Thursday, February 25, 2010

Extinction Burst

Is an operant conditioning term and happens when a reinforcement that followed a behavior routinely in the past doesn’t manifest any longer. That is frustrating, and frustration needs a release; the organism is forced to do something and either tries the known behavior harder, frantically or furiously even, or tries another, new behavior to elicit the consequence it expects.

If you’re stopped behind a car at a red traffic light, and then the light turns green, you expect the car ahead of you to start driving because that is what you learned normally happens. If the car doesn’t move, likely you will do something: Honk the horn, yell, swear, snap at your partner sitting beside you, try to back up and drive around the car, or get out of yours to check if the person not moving needs help if you are a nice person, or to stab him if you have extreme road rage. Which one it is depends on your personality, what kind of a day you’re having, and how important it is that you get to your destination fast.

Dogs also learn that a certain event leads to a predictable outcome, and once learned anticipate and expect it. They learn it when we purposely reward a “good boy”, or clicking sound with a treat, and when we accidentally always play ball at the same park or grab the leash to go for a walk at a certain time.
Sequences of routine events that are important to the dog lead to a dog who anticipates and expects what comes next as soon as the first cue in that sequence presents itself. And if what should come next is not forthcoming, the dog becomes frustrated just like we would at the green light, or when the chocolate bar doesn’t come out after we put the coin in the vending machine, or when our employer doesn’t pay us.
And as it is with humans, the intensity of a dog’s frustration outburst depends on her personality, pre-existing stress level and how important the expected event, the reward is for her. Most dogs paw, jump, whine or bark – behaviors often described as nuisance and bratty ones, and some dogs can be quite persistent in turning it up a few notches. Some aggress, hard-stare, growl and warn, and once I was bitten in the hand when I did not release a treat right away.

We humans have a bigger and better cerebral cortex than other animals, which means that our rational brain can overrule the frustrations we feel. We know that we can complain to the manager and get the coin back, know that we’ll eventually get to our destination even if the car in front doesn’t move right away, and know that we can sue the employer for the money that is due to us.
The dog just reacts. Not because he is bad or dominant, but because he has no rational options. That doesn’t change the fact that dogs’ frustration behaviors annoy people, which leaves us with the question what to do.
How can we avoid the barking and whining when we begin an extinction procedure to challenge our dog for better behaviors? How can we still play ball in the park without having the dog bug us for one more toss?

One way is to change the consequence; change what happens next. That lowers the expectation for that specific reward and raises attention to you at the same time. You can still reward mark with a clicking sound or “good-boy”, still shape for an automated behavior, but you wouldn’t always follow up with a cookie, but vary the rewards and interact, play a game, use any life reward your dog likes.
Another is to teach your dog an off-switch command. Mine is a verbal “all-done” combined with a hand signal that looks something like slicing the air in front of my chest. An off-switch command gives the dog needed information that nothing further will happen, and information always lowers frustration. That’s how I got to stop Davie from insisting, with high-pitched, super annoying barks, for yet another ball throw.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How Can We Get A Dog To Respect Us?

By respecting and facilitating his natural rights!
Natural rights are what “The Imperial Animal” calls behavioral needs rooted in the biogrammar of an animal. For example: birds have the right to fly, cats to stalk and pounce, and humans to think, and read, and express themselves in art.
For dogs those rights are:
To participate in group activities if they belong to a group, which is ALWAYS the case with owned dogs;
To contribute to the group and feel worthy and important;
To move around in the space where he lives without constraints;
To be nourished and sheltered;
To feel safe;
To communicate freely;
To be taught to, and receive information how his world works and how he fits in;
To utilize his inherent aptitudes - and for many it is to use the schnoz;
To observe, investigate and seek what he finds interesting;
To be taught and given opportunities to earn access to what is important to him.
I doubt we will see that legislated any time soon, which means we’ll continue to have dog behavioral problems for a long time to come.
With or without laws, each one of us can aim to provide what our dog needs beyond food and water. Maybe we’ll reach a crucial threshold and generate a social shift away from neglect, abuse, dominance and over-control.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hierarchies and Stress

I am much more interested in dogs than primates, but primates are great for researching hierarchies. The more I studied the works of scientists like DeWaal, Sapolsky and Tiger/Fox, the more I am convinced that hierarchical rules are such a primate thing. We humans have quite an obsession with it. I mean, we even invented gods so that the top honchos have someone to heed to.
That the hierarchical social system is the natural one for dogs is the foundation of the alpha-dominance ideology. Its proponents state that our companion dogs are by nature status seeking predators, out to topple us and others, and thereby must be kept in check with corrections, pinning, alpha roles and mock knuckle bites. Even if that were the case, which I question and I’ll pick that topic up again in a future post, here is some food for thought.

