GRATUITOUS CUING

I do say no to things that I think are completely gratuitous.
Amber Valletta (American Actress and Model).

 

In the past couple of weeks I have noticed a lot of chatter online about something I call gratuitous cuing. As the name implies this is asking a dog to do something just because you want him to do that. The dog is minding his own business, hanging out, maybe lying down and relaxed while the owner is chatting with someone and for no reason other than his own need to show that he can, the owner calls the dog over. There is nothing in it for the dog and the dog may not want to go there, but the owner asks the dog to come anyhow. On the surface you may wonder what the problem is. Let’s look at what this does.

The dog is on his own agenda. There are dogs who just love to do whatever it is that you want, but for the most part, dogs do what is important to them. If your dog is lying down and relaxed, and you call him so that you can touch him, just because you want to touch him, think about what this says to the dog.  There are a a certain percentage of dogs who love being touched to the extent that it will be rewarding for them to interrupt what they are doing and do what you want them to do. There are other dogs though who are just tired and want to rest and if they haul themselves to their feet to do as you ask and get nothing for their efforts that they want, then they will stop coming so willingly over time. When the behaviour you ask for is gratuitous, eventually the dog will stop doing the behaviour even if he wants the reinforcer. Why might this be? In a word, dignity. It is not dignified to be treated without respect.

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This dog is completely asleep. Waking her just because you can is unkind but something I see people do “just because I can”. Don’t wake your dog gratuitously! doing so is damaging to the respect you should have for your dog and will degrade the respect your dog has for you! Copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

When we live with an animal and we want him to take us seriously, we have to start at a point where we take him seriously first. We have to meet his needs to be a dog, and we have to recognize that our agenda may not always be convenient from the dog’s point of view. One of the biggest complaints that people have about dogs is their uncanny ability to interrupt us just when we sit down to read a book, work on the computer or talk on the phone. We don’t like to be interrupted when we are engaged in activities that are meaningful to us in one way or another and yet, we seem to think it is okay to call the dog to us just because we want to touch or be touched.

The dog notices when we are being calm and still and when we are unlikely to disengage from a task to interrupt them in the activities that are important to dogs. Consider what dogs often do when you get busy with something that you cannot just drop. Often the dog will take that opportunity to engage in activities that they need peace and quiet to complete. When I sit down at the computer, my dogs will often go lie down for a nap; sitting down at the computer is a pretty good signal that I won’t take a notion to go and feed the horses, or take a walk or throw a Frisbee. Those are things that we do together that are meaningful for both of us. Sitting down at the computer means that they can catch a nap without interruption.

Many of my clients have a different experience though. Many of my clients will sit down to read a book and their dogs, realizing that they won’t be interrupted will go and get into things they ought not. A reading human is an opportunity for free access to the trash bin in the bathroom, or uninterrupted counter surfing. Why is it that my dogs sleep when I sit down and disengage from them, but other people’s dogs get into mischief?

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This is what I want my dogs to do when I am working! In order to get them to do this, I take the time to teach them what I want and then allow them to do that without interrupting them. They don’t bother me when I am busy and I don’t bother them when they are busy, and that means that when either of us needs something, we can interrupt and expect to be taken seriously. If this dog needs to go out, she can get up and interrupt her human to make her needs known, but if she doesn’t need something she won’t get in the way of the person’s work day. Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

The answer is very simple. To start with I don’t ask my dogs to do things that are without meaning. We have such a strong history of doing things that the dogs find meaningful that when I ask them to do something that doesn’t have meaning, the dogs assume that there is some meaning that will be disclosed at some later point. The next thing to keep in mind is that I don’t sit down with a book with young puppies without a plan. If I want to sit down with a book, I have somewhere for the puppy to go, or something for him to do. When my dogs get older I work to ensure that they know that when I pick up a book or sit at my computer, they know that doing so is a signal to them to lie down. By intentionally teaching this instead of accidentally teaching this, my dogs are never left to wonder about what they ought to be doing when I disengage from them.

Calling your dog or disturbing his sleep just to show off how well trained he is has no meaning for the dog and if you really think about it, it is a very disrespectful thing to do, even if you do give him a reward. Dogs who are regularly called “just because” start to weigh whether a reward will be worth leaving something they want to do instead of coming when you need them to do so. Dogs who are woken when they are sleeping, especially when they are startled, can become aggressive because they don’t like being wakened this way. If you need to wake a dog, do it the way that you would like to be wakened, which usually means gently and carefully.

