Sunday, February 26, 2012

Trainers and Methods on my Mind

There’s been a lively discussion on Facebook lately that started with someone posting that we, the positive reinforcement proponents, ought to be as positive with people as we are with dogs, and not say anything if we have nothing nice to say. It was an interesting thread and packed with, as it is typically the case in dog circles, polarized opinions. Some feel that if we don’t point out what compulsive and punitive treatment does to dogs, we become collaborators, enablers and facilitators. Others argue that we can accomplish more with educating instead of criticizing, and that we should keep the communication lines open. One person even questioned how credible a positive reinforcement trainer one is if she doesn’t extend those values to humans?
That one rang a bell. It’s true. Not all dog pros, and regardless what philosophy they follow, are pleasant with people. But when positive reinforcement trainers aren’t, there is a bigger contrast between how they treat dogs and how they treat humans, and the lack of people social skills becomes more obvious.
I pride myself in being my very best whenever I am with clients. My mission is that no dog should experience force, pain or intimidation at the hands of humans. I know, a lofty goal, but I am ├╝ber-passionate about it anyway. Education trumps, and I am as patient, positive and gentle with people and their offspring as I am with their pooch, and don’t lay blame for mistakes they made in the past, because in all likelihood they followed somebody’s advice.
When I encounter colleagues who feel that I might have something to offer, I never hesitate to share what I know. And I do it nicely. I answer emails, return phone calls, meet for coffee and am welcoming when they attend my public speaking events.
That changes when folks try to convince me that dogs can’t be trained without corrections, discomfort and pain. No thank you. I’d be wasting my time, and theirs.
I have no interest in discussing their punitive and coercive ways, and I will also not stay silent. Why? Because I believe that punitive trainers cause, or contribute, to behavioral problems, violate the dog’s sense of emotional safety in his home, and do little to strengthen the relationship between dog and his people.
I am not alone. Scientific studies, published in Applied Animal Behavior Science, showed that aggression is a possible consequence of confrontational methods, both traditional - Koehler style, and hierarchical pack dominance – the stuff Millan does. Let’s have a detailed look:
With choke or prong collar corrections, 6% of dogs became aggressive.
Removing something forcefully from a dog’s mouth 15%; pinning, the alpha roll, 11%; hitting or kicking 12%, and I wonder if the “attention touch” with a foot or hand, the “bonker” with a rolled up towel or newspaper, and the “tap” with the flyswatter is included in that.
Millan’s famous tsst-sound that announces a correction unless the dog gets it together right away, 2% reacted to, and I suppose it might be the same with the warning tone that precedes a shock.
The stare-down was 16%; spray bottle 10%, and I suggest you quiz your dog’s daycare provider about that; yelling “no” 18%. Maybe it’s 18% with the shock collar tone as well, not 2%, or maybe somewhere in the middle.
The forced dominance down, which is when a leashed dog, typically on a choke or prong collar, is forced to lie and remain in that position for a set period of time, made 7% aggressive. The same with grabbing the jowls or scruff, and growling in the dog’s face was 9%.
Here is an interesting tidbit: During a 3-year field study in which a group of feral dogs was observed, the researchers noted that only 2% of hostility was directed against social group members. That indicates that aggression against someone the dog lives with is not normal dog behavior. Believe me that I meet many dogs that lash out against the people they live with; the adult male if the dog is confident enough, but more often aggression is directed toward the female owner, children, or other animals in the family.
Above study gives you a possible, I say probable, explanation. Dogs can become aggressive when confronted with intimidation and pain, and if they can avoid it with aggression, then aggression is powerfully reinforced. And keep in mind that only aggression was studied, not other anxiety expressions like emotional coma, hyperactivity and obsessive behaviors, inhibited learning and avoidance. Also note that you can’t predict the outcome accurately when you begin training.

