Tuesday, June 4, 2013
In May, I discussed the 4 Ds in a position stay and Brian Hare/Vanessa Woods “The Genius of Dogs”, and I want to stick with that theme – 4-letter something then book - for this month. First, the 4 F responses available to a dog who feels threatened, and followed by my take on Lorna McMasters’ “Dancing with Sheepdogs” toward the end of June or beginning of July.
Whenever a dog perceives someone or something as a threat, to his welfare or possession, and it doesn’t matter if in reality it is or isn’t, there will be an emotional response. It is impossible for a dog, or any animal, to not feel what they feel, to willingly alter hormonal and neurochemical changes that come with the emotion, and not express it. However, what the expressions look like varies, and depends on nature, past experiences and possibility.
I like to believe that just about everyone knows two of the Fs: Fight and Flight, and I come back to them in a moment, but there are two more less understood by the average dog owner: Freeze and Flirt.
Let’s have a closer look, and let’s start with Fight, the behavior people are most concerned about and that sends many a dog to the doghouse, shelter, or veterinarian to be executed.
When a dog is ready to fight, he is confident enough to confront the threat. The intent is not always to injure or kill, especially regarding social group members, but to cause the threat to back off or not move closer – not increase the pressure. Normally, naturally, there is a hierarchy, or ladder, of warning signals that precede a bite: a high, forward leaning and tense body – the dog doesn’t blink, the ears don’t play, direct fixation on the trigger, a puckered mouth, a high stiff or quivering tail tipped toward the head. Humans have a tendency to ignore those signals either because they aren’t bilingual and don’t comprehend them, or because they are stupid and intentionally disregard what the dog is communicating.
When they proceed with whatever they were doing, the dog in fight mode turns it up a notch and might growl, and almost every person understands that and feels compelled to do something about it.
However, the typical human responses create dilemmas.
Dilemma 1: If the person backs off, he reinforces the growl and the dog will growl in the future to keep someone at bay or keep a resource. The dog wins in people's minds, which is a big problem for their tender egos. The person doesn't like his pooch anymore and either gives up, or feels justified to do whatever it takes to stop the growl; either labels the dog aggressive and surrenders or kills him, or punishes harshly and destroys the mutually rewarding relationship he could have had.
Dilemma 2: Dogs that growl a lot, because they’re confronted a lot, become stuck in that behavior pattern. If the growl suddenly doesn’t work anymore, for example when the owner hired a mighty “whisperer” wash-up who comes equipped with tools and the skill to suppress the growl, another emotion arises: Frustration. The dog becomes more stressed, more aroused, and angrier. Anyone who believes that an emotion can be punished away is a fool, but the expression might be. Growls can successfully be quelled when the punishment is harsh enough, but the dog, still feeling threatened, resorts to the next level of aggression, albeit perhaps only directed against people or dogs seen as weaker.
A growl isn’t good, but a bite without a warning is worse.
Dilemma 3: If the person ignores the growl, persists and insists, the confident dog will bite, resulting in two big problems: It hurts, and I have yet to meet a person who will NOT retreat when the dog injures and thus reinforce the escalation of aggressive behavior.
A dog who feels threatened but is not self-assured enough to confront wants to leave the scene and situation. Get out of Dodge instead of driving the threat away. Chooses Flight to Fight.
Don’t just think running away, but also stepping back, curving out, leaving a room or a certain area at the dog park – anything that increases distance to something or someone without attacking. Averting eyes, head and body are the subtle signals.
The dog who chooses non-confrontation is not sure he can successfully defend himself or a resource, or he might generally like his social encounters, but not the situation at the moment. I recently met a beautiful German shepherd believed to be aggressive with people who in reality was rather friendly and interested in interacting when given the opportunity to hang back until the new person was more familiar.
Often dogs in possession of a valued resource, like a bone, walk away with it. That is not submission; the dog does not surrender the resource, but doesn’t trust the people and/or dogs around him completely and in that context seeks a safe place. The worst thing someone could do is follow and take the resource away. The dog is non-confrontational on purpose. Don’t punish that, or he might fight next.
Fight dogs are often flight dogs who can’t flee because they are restrained or cornered.
The German shepherd I just mentioned chose Flight, but nevertheless had a bite history because some people did not give him the space to hang back, and he was confident enough to Fight when pressured. Knowing that, I allowed him the Flight option, and whenever I introduced something new, he created distance, but moments later returned and then was motivated to learn the new thing. By the end of the afternoon we had a real connection and not once did I feel I was in danger.
Don’t confront a dog in Fight or Flight mode, but instead investigate why the dog feels defensive and address that. Regarding resources, my goal always is that my dog trusts me with anything she has, and brings it to me.
Freeze is not only the muscle tension stillness before an attack, but an expression of a dog who has no options; who has resigned himself to his fate and imploded. The dog is too terrorized to move, extremely stressed with no resolution.
Sadly, lay people often misconstrue Freeze with well behaved, but the truth is that the dog is not behaving at all. He isn’t doing anything because he is afraid of the consequence when he offers a behavior. Freeze is non-behavior. Our Will was a Freeze dog: born feral, humans were completely foreign to her, and forced to live with them paralyzed her in fear. She would neither aggress nor try to get away. Will was frozen to no fault of ours, but some dogs are punished into that state, and that is abuse. You can see these dogs in training facilities: they perform, but joylessly, and they don’t behave at all unless ordered to.
Flirt is a term Barry Eaton in his book “Dominance in Dogs” uses to explain active and passive appeasement. I like both the term and the behavior. Yes, ideally we aim for a relationship and environment in which a dog never feels the need to appease, but methinks it might be elusive. In the socially complex world our dogs live in, there likely will be encounters and situations they feel uneasy about, and I want them to signal that with a lowered body and low wagging tail, exaggerated blinking, lip licking and yawning, instead of checking out or attacking.