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When your relationship with your dog is deep and meaningful to both of you, you reflect one another. Jumping up can be invited because you have come to an agreement about what is acceptable in your relationship. By not cuing gratuitously, you open the door to meaningful play, and activities that you both enjoy; you reflect one another. Copyright: alanpoulson / 123RF Stock Photo

Think carefully about how you interact with your dog; if your goal is to develop a meaningful relationship with him, then you need to spend time relaxing with him and not asking for behaviours that don’t hold any meaning to him. Then you need to teach him some of the things you want him to know how to do such as coming when called, sitting or lying down and staying and walking nicely on leash. When your dog has some skills find places to use them where they will be meaningful to your dog; walking nicely on leash around the block can be an exercise in frustration for both of you; it is gratuitous to do it just because. On the other hand walking nicely on leash between the house and the car makes sense to the dog; there is a reason to do the behaviour. The more often you think about how a behaviour looks from the learner’s point of view, the better your relationship will become.

In my own experience, when you ask for meaningful behaviours that are appropriate in context to your dog, something else happens. You dog decreases his casual interruptions of your own day. Things smooth out. When you ask for meaningful behaviour, and have taught your dog that you won’t ask for behaviours “just because” your dog will in turn stop harassing you when you are busy. Your dog will reflect what you give him, and that is a really powerful step to take with your non human partner.

GRATUITOUS CUING

RATED R

Originally posted Sunday, May 19, 2013

My dad had a method of rating movies. G movies were good. PG movies were pretty good. R movies were Rotten. XR movies were extra rotten. And when it comes to dog behaviour one of the behaviours people often struggle with are the R rated behaviours; any sexual behaviour and especially humping. Humping seems to be the equivalent of a full frontal nudity scene in a movie; it is at that point where people seem to reliably exhibit one of two reactions; utter fascination or total revulsion. I will warn you now, that if you are squeamish and you don’t want to read about sexual behaviour in dogs, the time to stop reading is right now, because this blog is all about….humping.

Let’s start at the start with the fact that humping is a normal behaviour. Some dogs seem to do more of it than others and some dogs don’t seem to do it at all. Dogs who do it, do it regardless of if they are intact or neutered, male or female. It has nothing to do with dominance. The target can be an object, another dog or a human. Or the cat. And pet owners seem to be endlessly fascinated by it, talking about it, observing it, describing it and ascribing motives to it.

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Humping is a normal behaviour and it doesn’t matter how big or small the humper is, or the humpee!

Dominance is the term used to describe the hierarchy between two or more individuals of the same species when there is a limited resources. I have observed dogs humping in a very wide variety of contexts and I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access over a resource. You could argue that the humper has control over the humpee, but in my experience, if the humpee doesn’t want to be humped they have very clear ways of explaining that to the humper. If the humper doesn’t listen, then other dogs will often come in to the rescue of the unwilling recipient. Not always, but often. Just this weekend, we are boarding a neutered male who spends much of his time trying to hump our intact bitch Friday. She is due to come into heat in about three months, so he isn’t trying to breed her, although neutered males will breed a bitch in heat. Furthermore, there is an intact male turned out with the neutered male and Friday, and he just doesn’t care that much. Friday will sometimes stand and allow him to hump, and the intact male will sometimes sniff the two of them if they are standing still, but most of the time, Friday uses a different tactic to keep this neutered male from bothering her. She likes to trot just fast enough to keep lover boy on his toes; just when he thinks he can get up on his hind legs, she darts out of his way. Yes, she is a flirt. Today at about three in the afternoon, she must have had enough, because she started running really fast whenever he approached, and when he tried to mount her while she was getting a drink, she turned around and pinned him to the ground. She was really clear when she was done playing the hump me game.

So consider this. The humper got nothing. Friday got a lot of exercise, but she is a very fit, young athletic dog and she wasn’t showing any signs of stress through the 36 hours or so (not continuously; she had turns in the house, and in her crate and out with her normal buddy) that the guest dog spent trying to hump her. When she had enough she explained very clearly to this dog that the game was over and interestingly, he respected that and stopped humping her. The intact male, the smallest of the three dogs didn’t care that the neutered male was humping the intact bitch, and he spent most of the time outside hunting grasshoppers and looking at the horses through the fence and sometimes playing tag with Friday and trying to get her to speed up enough to chase him. How could this be dominance, when the definition of dominance requires that there is some gain for the winner? Could it be that this interaction might possibly have simply been play? That is what I suspect it was. And often that is what I think we see; humping as a normal part of play.