Jim Ha, Research Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, and one of only a few handful of Ph.D. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists in the US, states that certain individual dogs of certain breeds develop no anxiety with aversive training, provided it is done by an experienced trainer who applies the right amount of punishment at the right time. Those people, according to Ha, are highly skilled professionals often found in the assistance dog and K9 fields. They select the appropriate dog for their needs, and reject all others, which are the majority; the assistance dog facility Dr. Ha visited rejects about 70% of their already intentionally, for the job, bred puppies.
Is your neighborhood traditional, hierarchical, balanced or shock collar trainer that qualified and skilled? Do you have the right individual dog who can handle aversive training? Are you savvy enough to select the appropriate dog for your needs?
My hunch is: No, No and No. Some trainers are very skilled handlers, but based on my experience, not one rejects a dog, but accepts everyone in his group class or for private training. They accept every dog because they have to make a living. It’s about money.
Ha argues, and most behaviorists agree, that in unskilled hands, which are almost all dog owners, aversive methods are disasters in the making.
One more thing: The highest level of anxiety was observed with dogs that were trained and handled with the punishment/reward combination, which is the way of “balanced” trainers: traditional ones that jumped on the bandwagon of increasingly more popular clicker training. Can’t say that I am surprised. If you needed to be on guard to gauge which of your partner or boss’s side you have to deal with at any given day or moment, you’d be stressed out too.
I am sure there’ll be more studies like these in the future that prove that correcting, intimidating, startling on purpose, and applying force and pain does harm to dogs, and people by extension – the ones the dog lives with and society at large.
Intentionally inflicting discomfort is unpopular with many people. Dog owners rather not punish their canine companion, and I opine that trainers know that, and therefore often don’t lay all the cards on the table for you. They are not always frank about what they do, and what potential fallout it has, and use deflecting euphemisms: vibration collar, balanced approach, following nature’s rules, discipline, leader of the pack, training collar, stimulus, rules and boundaries, attention touch – relaxed or calm even when the dog is visibly stress panting or exhausted.
Trainers go to great lengths to explain the low settings of a shock collar, even let you experience it on your arm, but rarely offer information what the high settings are for. Let me guess: A dog who doesn’t respond like a robot with the low settings.
They circulate YouTube videos of an “aggressive” German shepherd who is “cured” in 5 minutes, or a reactive mastiff miraculously pacified after a short time wearing the company’s own collar. Those clips show the before and after behavior, but not how they got from point A to point B.
Punitive trainers’ websites often don’t reveal the methods they use, or describe them as unique and secret but unbelievably effective, or they speak in tongue most layowners don’t understand, like: using operant conditioning, applying all four quadrants.
Membership with a professional organization might flag their homepage, but they won’t tell you that the association is all-inclusive to begin with, or doesn’t screen their members very thoroughly.
There are clever PR moves to attract clients. Some offer a free in-home consultation, which sounds great but in reality typically means that they diagnose the dog’s issues in 15 minutes or less, and spend the rest of the time promoting a costly training package.
Some trainers guarantee that the dog will be rehabilitated for good. Sounds great too, but being 100% rehabilitated is realistically impossible. Dogs are not programmable computers, but living beings with a nervous system and emotions. Nobody can guarantee their behavior 100%, and nobody can guarantee the behavior of people that interact with the dog. No psychologist or therapist would ever make that claim. That is not how experts behave.

I am sour about all that. It feels like someone’s pissing on my leg and tells me it’s raining. And so I speak up. Not because they get clients and make money – protectionism is something trainers who are openly critical of others are often accused of, but because they are hurting dogs and the average layowner doesn’t know they do.
My loyalty is with dogs and their people, not other trainers. I don’t willy-nilly bash local ones, but when directly asked, I will forward first-hand knowledge I have about that person. Only first-hand stuff I witnessed or heard from my clients, their failures and fallouts.
The famous TV dog wranglers are, voluntarily I should say, in public view several times a week and are, as far as I am concerned, fair game to be criticized like any other public figure. There has to be an equalizer to a show that demonstrates a person walking assertively into even the meanest dog’s home, forcing the even strongest dog into submission, subduing every undesired expression permanently with a few easy corrections, and having a well-mannered dog in the end, even if he has caused trouble for years.
Behaviorists know that what people watch is unrealistic and has side effects, and some high-profile ones say so. And they should. And now a number of positive reinforcement trainers suggest we should keep da gob shut? Under the guise of professional conduct we have doctors, lawyers, soldiers, priests, scout members, police, politicians and so on covering for each other, and we dog trainers should do the same? Not this one.
Of course education, informing people about the power and benefits of positive reinforcement, is the most important aspect in creating welfare; making life better for dogs. And I do a lot of that: Seeing clients, writing blog posts and columns, my book and an another one I am presently working on, radio shows and articles, and giving lectures and seminars. On that note, my spring lecture series is posted on my webpage.
But in itself, without weighing the potential fallout of compulsive methods against it, and pointing out people who made a conscious decision to use them, the public mind believes that one approach, one trainer, is a good as the next one.
Thanks to the above-mentioned study you have verification that that is not the case. You have an idea about the possible risks, percentage-wise, involved with aversive handling.
I admit, sorting out dog professionals is not an easy task. My advice is to ask your groomer, daycare provider and dog walker what they do if: Your dog doesn’t obey right away. Growls. Plays rough.
Check out dog trainers’ websites. You can glance over niceties such as memberships, certification from a private school – even if, no especially if it is from one the TV personality’s academy, and guarantees, but pay more attention to the training philosophy they believe in. It should be very visibly listed on their site. If not, ask. Don’t be intimidated. If you feel intimidated by a person, how you think your dog will feel? Ask. It is your dog; it is your right and responsibility. A trainer and behavior consultant should deliver answers honestly before you hand over hard-earned dollars. Ask, especially if you have a dog who already has issues.
My question would be: “What equipment do you use?” If it is anything that can deliver pain, I’d walk away. If the answer is: “Whatever you use is fine. I will show you how to use it correctly”, I’d walk away.
If your trainer doesn’t want your children present, ask why. A dog is part of the social group he lives with, and observing the dynamics and interactions of all members is important information for me. There might be a valid reason why the professional you selected doesn’t want children to be part of the consultation, but if it is because what he’ll do to the dog would upset the kids – walk away.
Ask: “Which of the four quadrants do you apply?” If they don’t know what you’re talking about, walk away. If the answer is: “All four” or “Whatever works”, walk away. All four likely includes pain, delivered before and/or after a behavior, and whatever works might work for the trainer, but rarely the dog.
A dog professional’s priority should be dogs’ welfare. What you want to hear is: Positive reinforcement/negative punishment combination. You also want to hear that it is up to you to put time and effort into modifying your dog’s behavior, that you might have to make a few changes, and that you probably will have to manage the pooch until new behaviors are established, but that you will get the skills and information, including ongoing support, you need to succeed. Those are the realistic expectations owners can have of a behavior consultant.
Fact is that not everything is fixable, and for sure not right away. In reality, we are not action heroes for dogs as implied on TV. We are normal people who know a lot more about dogs and behavior than you do, and help you with some M and M – manage and modify; help you understand your dog's behaviors and lay out how he can become the best pooch possible.