Robert Sapolsky is a Harvard graduate, Stanford University professor, author and world-renowned neuroendocrinologist who specializes in stress.
An easy way to determine stress levels is to measure glucocorticoid hormone output in urine, and that was part of what Sapolski did during his research over several decades and a number of baboon colonies. Baboons are very strictly hierarchical.
What he found was that stress hormones are much higher in lower ranking members than in alpha males. Baboon alpha males can be nasty buggers, poke and correct their underlings for small infractions, are the controllers and stress the controllees with all that physical micromanaging. Not only that. Sapolski also noticed that all that control does not lead to a better-behaved baboon, but one who aggressively passes those corrections on, down the ranking line, until it hits the lowliest monkey.
Then, with one of the colonies, something equally gruesome and interesting happened. About half of the members died when they accidentally came in contact with contaminated meat. None of the alpha males survived, probably because they observed the me-alpha-eat-first rule and pigged out. Suddenly the baboon colony was without from-the-top-down bosses – and, wouldn’t you know, the aggression level dropped, whilst affiliative social behaviors rose. The whole colony thrived. Each member had some control, contributed, and worked cooperatively with the others, and with that the stress levels dropped as well.
The colony stayed that way; without alpha males. Its members still are, some 20 years later, non-aggressive and friendly with one another. That was the real surprise for the scientists, because till then they believed that social ranking was genetically hardwired in baboons, ingrained in the species’ biogrammar.
Yet, the fact that the baboon colony not only survived, but thrived in a non-autocratic society, implies that hierarchies are a cultural phenomenon, not a biological one - for primates.
What about dogs? I believe that it is more our obsession with dominant hierarchies than a dog’s inherent need for it that feeds the alpha ideology. There are other aspects as well, for example the question if dogs are pack animals, that hint that way. But as I said, I’ll discuss that in another post.

In any case, many dogs I meet professionally redirect aggression, act erratically and reactively, are hyper, compulsive, irritable and edgy. When I tell a client that his pooch is stressed, I often get a surprised look. I must say that most believe me once I explain it, but some don’t. And methinks that it would be great if our veterinarians could check the glucocorticoid levels with a routine checkup, and especially if the dog’s person complains of problem behaviors. Measured by a scientist would carry much more weight than the words of a trainer, or behavior consultant. And then the owner could take action and find ways to decrease stress, not add to it by applying various dominance training methods.

Monday, February 8, 2010

People, Questions and the Dog Expo

I absolutely love to go to people’s homes and work with their dogs. I always liked it more than instructing group classes and am lucky, and deeply grateful, that I get to do only what I love these days.
The primary reason why I love it so much is cause I get to study many dogs in their natural setting, and I get a chance to make a dog feel better where he lives.
The other reason is that I meet many fantastic, and interesting people. Almost every one of my clients I like on a personal level. I typically don’t meet the jerks that mistreat their dogs. I guess, someone who hires me is already non-aggressive by nature, even if he or she used punitive methods in the past because a “professional” advised to do so.
I don’t envy today’s lay-dog-owners, because there is so much conflicting information out there that leaves many utterly confused. Not surprising that I am asked many questions during a consultation, which I welcome, cause it gives me a chance to add clarity. No question is a stupid one is also true regarding dog behavior.

Yesterday, a mother of two young children asked about the best way to approach a strange dog, after asking the owner’s permission – with an open hand, or made into a fist.
Here is the answer I gave:
Although it is understandable that children want to pat a dog, I would rather discourage, than encourage it. Only if the dog gives clear signals that he wants nothing more than to say hello, and has enough self-control to remain calm, should the child be permitted to approach. In other words, don’t ask the owner; ask the dog. Many owners don’t read a dog’s subtle discomfort signals very well, and although the dog might not bite, he might also not like to be touched by strangers very much.
A dog who loves children will say so with a lowered body, open and neutral mouth, soft eyes, fluid body and swooshingly wagging tail – not fast wagging, and not still. And he will reliably stay soft and fluid when children touch and pet and investigate. With those dogs, it doesn’t matter if the child is approaching with an open or closed hand. A dog who loves kids won’t bite.
For all dogs who don’t fall into that category, who are a bit concerned or conflicted about little hands they don’t know touching, the answer is: no petting allowed. Mothers and fathers, don’t take it personally when a dog does not share your feelings for your little darling. He is not a bad dog, or necessarily aggressive. He just wants his space respected by strangers. Like you do. I mean, how would you feel if a stranger were to ask to hug your child because she is so cute!
So hands-off, unless the dog signals unambiguously that he really wants the attention and feels very comfortable with it.

If you have a question, see me at the upcoming Dog Expo at the Halifax Forum on Feb. 21 (info at As long as it has to do with dogs, you’ll get an answer – or at least an expert opinion based on what I learned and experienced over the last 15 or so years.
I will also have a few Dump Dog copies for sale, which I’ll sign for you.
Hope to see you there.