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Here a spayed bitch is humping an intact bitch who is tugging with a neutered male.  This is a completely normal behaviour.  The intact bitch’s ears are pinned not because she is stressed but because she is using her jaw, head and neck muscles to tug with the neutered male.

 

Puppies may start showing this behaviour as early as 4 weeks in the litter. If mom is involved with the litter she will often teach the puppy what is an appropriate amount of humping, who and what they can hump. If the pups have been separated from their dam too early, some pups get to hump without interruption, and they can carry this behaviour further than we might like them to. If your pup is humping and in a puppy class, his classmates will help him to learn who, when and where he can hump, provided they are permitted to do so, and the humans support the humpee if he or she is asking for the humper to stop. A simple delta signal, or warning that says to change behaviour or face the music can help a lot. We say ‘that’s enough” if we feel a youngster is over doing the humping. If he stops and does something else, we allow him to continue playing. If he continues to hump in spite of the recipient asking him to stop and in spite of our warning signal, we say “too bad” and pick the pup up until he settles down and then we return him to play. In general though, the pups do a pretty good job of teaching one another when they should and should not be humping one another.

We often see this behaviour in the context of dogs who are very conflicted and aroused. When they are stressed and uncertain about what to do, we may see dogs humping one another, us or their toys. One of the easiest things to do about this is to address the underlying stresses that the dog is experiencing. This is a prime example of a situation where you really want to take care to use non confrontational training; if the dog is aroused and conflicted, then confronting the dog with an unpleasant consequence is only going to increase, not decrease the stress.

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Here is a humper who is clearly conflicted in some way; his facial expression is not relaxed and his humping is likely a response to just not being sure what to do.  Contrast his expression to that of the humpee who is fairly relaxed in his facial expression.  Photo credit:  Paul Shelbourne, Urban Dog.

There are a few dogs we have met who appear to have a sign tattooed to their hind ends that say the canine equivalent of “hump me, I’m Irish”. Like the human kiss me tee shirts, these don’t seem to be worn by the more confident outgoing dogs. We used to have a dog who boarded with us several times a year and no matter who we put him out with, or walked him with, he would get humped. The only reason he wasn’t humped in our living room is that we have a strict “take it outside” rule for humping that all of our resident dogs completely understand. This dog didn’t seem to mind, and in fact, when other dogs didn’t hump him, he would often throw his hind end into their faces. One of my assistants hypothesized that this may have been his particular way of asking other dogs to play with him. Whatever the reason, he didn’t seem to mind, and we didn’t interfere. This dog never had trouble working with any of the other dogs, including those who had humped him when loose together.

Dogs don’t just hump one another; they also hump things. About ten years ago, a veterinarian I worked with asked me to visit one of her patients in his home. At 9:00pm every evening, just after the kids went to bed, the dog was suspected of having seizures. Video cameras were much less common then, so she asked if I could drop by and observe for her and tell her what I saw. The dog lived in my neighbourhood and I was happy to oblige. I arrived at about 8:30 and the couple greeted me at the door. The kids were at a neighbour’s and we had the opportunity to watch this dog in action. The dog was a two year old neutered male maltese. I asked a bunch of questions and it turned out that this dog had a very extensive ritual that he went through before the “event”.

At 8:45, he would begin to pace and pant. He would get gradually more and more excited, and then he would start jumping against the cupboard door where one particular special toy was kept. I asked what would happen if they didn’t get the toy out. He became dangerously aggressive towards whomever was nearest. Dominance? Nope, they aren’t the same species. Let’s call this what it is; dangerous, obnoxious, rude behaviour that had been put on a reinforcement schedule. In other words, the family had taught the dog that by being aggressive he could get his toy.