A dog might feel a bit intimidated by a certain tone of voice, scent, body language or action and asks for assurance that he is still safe. A dog who has a resource pleads to let him keep it. A dog who flirts seeks social connection in a submissive way.
I think Flirt is the most appropriate word for a puppy who begs a resource from an elder, and sometimes the older dog will orchestrate a situation to prompt submissive begging for educational purposes.
A good number of dogs, fosters and guests, entered our home throughout the years, but only twice, with a 4-month-old pup and a 2-year-old Aussie, Will saw the need to teach that lesson: She grabbed a toy, arbitrarily because Will does not and never did care for toys other than one red ball to play fetch with, played to keen the other dog’s interest, and then guarded it with a tense body, hard stare and growls - the fight signals she displayed to communicate that she has the confidence to follow through should a resource ever be disputed. Will would ignore the dogs' barks and intensify the aggressive signals when they tried to steal the toy, but relinquished it the moment they became obnoxiously solicitous and goofy, exaggeratedly bowed, with lips, ears and eyes drawn back - the stupid grin face. The pup, in addition, whined and rolled on her back.
I know that dominance is a loaded word, but appeasements, flirting in social contexts, signal that power is acknowledged and a friendly connection wished.
It is important to point out that Fight, Flight, Freeze and Flirt are not static behaviors, but context specific. Which of the four options a dog chooses depends on what he has learned in the past and what is possible at the moment. And it depends on the dog’s nature: genes predispose to respond in a certain way.
Even so, within a lifetime a dog will demonstrate all four. Will’s M.O. was freeze with all humans, it is flirt now, and fight with some unfamiliar dogs. Davie's was fight with unfamiliar humans, ignore and avoid - flee unfamiliar dogs, and flirt with us whenever she wanted access to a resource, or keep it.
So don’t label the dog, but the situation. If you don’t like how your dog acts, address why he feels the way he does. Address the emotional state, instead of fixating on the expressions.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
I had a birthday recently. One more year to Freedom 55. Not that realistic – it’ll be more like Freedom 65, or 75, but it doesn’t matter because I love what I do: Working with dogs, reading and writing about dogs. Hence, I was delighted to find Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods’ book “The Genius of Dogs” in the parcel our daughter sent me.
Brian Hare, Ph.D., is an Evolutionary Anthropologist and Associate Professor at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and interested in apes – the human and hairier kind, but also dogs. You can check www.dukedogs.com to find out more. Vanessa Woods is an Australian scientist and journalist, and Brian Hare’s wife.
I loved the book. Loved it for its conversational tone that makes the information accessible to everyone. No science degree needed to comprehend the material.
I love the subject matter. In a nutshell: How dogs are smart; How they compare cognitively and emotionally to infants and young children; How they rely so much on humans for information. How humans and dogs work, and more importantly how we work together – the psychological convergence between us.
Like many other books about dogs, this one has a chapter on domestication, and also like many others talks about Belyaev’s foxes. I almost skipped that section exactly because I had read about it several times before, but am glad I didn’t, because Brian Hare tells the story with fascinating history attached, for example that Stalin declared geneticists enemies of the state. Our present Canadian government labels our environmental scientists and activists enemies of the state. How is your evolution coming along? Eh?
Back to dogs, or more accurately foxes. There’s a photo of one of the domesticated ones in the book I've never seen in any other dog book, and I promise you'll fall in love with the cuteness.
In the context of domestication, Brian Hare elaborates on aggression and kennel club breeding practices that, for the last 150 years or so, select for appearance more than function and temperament. Breeders fail to breed against aggression in favour of a uniformed look, and that might need a mental shift if we want peaceful dogs in our midst in the future.
And the public needs to be educated what to look for, and where, when they dog shop. At the end of the book the authors make a statement I so agree with: Good breeders don’t sell to pet stores, brokers, or online.
Although "The Genius of Dogs" is not a training manual, it talks about methods including behaviorism. Much of what it says plays into Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards”, with the difference that Kohn’s book refers to humans, and Hare/Woods of course include dogs.
One of the issues they have with the Skinnerian model to influence behavior is that it always relies on deprivation, which I believe can negatively affect the relationship. I have given this a lot of thought lately and am not at all done thinking yet.
About the clicker the authors say: “At least for the moment, there is no scientific evidence to support the theory that clicker training facilitates faster learning in dogs”. A controversial statement for sure, and they concede that a clicker might make layowners better trainers and could have value in that.
I don’t use a clicker, so that preliminary evidence vindicates what I was thinking all along: Dogs have a natural connection with humans, pay attention, watch for and are receptive to verbal and gestural information, and that was and is always my primary method in relating with and teaching a dog – with the clicker being an option for certain dogs/people, and particular things I want to accomplish.
Brian Hare is a scientist and the book is peppered with studies that back the statements he makes. Studies he and his associates conducted, but also studies done elsewhere, for example at the Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, and you can find out more about that at www.familydogproject.elte.hu.
Perhaps Adam Miklosi rings a bell, and Vilmos Csanyi who wrote the book “If Dogs Could Talk” a few years ago, which I also liked a lot.
I think that we will continue to see studies that reveal how special dogs are - amazing really in their abilities and relationships they form with humans. My hope is that with that people increasingly will steer away from trainers who use the outdated wolf model to justify their forceful and punitive ways. But perhaps also the purely mechanical, operant conditioning method might be adjusted to less of a cookie-cutter, and more of an individual approach.
The end of June, there'll be a conference outside of Seattle I was seriously thinking of attending, but I live on the other ocean, and in Canada at that, and although it is not completely out of my mind yet – alone the road trip from Abbotsford/BC to Redmond/Washington is tempting - for now I’ve signed up for the life stream. I will keep you in the loop.
