Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sunshine to Maritime Dogs

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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Can Manipulation of Body and Communication Signals Change Behavior?

We love our dogs, don’t we?  We love to watch them play, love when they’re attentive - follow us literally and figuratively, when they are affectionate and soft, and some of us even love when they act doggish: zoom in wide circles, bark with excitement, dig in the snow, sniff'n'mark, drag a log out of a pond, roll in yucky stuff - well, perhaps love is too strong a word regarding the last one.
Dogs, we say, are honest and incapable of wearing a social mask, and we love that too - until they express that they feel aroused, anxious or angry. Those signals: the tension and warning stares; the barks, whines and growls; the tucked-under tail and bristled hair, we don’t love. We accept dogs’ frankness only when they “say” what we like, and aim to extinguish their not so sweet signals – either with inflicting punishment or applying reinforcement. With some dogs, either method effectively manipulates signals, but the important question is if we also successfully influence future behavior.

A few years ago scientists conducted an experiment in which people were asked to carry a pencil between their lips for a few minutes several times a day. Carrying a pencil, of course, resembles a smile. Scientists knew that hormones and neurochemicals dictate behavior, but what they wanted to find out was if it happens the other way around: If molding the body affects brain chemicals. Indeed, there were measurable changes in the test subjects, so it seems to be the case.
Since humans and dogs are physiologically similar, the notion to use that information to help dogs is apparent: If we manually flatten raised hair, move ears forward, lift the tail, could we increase a dog’s feel-good neurochemicals and make him relaxed, confident and proud? This is what one renowned trainer, who cited the above study at a seminar, proposed, albeit with a question mark because she wasn’t quite convinced. Neither was I, and there is scientific evidence that shows that although behavior seems to influence brain chemistry, it does not change brain circuitry, and that is an important distinction.
When a person smiles spontaneously, because they feel joyful or experience something funny or inspiring, the brain’s emotional center in the limbic system fires up. In comparison, when a person is prompted to smile, for example a politician for a photo op during an election campaign, neurons in the cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain, light up. There are muscles in the face that are not under voluntary control, and are only involved when the smile is genuine, emotional. To an onlooker, a smiling person might be regarded as happy and affable, but that doesn't mean it is real.
Likewise, I believe that a dog's submissive display isn't necessarily real either, and I have observational evidence that backs it up. One dog in particular sticks out: A juvenile Labrador retriever named Abby who, for a few months, joined a loosely formed walking group I belonged to in Calgary.
Abby, when she arrived, greeted each of our dogs, at any given day 10-15 of them, in a very groveling fashion. She did it every time anew, and every time was promptly growled at by just about every dog while she was still on her back, and after that, after they let her get up, everyone happily roamed together for the remainder of the walk.
Our dogs’ growls upset Abby’s owner. She felt that since her dog so exaggeratedly submitted, ours shouldn’t be so offensively aggressive, and wanted them disciplined. Discipline, she shared with us, they implemented from day one as outlined in the training guide they followed: The Monks of New Skete’s “The Art of Raising a Puppy”. Although we were a little stumped by our dogs as well, we didn’t intervene because they were typically quite appropriate, even with newcomers. We, as a group, speculated that perhaps they knew more than we humans did.
As it turned out, we and our dogs were correct. As Abby matured, a different personality surfaced. No more groveling, no more submission, but high arousal, attacking and bullying dogs, and offensively barking at people. Eventually, Abby got into so much trouble that they stopped coming.
The original version of “The Art….” advises the alpha roll, the forceful putting a pup on her back, and I wondered then if Abby’s initial submission was feigned, and our dog savvy dogs, perceptive of subtleties in body language, saw it for what it was: Learned and superficial rather than felt deference.

People can manipulate crude body language, but not the finer expressions that reflect a dog’s emotional state: facial muscle tension, dilated pupils, an open or closed mouth with retracted or puckered commissures. Most people have difficulties comprehending dog communication when it is loud and clear, never mind subtleties. Dog savvy dogs, however, know - and perhaps smell, the emotional state and intent and decide, based on that, how they want to greet, or if. Manipulating a dog, including turning one around so the other can sniff butt and genitals, without understanding what is going on, leaves a lot of room for mistakes.