At about five minutes to nine, the couple opened the door, got out a stuffed bear and gave it to the dog. The dog grabbed the toy and ran to the living room couch, jumped up and began to hump away like crazy. The husband started to get quite upset; “see”, he asked? “See, he is having a seizure!” Gently I tried to explain to them that the dog was masturbating and was very good at it. The husband turned beet red and the wife began to laugh. She was nearly hysterical with her laughter. I was left trying to “normalize” the information I had to share about normal behaviour in neutered males, but the more I explained the more the woman laughed, with tears eventually rolling down her cheeks.

About seven minutes after he started, the dog was finished and he relaxed, jumped off the couch and went to lie down in his bed and we were able to talk again. The husband was still fairly tense, but the wife kept breaking into giggles. What was so funny? Well, it turns out that at Christmas the past year, her uncle had a video camera and had taken film which he was showing around his seniors home in Florida, with the residents baffled at what the fluffy little white dog was doing to his bear.

In dozens if not hundreds of species, animal behaviourists have observed masturbating in both males and females. Kagaroos? Yes. Horses? Yes. Bonobos? It is pretty much the single most common behaviour they show, both in captivity and in the wild. And yes, domestic dogs masturbate. The solution I suggested and the family chose to take up was to do some obedience training at about twenty minutes to nine in the evening each night and then give the bear to the dog in a quiet private room. As a friend of mine told her five year old daughter-“that is something special we do by ourselves with the door closed.” As a side note, discussing this with the family it turned out that they were so afraid that the bear might be lost or damaged that they had gone to the petstore and found out where the bear was made, and special ordered twenty of them. Yes, they had a dresser drawer full of maltese terrier sized masturbation pillows.

I remember going to a John Rogerson seminar several years ago where he described collecting all the male police dogs each week in a large canine program he worked with. The image baffled the mind; ten young men and their German Shepherds, every Thursday afternoon sounds implausible, but that is what he claimed they did to prevent the dogs from spending time and energy humping things they ought not, or spending time in their crates masturbating instead of resting. I am not sure how well that worked, but according to John Rogerson, this was standard practice in this particular program.

I have also worked with bitches, both intact and spayed who have humped items as diverse as their owners, the arm of the living room couch, pillows, laundry and on one interesting case, a specific log in the yard. I have had clients who have put the behaviour on cue and brought it out as a party trick, not realizing what they have trained the dog to do. This behaviour is normal, and in my opinion the best thing to do when it happens is to redirect the dog onto an appropriate item in an appropriate place. It is important to understand that this behaviour is inherently self rewarding, and if you spend a lot of time trying to stop the dog from doing it, the dog is going to become difficult to handle. In the words of the Beatles…Let it be.

My exception to interrupting this behaviour is when the target of the dog’s affection is a non canine animal. When the target is the family cat or a child, then I intervene, immediately, with “that’s enough/too bad”. When the target is an able bodied adult, I teach them how to do this effectively. Combining this tactic with controlling arousal and opportunities to hump more appropriate opportunities usually resolves this problem very quickly.

There is some evidence that neutering before sexual maturity may decrease humping and I have seen this happen, but it doesn’t happen without behaviour modification support. Without boundaries and rules, whether imposed by people or by other dogs, the neutered dog is going to continue, for the same reason that masturbating occurs in every other species; because it feels good.

RATED R

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Yes go ahead.

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

  1. Thanks..

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

No. Thanks. Bye.

Thank you for calling BB & I Mike.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

THE SHOE IN THE CEILING

NEVER TURN YOUR BACK!

Originally posted May 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEVER TURN YOUR BACK!

THE GREATEST PEOPLE ON EARTH

Originally posted October 2011

I know a lady who got up at three o’clock every morning to walk her dog in the middle of the night because the dog was terrified of people.  She did this for eight years.  I know another lady who moved house, build a room in her home and kept her dog quietly at home because going out the front door was overwhelming to him.  Yet another person I know has spent thousands of dollars and countless hours on training, physio-therapy and medication to help her traumatized dog to recover from a car accident.

I am blessed to live in the company of people who care and care deeply about the dogs they live with.  To be fair, I chose a career that would throw me into their company, but I never imagined that I would meet the people I did along the way.  I have met dedicated, loyal, caring people who put their dogs ahead of many of their own needs.

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What would you do to help your dog? If your dog were afraid of people in your neighborhood, would you walk in the middle of the night to keep your feeling safe? My clients do this sort of thing and more! They really are the greatest people on earth! Copyright: thomas261 / 123RF Stock Photo

I write a lot about things that I see that I would like to make right.  I would like the injustices in the world all go away, and I speak my mind passionately when I see something going badly wrong.  I am equally passionate about my students.  They are truly incredible people who I deeply admire.