Coincidentally, a friend and I discussed all that recently, and before I had read “The Genius of Dogs”, on the way to a trainers’ dinner. She wondered what dog training might look like in a decade from now, and I am wondering that too, but feel quite excited about the journey.
The book came with a birthday card in which my daughter wrote that I already know everything about dogs. She is wrong there: I possibly will never know all there is to know about dogs. Learning never stops. New studies will reveal new insights, and I also believe that like us, dogs are still evolving – evolving with us.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
In last week's post I hope I made it clear that before you should expect command compliance, your dog needs to understand how a specific word links to an action. When you are sure she does, and don't assume but be sure, you can proceed to the next stage. Regarding the position stay, that is to build in the 4 Ds - Different contexts, Distractions, Duration and Distance.
Different Contexts means that the dog learns to perform the cued position in front of me, each side of me, when I have my back turned, when I sit on the couch...
I met pooches so brainy that the handler could do a 180 degree body turn right away and the dog still complied, but with most you have to change contexts gradually, inch toward that 180 degree turn.
When your dog sits when you lie on the floor and lies when you stand on a table, she understands that even when conditions change, the command and according action do not.
Then take the show on the road and incorporate Distractions. Same rule applies: Proceed as slowly as you need to set your dog up for success. Sits and downs happen outside your front door, then the front/back yard – sidewalk – street corner – all the way to the dog park. Being patient at the front saves you time in the end, and your dog’s behaviors will be solid.
One of my peeves with some obedience classes is that they coerce the dog with choke collar or cookie into positions she is not ready for yet either because she is too over-stimulated or, especially regarding the lie-down, too nervous to do. So go slow. If your dog can only manage a sit 50 feet away from another dog or person, take that. Tomorrow it will be 45, then 40, and so on until she sits relaxingly while you chat with a neighbor standing next to you.
Be aware that when animation increases, the degree of the distraction does as well, which means you must increase the distance again before you ask your dog in a position. For example, move back to the hypothetical 50 feet zone when a dog plays or a child runs, and move closer again as your dog acclimatizes to the changed situation.
When your dog sits anywhere anytime when asked to, build in Duration - the dog staying in one spot for a prolonged period of time.
Backtrack to an area without distractions, the house, and if you practice on a specific mat you feed two birds from one feeder because the mat becomes an associated visual and tactile cue for the dog to settle. And of course you can transport the mat everywhere you go and thereby help your dog relax not only in familiar, but also new places.
I am heavy on giving the dog precise information whenever she needs it, and rookie learners typically need a lot of it. Hence, I repeat a command if it helps the dog understand. I remind her that we are still playing the same game, and I also let her know when that particular exercise is over and she can get up.
In the context of building position duration, ask your dog to sit or lie, shift your body slightly forward, move the palm of your hand toward your dog, and with a lower-toned (not regimental), drawn out voice tell her to “staaaaay”. The rare dog requires you holding a treat in front of her nose without releasing it to get in a couple of seconds, but with most your leaning in a bit combined with the hand signal combined with the tone of your voice causes her to stay where she’s at for a brief moment. Reward her for that but don’t release, and remind her again to staaaaaay.
Pay attention to the dog. If she gazes around or becomes fidgety, chances are she’s about to break. If you have an interrupter, for example ah, interrupt, then remind her to stay, reinforce generously, but don’t release right away because you don’t want your dog to learn that she can prompt a reward and a release by losing focus.
Reinforce again for staying and then release with a specific command, for example “finished”, or a known word that signals whatever you want her to do next.
Once released, become boring, so that working on the position stay becomes the desired event, not being released from it. Traditional training has that backwards: They don’t give any attention while the dog obeys and give it as soon as she is released, with the result that the dog wants to be released instead of working with you cooperatively.
Increase the time between the reward and reminder incrementally until your dog holds the position for 2-3 minutes without having to be rewarded or reminded.
Last but not least, add in Distance, step by step by incremental step. In fact, with some dogs you might have to lean backward before you can step away without her getting nervous about where you’re headed without her. Also decrease duration again in the beginning to make it easier for the dog, and of course there shouldn’t be any distractions.
Play with distance and duration – yo-yo back and forth instead of making things increasingly more difficult for your dog, and be enthusiastic with your reinforcements – I mean convey to your dog how happy you are that she cooperatively plays the game by your rules.
When you can walk 8-10 feet away, begin to turn your body incrementally and walk away with your back turned, then increase the duration again to 2-3 minutes, and build distractions back in, and there you have it:
A dog you can drop, walk away from and leave for a few minutes, anywhere and anytime.
Friday, April 26, 2013
The dog here in this perfect down stay waiting to be photographed was our last foster dog. We named her Regalo, which means “gift” in Spanish, but called her Reggae. I love naming dogs, and am always curious what names other people choose for their pooch – or child for that matter. A name carries energy. I truly believe that, and have met many dogs that live up and down to their name. Hence, we always put a lot of thought into it.
For us, the perfect name has to be meaningful, reflect the dog’s origin and personality – or rather the personality I am after, and signal intent – as in what I want the relationship to be. Regalo is a Spanish water dog, so origin fit, and Reggae because her coat could be dreadlocked. In addition, we already had two girl dogs with boy names, so Regalo matched that pattern also.
She was a given to us at the age of 10 weeks and already seriously snarled at anyone, dog and person alike, she perceived as an outsider. Sweet with us, but hostile to others, we could have named her Snappy, Nipper, Cujo or Fangs, but we named her “Gift”, hoping it might bring people into her life who would see her as such. Indeed it happened as planned, and her humans 6 years later still genuinely love her despite her behavioral intensities.
