  The last thing we can afford to do is to be academically lazy.  We must question what we know, and examine what we do each and every day.  Image credit: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

I cannot put the dog in a position where he is never exposed to rocks; he lives in a house with kids who bring things inside of the house. He goes on walks outside of the house with rocks in the environment.  There are rocks everywhere and I have few choices in how to stop him from eating them.  A muzzle is a good first step and in the short term, this will work, but in high heat, this will kill my learner and that is not the outcome I am looking for.  In that case, I will choose to use punishment, and likely a pretty significant one.  What I want to do though is to set up a contingency that the dog can learn as clearly as I understand that touching my electric hot wire is going to hurt.  I make mistakes from time to time, but I don’t repeatedly touch the hot wire.  The frequency of my touching the fence is about once a month or less.  I never intentionally touch the wire when it is on, and I am not afraid of the fence because I understand the outcome of doing so.

And let’s look at the zoo animals. In case anyone is interested, I am as strongly opposed to keeping wild animals in captivity as most of the R+ trainers are against the use of P+. I think it is morally reprehensible and I will not be a party to it, but it does provide an interesting contrast to what we do with dogs. Let’s consider the life of your average killer whale in a tank. Do you know that they cannot properly ecolocate within the echoing concrete of the tanks they live within? Do you realize that these animals typically travel several hundred miles a day, and we keep them in tanks of less than ten acres in size? Do you realize that they are environmentally enriched less than 50% of their days? Do you know that they are likely on par with us in terms of our intellectual capacity? Can you imagine what it would be like to live in your kitchen for the rest of your life with exciting trips to the living room once a day to “interact” with a trainer? I think that what we do to zoo animals is far more inhumane and horrendous than what I do with positive punishment.  Yes, we can get spectacular responses from all kinds of animals when the only game in town is what we offer them for the few hours a day that they are able to come out and train with us.

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This sterile environment is where captive whales spend most of their time, with little to do and a tank that is so small that they cannot echolocate and communicate normally.  We never use pain to train these incredible creatures, but we keep them in such appalling conditions, that using no pain to train seems like a small nod indeed to humane treatment of the learner.  Image credit: ozbandit / 123RF Stock Photo

I want people to think about never ever again being able to say “thank you, no, I don’t want that” to your child, your spouse, your parent or your sibling. In training, punishment is the tool we use in place of “no. don’t do that”. If you want an interesting week, frame every conversation you have for the week in terms of thank you for trying, I would like something else. Never ever say no, just reframe your request in terms of “thank you, please do something different.” It doesn’t work any better if you frame everything you do in terms of only attending to the things you like without any other information.  Sometimes that will work, and more often than not, it will not. What often happens in the classroom when teachers try this is that the willing students will be successful and willing, the students who don’t care will not advance at all and the students who are not compliant will become more and more and more creative in ways to try and get the information about what is not allowed.  Often this tactic results in a very frustrated trainer and an even more frustrated learner.

There are two interesting and competing theories in Applied Behaviour Analysis that do not get discussed nearly often enough.  They are called two factor and one factory theory.  Two factor theory says that when negative reinforcement is used, both operant learning and classical learning happen at the same time.  This means that not only will the learner increase his behaviour, but he will develop a classical association with the signals that the aversive stimulus may occur, and will suffer distress when the signal is present.  This is the most common argument that I have heard for why people eschew the use of both negative reinforcement and positive punishment.  By extension, when this concept is applied to positive reinforcement, not only will the behaviour increase, but the signal that a appetitive or pleasant outcome is available will produce good feelings in the learner.  The problem is that there is some good research out there indicating that this may not in fact be happening.  Pavlov may NOT be part of every single interaction you have with your learner.  One factor theory says that only one thing is occurring at a time; that if you increase a behaviour through negative reinforcement or decrease a behaviour through positive punishment, the only thing that is happening is an increase or decrease in behaviour; the procedure is entirely operant.  People who believe strictly in one factor theory would argue that you are simply increasing or decreasing the frequency of a behaviour when you train.  Two factor theorists would argue that the learner’s well being is attached to the choice of method of behavioural change.