The dogs we work with help us along in so many special ways, but they don’t come through my door all by themselves.  They come in the company of people.  Some of the people they come with are hard to get along with, but it is important to realize that these people have made sacrifices on behalf of their dogs and have brought them in for help.  Sometimes they come along in the company of charming and interesting people, who enrich me beyond dog training; this is just gravy on the potatoes.  Everyone who brings a dog to me for help is a special and wonderful person because they care beyond themselves and they take steps to make the lives of their dogs better.

In our field, we sometimes see bumper stickers belonging to trainers that read things like “I love your dog-you not so much”, and I feel sad for the trainers who miss looking at both ends of the leash.  I don’t love all dogs or all people, but I have incredible respect and caring for those who live with the dogs who need my help.  At the end of the day, the difficult dogs go home with people who have to walk them and feed them, who have to enrich their environments and keep them safe.  We have the luxury of liking these dogs because we don’t have to accommodate their foibles, and those who do live with these dogs need our care and support and respect.

I like people.  If I didn’t, I think that in the final analysis, I would be a crappy trainer and behaviour consultant.  I like dogs too, but it is important to remember that the dogs don’t come without their people.  So here is my salute to my clients.

Thank you for caring about your dogs enough to build ramps so your old dogs can get into the car, for caring enough to buy a manual can opener so that your dog isn’t stressed by the noise of the electric one you used to use, for picking up all the rawhides so that resource guarding doesn’t happen, for walking your dogs on muzzle so that they don’t eat dead things.  You go above and beyond what so many of us do, and you are my heros.

THE GREATEST PEOPLE ON EARTH

BUT SHE IS BORED!

In North America, and likely in other parts of the developed world, we belong to the TV generation. If we don’t achieve a major milestone before the next commercial, then we don’t think we are successful, and we don’t think that we should continue along the route that we are already taking. In behaviour modification and training, slow and steady is almost always the key to success, and that doesn’t happen in the twelve and a half minutes that happen between network commercials. Perhaps if real dog training happened on network TV, people would have a better idea of what happens when you work on training with an animal. Wouldn’t that be a reality show? Four months of weekly installments on a puppy making great strides from time to time, interspersed with long periods of careful development of behaviours that form the foundation for more complex work.

 

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If this is the attitude you bring to your training sessions, your dog won’t be very interersted in what you are doing. Dogs are very emotional creatures and they notice if we are not paying attention or engaging in the task at hand. Attitude in training is very much a case of you get what you give! Copyright: fserega / 123RF Stock Photo

I have a couple of students in class at the moment who tell me that their dogs are bored. Let’s look at what it means to be bored. According to Wikipedia “Boredom has been defined by C. D. Fisher, in terms of its central psychological processes: “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boredom). There is more to it than that, and the boredom article goes on to discuss types of boredom and how they impact learning. Often what I notice in training is that the dog, in theory the learner, is not bored, but the trainer may be bored. Sometimes the dogs who are described as bored are independent and don’t really have buy in to the trainer’s agenda. So what can be done to better engage the trainer and the learner in the process, so that neither one of them experiences this unpleasant, transient affective state?

 

To start with, define what you want. If you want your dog to be interested in what you want her to do, you have to know what it is you want. If you have a dog who is mostly interested in doing his own thing, happy to turn his back on you, and engage with the universe as it interests him, then you are going to need to consider if what you really want is a dog who will engage with you. If you don’t then training is going to be a lot more challenging, because you are going to be in a battling economy of what is more valuable; me and the training process or every other thing in the environment. Attempting to train by being more interesting than dirt is hard work. Engagement with you is going to be rewarding for both you and the dog if you do it right. Consider playing your dog’s game for a moment.

 

If your dog is standing on the end of the leash gazing longingly out at the wall opposite you, yearning for the opportunity to explore it, then DO THAT. If you want your dog to engage with you, then engage with her. If you are all about training on your terms only, then you can try something else, but if you want your dog to engage with you on your agenda then at some point you need to meet her half way. Once you start engaging with your dog on his or her own terms, it is much easier to start to get your dog to engage with you. Engaging with your dog can be as simple as opening a bag of dog treats and helping your dog to explore that. Open the bag as you might for a young child. Look in. Offer it to the dog to look in. Before he can shove his whole head in to take everything, pull it away, reach in and get a treat out to share with him. If you use a bag of cheezies, you can give him one and then have one yourself. Sharing is a big part of engaging with your dog.