But I want to talk about training today – something Reggae was very, very motivated by. She loved training for training’s sake; when we said “work” it was the only time she eagerly jumped into the car. She was good at it, too. Biddable. Training, and the command control that followed, I believe possibly saved her from being euthanized.
There are things every dog should learn and know, but are indispensible with dogs that have behavioral issues. What these things are, and how I teach them, is one of my topics for this year’s
SPCA Wellness Conference at the NSCC Waterfront Campus in May.
Here is a taster: The Position Stay – like you see Reggae do in the photo.
The Goal: Your dog staying in one spot until you release her, and while you walk away to take a photo or deal with an oncoming unruly dog or child?
First, of course, you need to be able to command, or cue if you like that word better – command is another loaded one in positive reinforcement circles but I use it anyway – a sit and down. I like to lure sit by moving my hand in a way that causes the dog to lift her chin. That typically brings the butt to the ground, and when that happens, mark and reward, and repeat, and once the dog deliberately offers a sit to solicit something, name the behavior, and then request it several times a day in exchange for something the dog desires at the moment.
Down you could lure too by holding your hand in front of the sitting dog, then moving it straight down and out. Most dogs follow the hand and lower their body. Some lie right away, and others don’t and you need to shape it, need to mark and reward approximations until you get the complete behavior. Another way is to sit on the floor legs raised off the ground with the dog on one side, and a treat in your hand on the other. In order for the dog to get the treat she must lower herself underneath your legs.
You could do that, but frankly, I don’t like luring a down. Sometimes a dog doesn’t get it and in that case luring can be a good way to help her understand, but often a dog is too nervous to comply, for example in a training facility, and then luring is applying pressure with a cookie.
I like to catch and capture a down, wait till the dog reclines naturally, and reinforce it.
Frankly, for everyday use, I let the dog choose the position she is most comfortable in, and that could be a separate command, for example “chill”, but she should still understand and comply when you request the specific position.
You know when your dog has connected the word/hand signal with the action when you get 90% compliance, so when 9 out of 10 times she will sit or lie when you ask her to.
Another way to test is you doing nothing. So, if she typically gets a treat or praise, and you do nothing, she could bark at you, or whine, or become fidgety, but she should not correct her position – go from sitting to lying or vice versa. A dog who understands a command might get frustrated but won’t self-correct; a dog who is unsure if she got it right, will.
Go ahead now and teach your dog what it means, what you want, when you say "sit" and "down". Build that foundation, and then, in a week or so, I will explain how to move on.
I'll discuss the 4 Ds: Different Contexts, Distractions, Duration and Distance, and why it is a good idea to proceed in that order.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
I said it before, and I say it again: Force-free works with every dog, not just the sweet-tempered, biddable ones. But it’s gotta be done right, and that is much more than having a clicker in a hand and an endless supply of tiny-sized food pieces in a treat pouch.
Applying positive reinforcement most effectively means to know: How to use food, when to reward with food, when to reward with something else, and when it is advisable to refrain from externally adding anything at all.
I want to talk about food first.
Food is, of course, an existential need for all animals, and hence all animals are motivated by food – well, almost all. For humans, though, food is much more than simply survival. In every culture, around the world, food sharing and eating is part of ceremonial and celebratory rituals. Food has religious significance, and is an integral part whenever families and friends gather: We have romantic dinners, and fund-raising ones to help the poor and downtrodden; conferences and seminars involve food, and they advertise what is served to attract more people - to wet people’s physical as well as mental appetites.
Compare that with how food is used in a laboratory setting, the place where behavior, including positive reinforcement, was established and is still studied. Scientists prefer food exactly because most animals are highly motivated by it, and especially so when they are artificially kept a certain percentage under normal weight, when they are purposely underfed to raise motivation, when there is food scarcity, deprivation, a limited supply.
How do our companion dogs fit in that spectrum? Obviously, they are not humans. Dogs eat for the sake of eating and not to celebrate a mating or the birth of a litter. But they aren’t laboratory animals either: animals in an environment that utterly disregards everything non-scientific, including the human/dog relationship, and yet, many dogs are treated as if they were.
The daily kibble, the basic need that is our responsibility to provide when we own a dog like we nourish our children, is used, often entirely, to reinforce specific behaviors. Nothing is life is free, right? Particularly not for the family pooch.
Not just that, but like traditional trainers who recommend placing the dog in a stimulus deprived environment hours before a training session so that despite harsh corrections he still wants to work with the handler, some positive reinforcement trainers suggest not feeding the dog prior to training to raise motivation and even, like the lab rat, to keep the dog a little underweight. In the first scenario, being with a human on task is the lesser of two evils; in the second, the dog is keen to be with the human only because the human has food. Neither is the relationship I envision with my dog.
Food, including sharing some of our good-for-dogs human food, is free in our home. No strings attached because sharing gives me pleasure, and because my dogs learn that I, the mighty powerful one, have access to all these amazing assets I periodically dole out just because we belong together. Food sharing is a very bonding activity, and I get a lot of offered attention when I prepare food, and eat food, and eventually anytime and anywhere. Belonging and attention develops naturally and becomes a habit. And by the way, we never had a dog who was overweight. And this might surprise you too, also never one who was unmotivated by treats in training situations.
Here is the thing: If you like really like something, you’ll still like it even when it happens again, and again, and again.
You think a dog will only work for food if he is hungry? Just like a person might only push a hypothetical red button that spits out five-dollar bills if she actually needs small change? A rich person wouldn’t be bothered with such a dumb activity you think, and yet wealthy people sit for hours in front of slot machines, and you have dogs who have many balls in a toy box, and daily play, and still want more. When I give Will 10 pieces of chicken, does she say “Nah, thanks, I had enough” when I offer her one more? No. She says: “What can I do for you to get another piece”?