I would like to propose a third option; that is that some of the time, two factor theory is relevant and some of the time, one factor theory prevails.  From my observations of over thirty years of training, when the animal has work that is meaningful to him, and an environment that he can predict and control through his behaviour, then one factor theory is going to control.  When the animal is uncertain, his welfare is dicey and his work is not meaningful, then two factor theory will be the more important scenario.  In my opinion the difference between the whale in the tank and the dog in my home is that with the domestic dog who evolved to fill the niche that was created by the detritus of the human environment is that the dog is usually a stable individual in his native environment.  Of course two factor theory will prevail when you are talking about training animals who live in horrendously suboptimal environments.

Punishment isn’t something I use often, but I do use it and I support the use of it in some situations. Understanding about two factor and one factor theory has helped me to see that learners experience both or either operant and classical conditioning some of the time depending a lot on their state of mind and welfare.    Most of the time, punishment is misused because it is very poorly understood.  Most of the time it is not the right tool for the job. Some of the time though, I believe it is.    When the conditions are right, and the one factor theory is in effect, it can be very helpful.  Punishment doesn’t have to have baggage with it; sometimes it is just a kettle we should not touch.  Done properly, that is exactly the effect.

THE KILLER WHALE AND THE KETTLE

THE BLAME GAME

Originally posted August 2013

One of the most popular games that people play with their dogs is the blame game.  As a society, we love this game.  If the dog is rude and overbearing with guests, then it is Dad’s fault because he plays roughly with the dog.  Or if the dog attacks other dogs it is because the older dog taught the younger dog in the house to growl at strange dogs.  Blame is lots of fun.

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I think this is often how my clients feel when they have a dog with a problem behaviour.  Blaming people for the problem just isn’t helpful.  Blame doesn’t change the behaviour.  Blame is what we do when we want people to take responsibility for things that we want changed.  Image credit: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo

As a behaviour consultant, I don’t get to play the blame game.  It can be interesting to know where the problem originated, and sometimes it is helpful to know when a trauma occurred or if the dog suffered an illness that prevented him from going to puppy class, but the fact is that the blame game just doesn’t work with dogs with behaviour problems.  It is often said that dogs live in the now, and when it comes to specific behaviours this is really important information.  The dog doesn’t pee on the bed while you are away because he is angry; he pees on the bed because his bladder is full and he doesn’t have to stand in a puddle of pee if he pees on the bed.  As a behaviour consultant, I have to look at the behaviours that are problematic and instead of blaming someone for the problem, look at the variables to determine what can be changed to change the behaviour.

It can be helpful to look at a case in order to get the idea of how to look at behaviour problems without blame.  If we have an adolescent Labrador named Lulu, and she is jumping up on people and knocking them over, we have a problem.  If her people, Larry and Lucy come to me for help, I will ask a bunch of questions about Lulu.  How many pups were in her litter?  At what age did she come home from the breeder’s?  Did she go to puppy class?  What have Larry and Lucy tried already?  When did she last go to the vet, and is she healthy?  In gathering this information, I want to know things that will help me to rule out some strategies that might not work.  If there were very few puppies in the litter or if she was a singleton, she is more likely to have impulse control issues.  That tells me that we may be looking at teaching her impulse control exercises.  If she came home before six weeks of age, this may also contribute to a lack of good impulse control.  If she didn’t go to a puppy class then the chances are that Lucy and Larry may not have the skills to address the problem, and Lulu may not have had enough of the appropriate people to help her to meet people appropriately.  Puppy class can help you to find the right people to meet and greet with a solid structure on how to do that.  If Lucy and Larry have already tried penny shake cans, kneeing Lulu in the chest, stepping on her hind feet, and grabbing her roughly around the neck, then I know that Lulu may be conflicted about wanting to greet but not knowing how to do that properly.  If Lulu went to the vet and she has an eye infection, and the jumping up got worse since the eye became infected, she may be quite agitated and uncomfortable and may not be making great decisions.