 

Once you and your dog are engaged with one another, then teaching skills is much easier. If you want to teach your dog to walk on a leash without dragging you along, you can take your dog on leash to a location where you have control over the stuff she wants. Then wait. If you are engaged with your dog, you will notice subtle shifts and changes in how she experiences the world. If she is standing there longing for the wall, wait. Now it is your turn. If you disengage from attending to your dog, then you won’t catch that moment when she turns to you and asks you what you are doing. She is only going to ask once, so if you miss that chance to share your treats with your dog the moment that she tries to engage the tiniest bit with you, then that chance is gone and the next time she offers to attend to you, she is going to offer you less not more attention. If you catch her asking to join in your game you can offer her something that you both find interesting.

 

What I observe time and again is that trainers don’t remain engaged long enough to actually get the engagement they want from their dogs. Beginner trainers often stand with their backs to their dogs, looking around at anything other than the dog they have come to train. If you cannot attend to your dog long enough to catch her when she attends to you, then why would you think that your dog will have any more attention than you do? If you cannot give your dog more than thirty seconds to disengage from whatever has caught her eye, then why would your dog stay engaged in what interests you, especially if it is difficult or needs a lot of concentration, as leash walking does?

 

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Training should be a two way street. This trainer is taking advantage of her pup’s interest in the toy to establish a relationship so that later on when she asks the pup to do something she wants to do, the puppy will be more likely to share her game! Copyright: toonartist / 123RF Stock Photo

Dogs are not automatons. They think, they breathe, they have interests of their own and they have their own agendas. We also have our own interests, drives and desires. Often, in order to have a dog, the dog ends up having to accommodate our interests more than we accommodate what they need. The dog’s priorities are her own, and if we are not going to share in what she is interested in, then why do we think she will share in what we are interested in? Most often we choose to get the dog, instead of the dog choosing to live with us, so if the dog is bored, especially in training class it is up to us to determine what she is interested in and use that as part of the training process.

 

 

BUT SHE IS BORED!

DON’T LET HIM DO THAT!

Lately we have had a pile of puppy owners asking us how to prevent their pups from misbehaving. In exasperation, one day John replied “Don’t let him do that!” and the client looked at him completely baffled. One important part of our way of puppy raising is to let the puppies learn through experience what happens if they do certain things. In our house that means that puppies who pick up shoes get put in their crates. Puppies who jump up on me get put in their crates. Puppies who sit nicely get let out of their crates. Puppies who sit and stay get their dinner. Puppies who bark in their crates get to stay right where they are. Puppies who cry in the night get taken outside to pee. The list goes on and on and on as our puppies learn what happens when they do various things. There are some things however that our puppies don’t get the chance to do.

 

When clients ask us how to stop their pups from toileting in the house, we tell them, don’t let him do that! We don’t allow our puppies out of our sight in the house until they have shown us that they won’t toilet indoors over a long period of time. To start with, our puppies don’t get to explore the house unattended. We don’t let them toilet indoors by making sure that they have lots of chances to toilet outdoors, and we control when they eat so that we know when they will need to go. When they are outside of their crates, they are supervised, 100% of the time and if it looks like they need to go, we gently pick them up and take them out to toilet where we want them to go. We just don’t let them toilet indoors.

 

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This puppy is doing a few things I would prefer he didn’t. If this was my puppy, and he was meeting this lady for the first time, I would not let him hold his leash or climb the lady and the lady wouldn’t be allowed to get this close until my pup was calmer and ready to behave the way I want him to when meeting a new person. In short I wouldn’t let him grab his leash or climb the lady! Copyright: dusanzidar / 123RF Stock Photo

When we are asked how to stop puppies from jumping up on guests, we don’t let them do that either; when guests come to the house, we prepare by having our pups in their crates as the guests arrive, and then we bring them to the guests on leash. We know that pups need to learn what to do when meeting a guest, so we don’t just let our pups meet guests and hope for the best; we don’t let them do that. For clarity, what we usually do is to allow the guest in, and then get them seated. Then we bring the puppy in on leash and we work with the puppy, clicking and treating behaviours that he already knows. When he is calm and engaged with someone he knows then we introduce him to the guest, again using the clicker to mark behaviours we like, such as sitting for attention. And we don’t let the guest do our training for us either! We don’t ask our guests to treat the puppy for good behaviour; we know what we want the pup to learn and we don’t leave that to chance.