The truth is that if a dog, and person, is motivated by something she will stay motivated even if satiated with other stuff. To figure out what that is, is taking interest in the dog, and that, too, is bonding and will bring your relationship to a whole new level.
Artificially limiting resources for training and shaping purposes isn’t necessary, and can actually backfire when the dog becomes so hyper focused on food that the attention is not with the owner, or task, or body awareness, but only with food. Connecting and working with her human becomes but an activity to get done quickly in order to get food.
A dog who has to work for every morsel won’t do anything unless she’s paid in the currency she’s been taught, like the 6-month-old poodle client who’d only pay attention when she saw the treat pouch hanging off her person’s belt.
Let me be very clear: I use food to teach, and influence, and reinforce behaviors I like to see again. Food is easy to use and opens the door to learning. But when food is part of every interaction, and when dogs are deprived of what I think is their right, people and dogs become fixated and dependent on food, and worst of all, the owner becomes lazy and doesn’t explore what else their pooch is interested in, or doesn’t want to do. That’s the problem.
Reptiles in nature aren’t used to eating small pebbles of food frequently and, in scientific behavioral studies, never faired very well because they aren’t very motivated by frequent small pebbles of food. Hence, they got a reputation that they aren’t very smart - we all know the term lizard brain: other than instinct and core body functions, no one is home. Surprisingly, when scientists reinforced with the warmth of a heat lamp, something reptiles deeply care about, behaviors could be trained and lizard-brain turned out to be quite bright.
There are many things other than food our dogs care about; things they are intrinsically, by virtue of their nature, motivated by: Playing, sniffing, trailing, moving, distance, fetching, chasing, pulling, jumping – the best reinforcement for boxers, barking, and even biting – the often preferred reinforcement for Schutzhund trained German shepherds and Malinois.
The instructor at the herding clinic Davie and me participated in didn’t need food or a ball to get his collies do his bidding. They heeded their handler’s commands because otherwise they lost access to the sheep, for the moment. The opportunity to control sheep’s movements was what made them obey every whim, because controlling sheep is what floated their boat the most.
A couple of months ago we took care of a young Australian shepherd while his people were on vacation. As a typical Aussie, and after a rather short adjustment period, he was so responsive to us that I felt confident letting him off his leash. He never ran out farther than about 20 feet, checked in with me, returned, circled around me and dashed off again. This was on day three, and I was really tempted to food treat to reward such impeccable behavior, but didn’t because I didn’t have to. Re-orienting to us, his new lifeline as far as he knew, returning and circling, were all reinforcements in their own right and I didn’t need to add anything to it – anything other than giving him my full attention and erratically dodging around a bit so that he could chase and circle me some more.
However, we also practiced formal recalls and that I did reinforce with food, even though typically I like to reinforce coming when called with a game, not food, or at least food being part of a game, but because we already played movement games a lot, I used food for this particular dog and situation. I could have used a ball as well the Aussie was über-passionate about, but there were icy patches – it was winter in Canada – and I didn’t want to risk an injury.
I think you are getting my gist: Think when you work with a dog instead of following a popular template. You don’t have to “make a dog operant”. The dog is operant by virtue of being alive. When an action is intrinsic, facilitating opportunities for the dog to do what is natural is hard to top with anything added externally.
Yes, food is easy to use, but not always the most effective reinforcer, so don’t shove a treat in the dog’s mouth if he wants to sniff and mark the local piss pole.
And then there are situations in which any reinforcement that comes from you leads exactly to the behaviors that you don’t want.
I can’t count the number of young obnoxious dogs I met who are shaped to go the mat, and promptly reinforced with a click and treat, and as soon as they gobbled it up self-release and are right back to doing something obnoxious again. Going to the mat, and being pesky, forever yo-yos back and forth, and the mat itself can become part of an attention seeking game. Same thing with jumping when greeting: The dog is shaped to sit and sits, is clicked, treated and released to say hello, and as soon as she gets to the person, jumps.
Sometimes your dog simply needs to do something because you say so. Bet you thought you’d never hear that from me, and of course I am not talking about inflicting pain and punishments, but about managing with a leash until a new behavior is conditioned - or popping the pooch in the crate provided it is not perceived as aversive.
I recently had clients with a boxer puppy who at one point was wound so tight, so incapable of settling on her own, that I did just that: I gently, but manually, put her in the crate after her owners unsuccessfully tried to lure her in with food. Literally within seconds, and without any crying or scratching at the door, she was zonked out.
When a busy and energetic dog finally settles, operant conditioning laws tell you to reinforce that so that the behavior is repeated and you’ll get more settling in the future. In reality, the opposite will happen: the sleepy pooch on the mat or in her crate, sparked by your attention and the reinforcement, becomes active again, and potentially annoying. Having a safe and cushy spot to rest undisturbed when tired is reinforced, just not by us, and the wise owner leaves it like that.
One last thing: I don’t externally reinforce, no matter how good my dog’s behavior, if my goal is that certain stimuli become irrelevant, for example ducks in one of the parks we periodically visit, or the horses in our neighborhood. Reinforcing when my dog focuses on it would make the stimulus too much of a big deal, so I simply habituate.
Reinforcement, and not some magical telepathic emotion exchange as heard on TV, creates behavior. Silent pride is a heap of crap. That said, if the humans set the stage for companionship by: being together instead of always doing together, sharing food, and unconditionally giving affection and protection, you don’t always have to use a stick or carrot, or rather a choker or cookie, to get the kind of conduct that makes living with a dog so pleasurable. Your dog will want to be with you and please you.
And you also get away with requesting something from your dog she might not be so keen on at the moment. You won’t mess up your relationship if you have, as Dr. Susan Friedman says, enough accumulated trust in your bank account.