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Dogs who are ill often don’t make great behavioural decisions.  Getting sick is no one’s fault, and laying blame in one place or another doesn’t help.  Realizing that the dog is sick and getting him help is a much better solution when changing behaviours.  Image credit: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo

The next thing I am going to look at is what is maintaining the behaviour.  Why does this behaviour keep happening?  Lulu doesn’t jump up against cement walls, or the fridge door.  She doesn’t jump up against the hood of the car, or her crate; she only jumps up on people.  Likely, even if people do their very best not to interact with Lulu she gets something out of the behaviour.  She gets attention if you make eye contact, she gets touch if you hold your arms up against your body to protect yourself and if she is confused, she resolves her confusion by jumping up and eliciting the known response when she does this; see my blog “THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION” at http://dogsinthepark-suenestnature.blogspot.ca/2013/06/they-do-it-to-get-attention.html.

Notice that so far, there is no blame; just facts.  The first thing I am going to do from here is to define my target behaviour.  With Lulu, I want her to learn to greet with all four feet on the floor.  I don’t care how happy she is or how excited she is, I just want to her to keep her feet to herself when she is greeting.  We can do this lots and lots of ways, but before I decide what technique or method I will choose with Lulu, I will decide what I want her to do.  Given that Lulu appears to have a likelihood of impulse control issues, and Larry and Lucy have already tried to stop the unwanted behaviour by doing things that are unpleasant to the dog, I am going to start with some tactics that may not seem to have anything to do with the problem at hand.  I would start by taking a week’s vacation from greeting anyone other than family members, so that Lulu stops practicing the unwanted behaviour.  When the family greats Lulu, I will have them drop treats on the floor so that Lulu is doing something that she cannot do while she is jumping up.  I will also have the family crouch to greet Lulu for this week so that once she has cleaned up her treats, then they aren’t setting her up to greet inappropriately.  Still…no blame.

Once Lulu has had a whole week of not practicing the undesired behaviour, then I can start to teach her the skills of keeping four feet on the floor when greeting.  If we are approaching her and she has her feet on the floor we can mark that behaviour and drop a treat on the floor and move away while she is eating for instance.  Or we can use a delta signal to tell her to change her behaviour and then mark the undesired response and she can lose a turn.  There are dozens of very elegant solutions to teaching a dog not to jump up when greeting, but the important part is to keep in mind that Larry and Lucy have already tried using an unpleasant outcome without success, so we want to avoid doing that again.  I don’t blame my clients for trying tactics that I might not try, but I can avoid repeating things that didn’t work.

Ideally, Lulu would have come from a larger litter, come home at about 8 weeks, gone to a great puppy socialization class, and learned early how to greet appropriately before she was 16 weeks of age.  Ideally, Larry and Lucy would have tried more effective interventions than they chose, and ideally, Lulu wouldn’t have an eye infection.  None of the things that happened to Lulu are anyone’s fault but they do contribute to how we approach the behaviour now, and blaming Lucy for insisting on getting a very young puppy or blaming Larry for giving Lulu a bath and getting dirt in her eye isn’t going to change what we are dealing with in the here and now.

Prevention is always the best cure.  We can make ourselves feel really great if we think we always know the right answer, but we don’t always know, and neither do my clients.  As we learn more, we do better.  We know now that the best way to prevent jumping up is to teach the dog to greet politely when they are young and reward for the right answer, but when we are looking at behaviour, playing the blame game just doesn’t change the behaviour of the dog we are working with in front of us.  When clients come and ask for help, it is important that I recognize that they are not looking for blame; they are looking for help.  They have taken responsibility for the problem and they are addressing that by coming to me for help.  As long as they are coming to classes and working on their problems, then blaming from me or from the family members shouldn’t be a part of the program; it just isn’t going to help.  Lucy and Larry and Lulu are tangled up in a problem and they are looking for solutions not blame.  I need information, but not so that I can assign blame.  I need to know things in order to formulate a solution.  People tend to use blame when they think that someone isn’t taking responsibility when they ought to.  If clients are in my training hall they have already taken responsiblity, and so blame just doesn’t belong there as a part of the process.

THE BLAME GAME