 

Often people will ask what to do about pulling on leash and again, we point out that we don’t let puppies pull on leash. Sometimes in training we have to do what is called a work around. In the case of pulling on leash, the work around we use is called the magic collar system; we have one collar that is magic; we only use it for training loose leash behaviour. The rest of the time we use a different collar, harness or head halter to differentiate what we are working on and we teach the pup that the rules are looser in that situation. We work around puppies pulling by teaching that one collar is magic and allows pulling and the other collar is a different kind of magic and doesn’t allow pulling!

 

How about getting into the garbage? Again, we just don’t let puppies do that! We keep garbage behind gates and doors so that pups cannot get into things. The same is true for almost everything that we do. Getting in the front seat of a moving vehicle? Don’t let your puppy do that by putting him in a crate in the vehicle when travelling. Harassing the older dog in the home? Keep them separate except for training time. Chewing up personal items? Put things away pre-emptively. The key is to think ahead about what behaviours you want your puppy to engage in and what behaviours you don’t want your puppy to engage in, and then preventing your pup from having the chance to do things you don’t want him to do.

 

The thing to remember about young dogs is that they come without experience. If you are going to expect a young dog to interact with something new in his life, and you don’t structure that interaction to begin with, you are training him to guess and often, being a young animal with an exuberant temperament, he is going to make the wrong choice. When your pup makes the wrong choice, you can do one of any number of things. You can be harsh and punitive and unpleasant and hope he doesn’t repeat the error. Not a good idea but something to think about. You can be gentle but interrupt the puppy; a better alternative, but still not ideal. You can remove the pup and allow him to try again; still better than the last alternative, but still not the best kind of training you can do for a puppy. The gold standard in training is to set your pup up to succeed in the first place by preventing the undesired behaviour from happening.

 

Perhaps the most confusing to students but common situation is what to do on the street when the puppy meets new people. Our clients usually don’t want their young puppies to learn to jump up to greet, but they also don’t want to not introduce their new addition to the neighbourhood. In this case, we can prevent our dogs from doing things we don’t want by controlling distance. When you are approaching a friend, regardless of if they have another dog or not, there is going to be a point at which your dog begins to get excited. That point, or threshold, is where you need to stop approaching and take a break. Doing this teaches young dogs that they cannot bounce around and be silly when they are meeting and greeting people. By only moving forward when your pup is calm, he learns that self control gets him what he wants.

 

The biggest error we see at puppy school is the puppy owner who gets a young dog and then allows her to roam free through the house from the first day on. Often things go well at first; for the first few days, while the puppy is novel, family members attend to the puppy and notice when he is getting into things and they intervene. Over time however, the puppy begins to become familiar with the home, and wanders away from supervision. When this happens, you cannot prevent problems and then you have to solve them; not an ideal situation. Next, the family wants to take the puppy out in the neighbourhood, and they start to run into even bigger problems because they don’t have any plans to avoid problems. The puppy learns to pull on leash, jump on people and grab trash and dropped items to play with or eat. In medicine, it is common to say that prevention is the best cure, and this is true of training as well. We need to prevent these problems from starting and start by teaching our pups what we want them to do. The best way to do that involves planning and supervision. It really isn’t difficult but it does mean being aware of what you are doing.

 

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When you teach your dog what to do and how to behave when he is a youngster, then when he grows up he will be the kind of dog you can trust to be kind to a child. This is what a mannerly dog looks like! Copyright: yuliang11 / 123RF Stock Photo

Good planning and supervision means that you know what you want your pup to learn and you set up situations where he can learn what we want him to learn, and then you supervise what is happening to make that happen. One of the best things you can do to make planning and supervision work for you is to join a good puppy class. In class you will likely get a list of behaviours to work on and that can serve as a good guideline to help you to determine what your pup should be doing and at what age. It also provides you with a support group to help you to make your plan work. We even take our own pups to puppy class!

 

DON’T LET HIM DO THAT!