Friday, March 8, 2013
Last month we had a canine houseguest. We typically don’t dog sit because we are always über-busy, and it affects Will’s routine, but the dog we were asked to care for while his people enjoyed a vacation is an Australian shepherd, and we couldn’t possible say no to having an Aussie in the house for a little while.
We know the owners well, but only met the pooch, a 2-year-old entire male, a few times, and Will never met him at all. Nevertheless, I was not too worried inviting him into our midst because I know Will, knew how savvy and conscientious the Aussie’s owners are, am experienced with dogs and, surely, anything can work for a temporary period of time with clever management.
My criterion for long-term cohabitation is different. Clever management is not good enough, not fighting isn’t good enough, even dogs just tolerating one another isn’t. In my home, for dogs to permanently live together, they have to genuinely like each other. Can you imagine living with someone you don’t like in close space and for the rest of your life?
Most people want the same I do when they play with the idea of getting another dog. They want everyone to get along and envision their dogs being companions for each other. Hence, I regularly find inquiries how to accomplish that in my inbox. People are unclear if same or opposite gender works better, if the new dog should be close in age and have an alike, or complementary disposition.
Like it is so often the case when it comes to dogs, there is no clear answer. It depends, and that is what I typically email back - and not to drum up business for myself. Who fits best really is an individual thing.
That said, there are some general aspects that increase the probability of peaceful co-existence. For example, it helps if one dog is naturally deferent. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If all dogs are equally confident, no one will back away if there is a resource dispute. Who defers doesn’t matter. I don’t buy into the common belief that the exiting dog must be the alpha – yes, I am aware that alpha is a loaded word; sometimes it is the other way around, but it is essential that the existing dog’s life is not miserable because of the interloper. I don’t mean to sound callous, but I have a “last one in, first one out” rule. My loyalty is with the pooch I have had for many years, and I know how tough it can be letting go, but re-homing is the kinder solution when dogs truly clash.
Obviously, choosing the new dog wisely makes necessary re-homing less likely. Male/male, male/female and female/female combinations can all harmonize wonderfully, but two intact males can have ongoing issues, especially when there is an intact female around who becomes a desired, yet limited resource when she is in heat. Limited resources are a big deal, and big deal things incite potential confrontational reactions. But even that can work with a savvy owner.
Compatibility is more important than gender, and also more important than age. Our 11-year-old Will is snooty and aloof with just about every adult dog, and we thought that a pup she could raise any which way she wants to would be the best match, and yet, she quite liked the Aussie house guest. Methinks because, although Will didn’t know that particularly dog, there were many behaviors that resembled our Aussie Davie’s, who was her companion for 9 years.
He was also quite respectful, yielding to her. He still lives with his mother who obviously taught him manners. And he is very human oriented because his people do a lot of fun stuff with him. He solicited play with Will for sure, but was easily appeased to play with hubby Mike and me instead when Will wasn’t in the mood. I was able to re-motivate him, and therefore he didn’t pester her.
Dogs like Will that are not all that keen on goofing around with other dogs are more common than you might think. Age can play a role, but genetics and the dog’s life experiences during the critical developmental stages are contributing factors. Singleton puppies and ones removed from their mother and littermates too soon are often socially inept and awkward with other dogs; puppies who had to fight for basic needs, food, can view other dogs as rivals and aggress over resources. They can still successfully live with the right other dog, one who isn’t relentlessly space-rude and overbearingly playful.
Conversely, dogs that had littermates, were naturally weaned, and had in general more positive contact with dogs than with humans, will be happiest in a home that includes a dog who equally enjoys the company of his own kind. Sometimes such a dog is actually needed as support for a dog who knows little or nothing how humans function.
Extremes are rare - most dogs straggle the middle having a slight preference for either dogs or humans - but they do exist, and asking questions about the dog’s past living conditions can provide valuable clues if, or if not, he’ll fit nicely into your social group.
Unfortunately such information isn’t always available. All dogs have a history, but often it is either unknown or not revealed, so in reality the only reliable tool a potential owner has is to observe how the desired add-on moves and behaves around other dogs, and how the existing dog and the newbie act around each other.
My favorite way to check that is going for a walk. Whether it is in the existing dog’s neighborhood or on neutral ground depends on the dog. If he is anxious in unknown territory, home ground is better; if he is strutting home ground as if he owned it, neutral ground is better.
Best-case scenario is when both dogs are casually aware of each other, curious without being tensely fixated or frenetically pulling. Ideally, the dogs switch between ogling each other and being interested in other things in the environment. Ideally, each dog can easily be prompted to pay attention to his/her respective handler.
Two weeks before the Aussie guest landed on our doorstep we arranged for a walk in a multiuse off-leash park both dogs were familiar with. The Aussie was aware of Will and came for a sniff, but backed off instantly when Will gave him the “too soon for intimacy” eyeball. Both dogs had no issues moving together in the same direction though, and shared an interesting sniffing spot within the first 10 minutes. Both dogs took treats from the Aussie’s person and me, loosely close in space and patiently waiting their turn. I knew they’d be getting along.
Some humane societies and rescue organizations make it obligatory that all family members, including the canine one, must meet the dog they are thinking of adopting. It is a rule I like. Personally, I would not consider adding on a dog mine hasn’t met, unless I’d have an easy-going pooch who likes everyone.
We all know that real life and ideal doesn’t always link: People don’t know what to look for; get a long-distance dog they’ve never met; inherit a dog; consciously understand that the newbie might not be the best fit but want him anyway or, as it was the case with one of my recent clients, they had always boarded their dogs with a friend when away, but their new acquisition didn’t get along with the friend’s dog. What to do in those cases?
You still want to go for a walk, but you probably have to start from a greater distance to get the casual awareness behavior you are after. Just to clarify, you don’t want complete avoidance, a fixed “watch the owner”, because when dogs ultimately live in the same household they can’t avoid each other. What you do want is a “There’s an unfamiliar dog – oh well, not a big deal”.