Here they are: my thoughts – my rant. Accuse me of not being collegial if you like, but I take offense being called unprofessional for speaking up. I am a dog expert and act on behalf of dogs. Yes, I could play it politically correct, and be critical of method and not the person who applies it, but you can’t really separate the two, can you. It is the person who makes a conscious decision to choose one method over the other.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dogs and Babies

I confess: I am semi-addicted to Facebook. It is my social vice. I like keeping in touch with friends, clients and colleagues worldwide, and especially love the daily dose of dog-news: links to articles and video clips without having to comb the web.
Info seems to come in trends. Sometimes there is a cluster of training advice, then the topic is health and food, and recently there were a few youtube clips in a row of kids interacting with dogs. Little kids, babies and toddlers, and not so little dogs. In one, a mastiff had a bone and an about one-year old child kept on reaching for it. In another, a Bernese mountain dog frenetically licked a, crawling into his space, baby. Obviously, in each case there was an adult nearby - filming, and equally obvious unconcerned about the baby’s safety. Nobody interfered, not even when the dog with the bone briefly stiffened.
It is not unusual that situations laypeople find adorable or funny bristles dog pros’ neck hair. We see the dog’s discomfort in his body language - and a looming incident that always leaves both baby and pooch on the losing end.
How can parents be so oblivious? Well, some dog signals are easier to understand than others. Licking, for example, is typically interpreted as the dog loving the baby and kissing it in affection, but that is not necessarily the case. Yes, the dog might like the baby generally, but incessant licking indicates that, at the moment, he’d rather have some space. Some dog trainers use the term “kiss to dismiss” to illustrate the dog’s intention: wanting distance and peace, but communicating it in a much friendlier way than growling.
Whether a dog licks or growls depends on his personality. Naturally, humans understand a growl right away and take action – not always the right one, but at least they are aware how their pooch feels and ensure the little person’s safety. Anything less clear coming from the dog is often missed. But can a layperson be expected to comprehend subtleties in canine communication? Perhaps not, and hence the common advice is to never allow dogs and children to interact unsupervised. Except, in both clips they weren’t. Grown-ups were right there, but filming instead of intercepting.
A bite can happen a flash. There was another video making the rounds recently of a Malinois snapping at another dog 5 times in 2 seconds. 2 seconds is nothing; certainly not enough time to get a child out of the way even when you’re there. For that reason, many of my colleagues recommend to never allow dog and baby in face-to-face, or face-to-body, proximity. I am reluctant to go that far. There are dogs who really do love young humans and want to interact. I met them, and lived with them, and it would be a shame to withhold that. The solution, as I see it, is for people to learn more about dogs. Especially parents, and regardless if they own a dog or not, because the fact is that dogs are part of our society and everywhere. Fortunately, it isn’t that complicated. There is a fabulous website that illustrates when a dog is uncomfortable. Locally, here in Nova Scotia, one of my wonderful colleagues, Tamara McFarland, is holding a couple of Dog & Baby workshops this spring.