Trainers who use negative reinforcement instead of physical molding to extinguish undesired expressions do pay attention to those finer signals. They orchestrate situations in which the dog is exposed to the problematic trigger close enough that the trigger is indeed perceived as problematic. As long as the dog responds with unwanted signals, neither handler nor trigger do anything, but as soon as she gives appeasement, curious or friendly signals, the trigger releases the pressure by increasing the distance. Whatever is reinforced is repeated, and trainers who use negative reinforcement to treat reactivity claim that when practiced enough, the operant conditioned friendly expressions will lead to an authentically friendly dog. Again, I have doubts, and again, studies as well as real life experience seem to substantiate them.
In an experiment, human test subjects were instructed to move their facial muscles to mirror a specific emotion: anger or happiness. Like the pencil between the lips study, the scientists wanted to see if consciously invoking an expression would lead to the corresponding emotion, and indeed the participants reported that they felt respectively angry or happy. So at first glance, deliberately producing body signals appears to bring about the feeling, but closer investigation and evidence from electrophysiological recordings revealed that the artificial smiley and angry faces created different brain wave patterns than those generated by real smiles and real anger. The brain just can’t be fooled.
In addition, the test subjects were not happy or angry at any particular thing, which is of course the case when we work with dogs who react to very specific and real stimuli: mainly other dogs and/or strangers.
I encountered dogs who were shaped with negative reinforcement, and from a distance indeed didn’t snarl any longer but displayed sociable signals, one even play bowed, but reacted when the distance decreased and pressure became overwhelming. The one that play bowed attacked when she was within teeth range. Had she changed her mind about dogs? Obviously not.
Like body molding, shaped friendliness void of the emotion behind it is mock friendliness, and mock friendliness puts people in a false sense of security. There is a real risk that the dog becomes more dangerous. Like punishing the growl, we suppress the dog’s natural warning vocabulary when we reinforce the ones we like better. Before you had an aggressive dog who signaled it and you could take action; after punishment and shaping for sociability, you have one who doesn’t and the attack comes unannounced. Furthermore, people typically approach closer when they see friendly body signals, and in that case you want to be certain that your dog IS friendly, and not just acts friendly.

Yes, we have accounts that insecure people feel stronger when they consciously walk tall and with conviction, and anxious ones who become more centered in stressful situations when they practice relaxed breathing, but don’t forget that when people fake it till they make it they do that voluntarily, without external manipulation and shaping.
Even then, an assertion such as: “I carried a pencil between my lips for a few weeks and permanently lost my fear of spiders” sounds ludicrous. I am sure phobic folks wish a cure was so easy.
In my opinion, if we want honesty from the dog, anything emotional must come freely from the dog, and not be shaped, prompted or manipulated. If a dog feels afraid or angry, reflected in his body signals, I respect that. It is preposterous human arrogance to decide for the dog what signals she should give. That doesn’t mean I ignore problem behaviors, but that I try to change the underlying issues instead of expressions. If I am successful, the signals I don’t like will disappear automatically and authentically.

Many owners want what I want: a canine companion who feels relaxed, curious and confident, content and happy. You get that not with manually lifting the tail, but when you facilitate opportunities for the dog to succeed.
During a tracking workshop, our German shepherd friend Fin found the hidden person and was overjoyed. No food reward was needed to motivate him to do it again.
Will once successfully snatched a ball from her nemesis Gracie. She carried it in a way that it hung out of her mouth for all to see. Will never carried a ball that way before or after.
Our Aussie Davie snubbed all her dog friends at the park after a herding workshop. Even before I told the group what we had been up to, they commented that she was different.
Our Newf Baywolf hightailed and pranced after he finally dislodged a big branch he was working on for a good 10 minutes.
No fake signals in any of these dogs, but expressed, authentic joy – pride, there is no better word to describe it.
So, can we manipulate the signals a dog gives? Absolutely.
Should we? My answer is no.