If one of the dogs is deliberately and constantly looking away, or sniffing the ground, he is overwhelmed and you need to decrease pressure by increasing distance.
When you work patiently at the dog’s comfort level, eventually they will become familiar and curious about one another, and at that point you can get closer, and if both dogs stay fluid and can be prompted to reorient to the person, a brief sniff’n’greet can happen. The dogs choose where they want to sniff: head first or anogenital area, but how they do indicates who, if there is a dispute, will likely defer. Although you want to use rewards later on to convince each dog that being near the other is great news, there is no need to add treats to the initial sniff – the dogs being able to gather more information about each other is intrinsically reinforcing.
Keep the initial contact brief, and then increase the distance again, on a loose leash by encouraging the pooch with body and voice to follow. Yo-yo between sniffing and walking away, gradually increasing the time the dogs are close together.
Be animated when you walk away, but don’t use any other reinforcements when cohabitation is the goal. You want to make the best resources available when they peacefully share space, not when they are apart, thereby fostering cooperation.
With some dogs, going for a few walks is all they need to become buddies; with others, you have to meet at different places and more often before you enter home-turf together. Whenever you incorporate a new area, make the other components easier: start from a greater distance and decrease duration of sniffs, and once that new place is familiar, decrease the distance and increase duration again.
Also be aware that animation increases arousal. The dog might be loose and non-reactive when the other does “normal” things: walks, sniffs, looks, but over-reacts when he does something odd. For example, when Will made a snow angel, the Aussie boarder got all excited and was on his way to pounce on her, which without a doubt would have resulted in an argument. Because I was aware of this, I was able to prevent it by re-motivating the Aussie. So, pay attention to that until the dogs are familiar with each other’s idiosyncrasies.
The first time the dogs are together in their home, up the value of reinforcements. They should experience, once again, that the best things manifest when they are sharing space. Life for the existing dog has to stay the same or become better with the arrival of the gatecrasher. Ensure that the familiar routine is kept, that he has access to all places he had before, and that, if he is older, has opportunities to rest and sleep undisturbed. And don’t forget that owner attention is a highly valued resource, so don’t shift your gaze away when the other butts in. All that seems commonsensical, but I have had clients who suddenly banned the older dog from the bed or a certain part of the house with the new arrival, and then wondered why his behavior changed for the worse.
If a dog is – or feels – put out with the appearance of another, anxiety, animosity and aggression builds.
Alike seeks alike and meshes well - unless they are equally jaded and confrontational. Initially less than perfect matches can still work, if the humans meet each dog’s individual needs, and that can mean a lot of extra time a day that goes to the dogs.
If, or if not, a social group harmonizes depends on the dogs, but also, perhaps more so, on the people’s level of skill and available time; the amount of effort and commitment they are comfortable making.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Last week the first shipment of about 100 animals coming from Palm Springs, California, arrived in Nova Scotia. 46 dogs were driven in an RV across North America, with another load expected in a couple of weeks that also includes some 50 cats. The arrangement was a cooperative effort between Animal Rescue Corps and several local rescue organizations. The arrival of the dogs was met with great fanfare - and a lot of controversy that seems to continue based on the conversations I had at the recent Dog Expo with a number of people.
Since this whole thing became public, I followed various Facebook threads, had private conversations with other trainers, met some of the dogs, talked with people who met the dogs, and talked with people that are involved with rescue organizations that were not part of the Sunshine Dogs project. Based on that, and my personal experience working with dogs for more than a decade and being loosely involved with humane societies and rescue folks for equally that long, a whole bunch of thoughts circled around in my brain, and I want to share them with you – rationally and unemotionally albeit not impartially, because we all see the world through our own filter, and I am no exception.
Let’s start with the different positions folks have taken, and no, I won’t line up who said what and where, a) because a number of people shared similar viewpoints, and b) because some of the conversations are confidential.
On one end of the opinion spectrum are people who are openly against it because they feel that we have enough dogs in need here, and already limited resources to help all of them. As one person pointed out: We are importing dogs from a population and resource wealthy area to a resource strapped and low population area.
I agree with that. There are large dogs sitting in shelters sometimes for months, like Maverick at the Colchester SPCA who is there since November, and no one looks at him, and calls for help with local rescue was largely ignored. Every rescue group here is forever fund raising and asking for donations, including covering veterinary expenses for the Sunshine to Maritime dogs. So, I am by and large opposed, but not so annoyed that I will stop supporting the organizations that were part of this event.
On the other end are the people that are in favor. Some, because they feel that it doesn’t matter where animals saved come from, as long as they are saved. One person inferred that whoever makes negative comments is generally anti-global, and also against funding starving children because they live elsewhere. Hm? I’m not.
Others point out that many of the dogs that came are small ones we don’t have enough of here, and if rescue can’t supply folks who want a small dog with a small dog, they’ll look for one elsewhere, for example online. That is a valid point, but for me there is a but: Do the small dogs have the temperament Joe and Jane Frontporch are looking for? Or do they, or some, have issues that, based on my experience, the general public doesn’t have in mind when they're looking for a dog.
Some rescue dogs experienced a horrible past and need more than love to fix things. In fact, they might reject the love owners, especially ones that want a toy size, are so eager to give. Lay people generally have certain expectations and envision a pooch they can snuggle with, take on walks, to the park, on trips and when visiting friends and family. They typically don’t want a dog who is detached, nips at people, defends resources or growls when the collar comes on, reacts to other dogs and pisses in the house. I am not saying that the Palm Springs dogs all have these issues, but some, I am sure, do, because dogs who lived in a shelter for months, or in a hoarding situation where there was filth and fights over limited resources, have learned to void in the house, run or crate, and fight over resources. In addition, they can be distressed because of constant noise overstimulation, and mental/physical understimulation.