Between children, dogs and adults, only the grown-ups have enough reasoning capabilities to assess a situation accurately, and take charge when needed. Whenever a dog becomes stiff and still, has a clamped mouth and/or round, white-rimmed eyes, the problem is already a big one, and a bite might be imminent. Taking action, creating space, should happen when he yawns or flicks his tongue in and out, and when he tries to avoid: turns his eyes, head or body away from the child, and yes, also when he kisses to dismiss. Frenzied licking indicates that the dog is annoyed rather than affectionate. In fact, anything fast moving on a dog puts me on alert, including a fast wagging tail, and especially when only part of it wags. When a dog seeks friendly social contact, the dog wags, not just the tail.
Parents also should remember that dog/child interactions are dynamic. Just because the pooch enjoys the baby close by today, doesn’t mean he will tomorrow. The most difficult age I find is when a child is between 1-3 years old. They are mobile, but their motor skills not yet well developed, and they are too young to comprehend space politeness. Toddlers are unpredictable and uncoordinated and dogs know this. Especially more vulnerable tiny poochies, and older ones who might be a bit arthritic, can be quite guarded of themselves. Older dogs might also need more rest, and it is up to the owner to ensure they have a refuge zone where young humans won’t disturb them. Dogs, young or old, big or small, should always be given the opportunity to retreat when they have had enough. Many dogs are naturally curious about babies and want to sniff, but feel much safer when it happens on their terms. And please keep in mind that retreating can be an effort for older and giant dogs, and so they’d rather want the baby to create the distance, and they signal that with growling, or kissing.
Even if your dog is childproof, not every dog is and not all of the time, and it is crucial that youngsters learn to be considerate; learn manners and respect for other living beings. Their family pooch perhaps tolerates being hugged, pulled or slouched on, but their friend or neighbor’s dog might object. An average 3-year-old can comprehend basic dog language, and should be involved as “trainer helper”. Handing over a Smarty each time they point out “what the doggy is saying” correctly makes learning fun for everyone. The child is rewarded for giving the dog space, and that increases the likelihood that she'll be respectful with every pooch she meets.
Parents must model appropriate behavior. One would think that’s a no-brainer, but I remember a family of 4 we once encountered while hiking where that wasn’t the case. Davie and Will ignored them as they should, and the children ignored our dogs, but dad ran his hand over Davie’s back as he passed on the narrow trail. Davie was a small Aussie, and he had to bend down and make an effort. Duh! I complemented the kids for not patting a strange dog, threw dad the evil eye, and fed Davie a few treats for not biting the hand that rudely touched her.

The babies in the videos clips weren’t hurt. The dog with the bone loosened up again and left the scene, bone between his teeth. The Berner continued licking, too amiable to aggress. Dogs that are bonded to their social group members don’t want to injure any of them, including children, and try everything to avoid a bite. All adults need to do is watch and listen, and help the dog out when he feels overwhelmed. Not much effort for a huge payoff: a child not ending up in emergency, injured and traumatized, and a once beloved family companion not ending up at the receiving end of the euthanasia needle.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