The probable consequence when people struggle with the dog they adopted is that they are less likely to get another from that rescue, or rescue period, and more likely to look for a breeder’s pup in the future. And where does the majority look? Online.
Speaking of, all dogs at one point are produced somewhere, and I argue that many in rescue originated in mill type facilities or back yards, and were purchased online or in a pet store. The general public sadly still doesn't have a clue that an ill-bred pup might be sickly and can have behavioral issues right from the start because he didn’t get what he needed during his critical developmental stages. When things don’t work out, the dog is surrendered or dumped, and eventually ends up in rescue. So indirectly, every organization that rescues makes room for more dogs produced for profit, and that is not much different than an individual purchasing a pup online or in a pet store.
Of course I am not suggesting that rescue organizations cease to exist. Dogs’ wellbeing has been my mission for many years and rescue is a big part of it. And it is never the dog’s fault - every pooch deserves a second or third chance. But what I am saying is that the answer isn’t as simple as: “Let’s all get a dog from rescue and we’ll all be happy”. There is no easy solution, no right answer, other than legislation that stipulates who can breed and sell; legislation that shuts down people that pop out litter after litter after litter and sell to anyone who hands over money, or liquor, or dope, or whatever trade-in stuff they need at the time - the kind of scum rescue often also bails out when they buy a whole litter because they pity the pups. But of course, they too, like the individual, make room for the next litter.
I argue that the best way to prevent future suffering is not getting a dog from rescue, but getting one from a conscientious breeder who cares about health and temperament, has only the number of litters they can imprint, raise and place properly, and who provides a contract with a lifetime return guaranty. Until we have that North America wide, rescue organization everywhere will be overloaded and underfunded in perpetuity.
The other thing that was discussed in several threads was that not all Sunshine to Maritime dogs that came with the first shipment are small. Some are large, and methinks we indeed have a surplus of large dogs in this province – see Maverick. Perhaps he’ll become the spokes dog for all the large dogs that are falling through the cracks.
And what’s up with getting 50 cats? Everyone seems to be against that. They will go to Prince Edward Island, and perhaps they lack cats there. But then why wouldn’t they take our cats we can’t give away here? Transport would be cheaper, too. Apparently the whole thing ate up about 15.000 bucks in transportation costs.
Perhaps the cats coming from Palm Springs are special cats – a certain size or color we don’t have anywhere in the Maritimes.
Or perhaps they were part of the deal to get the small dogs. A local blogger wrote that the small dogs sweetened the deal for the large ones.
I don’t know. Can someone enlighten me?
The arrival of the Sunshine dogs, as I mentioned, received a lot of media attention, and several people pointed out that that is a good thing because it will raise public awareness and therefore increase the number of people who will look to rescue first when they want a dog. Again, in my opinion if or if not adoptions and support will increase long term depends largely on the experience people will have with the dog they adopted. Experiences they will talk about with friends and family.
Another point made on a Facebook thread was that rescue and foster homes should hire professional trainers, the certified ones, more often to help with problem behaviors. Emphasis on hire. That irked a number of people, according to comments on that thread and people I talked with at the Dog Expo a couple of days ago, who felt that they know as much as a trainer and therefore don't need to spent money they don't have.
Personally, I share the sentiment that trainers, like any other professional, should get paid for their service. Of course we should, and I am miffed when someone has no issues paying for every other service, except behavioral advice. However, based on my experiences, that happens more with lay people than rescue organizations. The ones that asked me for advice in the past always offered payment, which I, if it was via email or phone, refused. I respect foster homes because I know the effort they put in, and the least I can do is help out every so often. If a personal visit is needed, I accept payment they often insist on, but give a discount. Also, when I gave free seminars for foster homes and the SPCA, I always received something: Locally made crafts, homemade bread, a gift certificate for a restaurant, a bottle of local wine – all of it warmed by heart. It doesn’t always have to be money. Not for me anyway.
In addition, some rescue organizations helped me with an occasional client who needed to re-home - and some others didn’t even return my email. Naturally, in those cases help is for free, including a personal visit. How could I expect rescue to take in a dog I was involved with, cover future food and vet care costs, and in addition also pay for my advice if they need it?
More often than not though, the rescue folks I deal with indeed know what they are doing. Of course they would. Living with many, many dogs for many, many years makes one an expert, even if not certified. On the other paw, we professionals who specialize in dogs and behavior might know things rescue people, who have jobs, and a family and the dogs, and little time to stay current, don’t know.
One advice I always give is to allow rescued dogs the time and space they need to find their bearings in their new environment. I mean, those Sunshine dogs’ life as they knew it, however crappy it might have been, just ended: They were uprooted, on an 8-day RV trip, bombarded with a number of new people and new hands and cameras, and then thrust into another unfamiliar environment in their foster homes. They need time to settle; they don’t need more new people, more stimulation in the name of exercise and socializing, more prodding at the vet, or yet another foster home. First and foremost rescue dogs, often shell-shocked or at least the wind taken out of their sails, have to find safety again in a new routine that is then incrementally expanded from inside the house and yard, outward.
Depending on the dog, that can take a couple of weeks, and until then, until they are settled and their true personality surfaces, they should not be adopted. How can a dog be placed in the best home possible if you don’t know much about the dog’s behavior, likes and dislikes, and potential issues. Relying on accounts from the rescue folks that brought the dogs in, or in other cases on what former owners say, is not good enough. Foster homes need to experience for themselves if the dog reportedly house trained and not at all aggressive, is indeed house trained and not at all aggressive, and then they can let him go to his hopefully forever home, and make room for more dogs that need their help.