When Dogs Won't Eat

Eating was never a problem for our Newf Baywolf and Aussie Davie, or for any of our foster dogs. Many dogs like food; not just treats, but their daily dinners and gobble up eagerly what is served. Furthermore, many dogs - once again reflecting our society - overeat on empty carbs and are pudgy, of course not by choice. Dogs can’t research ingredients or read food labels, shop or prepare their own dinners. They depend on their people to do that, and because we did it conscientiously, our pooches were enthusiastic eaters, but never overweight.
Not all dogs, though, scoff their meals up with gusto. During our 15 years preparing dog food commercially, one recurring reason why owners approached us was because their pooch lacked appetite, and ironically our feral born and imprinted on garage dump waste Will is our own dainty diner. Then again, she does everything other than “educating dogs” delicately, so it is no surprise that she is her typical self when it comes to food. And it is not that she isn’t eating. She does: regularly twice a day plus snacks, provided we give her what she likes. If not, she walks away, or spits the veggies she objects to blatantly on the floor.
Will’s prissiness amuses us, but being fussy can reach a problematic level when a dog refuses food to a point that it affects her weight. Such was the case with my friends’ one year-old hound. Already a sleek breed to begin with, and although lively and healthy, she was eating so little during her developmental stages that my friends were a bit concerned, and asked for my input. Dog pros themselves, they had already addressed the issue from all possible angles, and so there wasn’t much I was able to contribute, but it reminded me of all the reasons I came across over the years that can cause food refusal; reasons often overlooked by laypeople.
An obvious one is that the dog doesn’t like it. Regarding some kibble, no surprise. Seriously, would you? I mean, kibble have come a long way and there are some very good ones on the market, but also some that stink going in and coming out. You might think that an animal that finds crap appetizing shouldn’t turn the nose up at cheap kibble, but fact is that many dogs do, despite the added-on fat as flavor enhancers.
Aside from smell and taste, kibble consisting of fillers and processed, unfit-for-consumption, junk can make a dog feel unwell after consumption. We know how unpleasant we feel after we wolfed down something that didn’t agree with us. Is it so far fetched to believe it could be the same with dogs? We can reject that food-thing in the future, although foolishly we don’t always do that and rather pop an anti-bloat, anti-cramp or heartburn pill that instantly takes the pain away. Allergies are easily detectable – scratching and biting paws are common indicators, but the signs of general malaise after a meal are not so clear, and dogs can neither voice their discomfort, nor open the medicine cabinet.
My advice always is to purchase the best dog food one can afford, while keeping in mind that just because it is expensive doesn’t automatically mean it is the right one for your pooch. Diet really is an individual thing – for people and dogs, and finding the perfect chow can take some investigating and experimenting.
Food refusal is not always physical in nature, but can have emotional causes. Competition, for example, can express itself in resource guarding, resource hoarding, or an unwillingness to eat when the dog is very nervous of another in the household. In our home, I make sure that dogs can eat feeling safe. I never take their grub away, but ensure that each one minds her own bowl until the others are done and leave. I don’t tolerate any type of bullying, but especially not around food, an existential need. Not even a wanting, dirty look in the direction of somebody else’s meal is allowed.
If a dog is really timid and scared, feeding her at a separate place can help. Another option is serving dinner in the each dog’s respective crate; a solution many of my multi-dog-owning trainer friends choose.
Some people, including breeders, make food accessible at all times. Free feeding is controversial; some arguing that dogs become fat and bratty, others that it prevents resource guarding. I am generally in favor, but concede that it is not suitable for every dog. My main pro argument is that, indeed, unlimited food availability creates resource security, which counters resource guarding. I met a good number of rescued dogs that came with food aggression issues and mellowed out when they experienced abundance. Things that aren’t a big deal typically aren’t defended – it can be that simple.
The practice of free feeding can cause a problem when the dog is switched to scheduled meals, for example when she moves from breeder or foster home into her forever one. Eating in a set amount of time is simply not in the dog’s behavior repertoire, and it can take awhile before she understands that the bowl disappears after 15 or 20 minutes.
Although I am a big fan of life in paradise, in the case of the finicky Fido small amounts at a time can be perceived as a limited resource, which might entice her to eat up when it is available. One way to accelerate a successful switch is putting a small amount of food in the dish, and adding more as soon as the last piece entered the gob. Incrementally, increase the portions until the dog devours the full ration in one setting.
You can also put part of the daily ration in interactive toys. I recommend that anyway for dogs that are easily bored or home alone a lot, but working for food can also hit the target with the delicate nibbler.
Eating out of a bowl not being part of the behavior repertoire was also my guess with a case I had recently. The dog, plucked off the streets, was eating anything, including stuff he found outside, but the food given to him twice a day in a dish. In addition, he had stinky farts, so the kind of food was likely not working for him either. Like our Will, who was born on a reserve outside of Calgary, in his mind being served was not the normal way of consuming food. For dogs who have a strong seeking desire because it is habitual, hiding food around the house and yard, and interactive food toys can satisfy that need.
And don’t forget that stray and feral dogs forage on human waste, not kibble. The humane society I volunteered for once trapped a dog who was very emaciated even though piles of donated kibble was left around the garbage dump site once a week. When these dogs are homed, some accept new foods readily, others don’t.
We always cooked for our dogs, using human grade, often organic, ingredients. It is probably the reason why we never had an eating problem. Except for Will who, in June, began to refuse her breakfast. We took care of a friend’s German shepherd during that time who is on top quality kibble, and free fed by the way. Will wanted what he had. In fact, she insisted to get what he had, and so for the first time I thoroughly investigated brands to find one our 10-year-old Will likes and I can agree with. I decided on Fromm, which has become Will’s breakfast, while her dinners are still home-cooked. She eats eagerly without being ravenous, her eyes are bright, her coat looks great and the poop does too, she has no body odor and is energetic, keen on joining me wherever I go. Those are all signs that the combination works. If food is a problem in your home, don’t be afraid to explore and make changes, even if your dog is older.