Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sheepdog Training Not Just For Sheepdogs

It is no secret that I have an affinity for sheepdogs, particularly Australian shepherds, followed by Border collies. I ever only owned one, but know and worked with many, and as soon as I have the time – and when the time is right, we'll invite another Aussie into our home and hearts. Because I love sheepdogs, I am fascinated with things sheepdogs do, like herding.
In 2006 I participated with Davie in a herding workshop with Randy Dye in Bowden, Alberta - there is not too much info online about him, but if put Randy Dye Border collies in your search box, you’ll find a couple of blurbs. Davie and I had a ball, metaphorically, but what I found most remarkable was how much of what I learned is applicable to all dogs. That sentiment recurred a couple of months ago when I read Lorna McMasters book “Dancing with Sheepdogs”. Trust me, you don’t have to have a herding breed dog to appreciate the lessons in this book.

For starters, both Randy Dye and Lorna McMasters train without pain. McMasters says: “You build reliable obedience and behavior with patience, not force, and the dog will love to work with you.”

Lorna McMasters uses her voice – verbal commands, and that is something I also preach. One of my biggest peeves with traditional, pack leader, and e-collar trainers is that they let the tools speak for them, and the words they do use are warnings rather than information: Heel! Sit! Come! And you better, or else!
As one of a few force-free trainers who does not use a clicker, I feel validated by the author’s statement that you should use your voice to support your dog. The voice, then, becomes a feel-good trigger for your dog, and whenever you open your mouth you raise work attitude, draw your dog to you, and you can decrease momentary distress.
Like every good force-free trainer, Lorna McMaster is not permissive. She emphasizes the importance to always enforce a command once it is given, so that the dog doesn’t learn to second-guess you. But she has nothing against repeating a command, because it verbally encourages the dog to keep doing what he is doing. This, too, corroborates what I’ve teaching for quite some time. For instance, when I recall I don’t repeat the word “come”, but egg my dog on with a high-pitched “yip-yip-yip” or “quick-quick-quick”, especially with the beginner learner, and especially when the dog is presented with a huge distraction in opposite direction to where I am.
Both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye explained that the speed and intonation the request is made matter. Drawn out words slow the dog down, and conversely rapid short words speed him up. Randy Dye taught us that the duration of the whistle cue has to correspond with the verbal one: short and sharp for directional changes, prolonged to keep the dog methodically going in the same direction.
By the way, Patricia McConnell talks at length about tonal inflection and speed in her really good book “The Other End of The Leash”. Don’t confuse that with the TV show “At the End of My Leash” that stars Brad Pattison, Canada’s answer to Cesar Millan. The former is an accredited and internationally much respected behaviorist, the other an alpha male upshot physically skilled enough to punish dogs into submission and temporary compliance.
Lorna McMasters warns to never raise your voice because it raises your energy and signals loss of control, which can cause the dog to escalate. I agree with that too. Yelling and screaming conveys anger or anxiety, and neither is favorable to learning, the relationship, or to defuse a conflict situation. That said, and contrary to common data and wisdom, my very loud and deep-toned “enough” has so far successfully broken up dogs in a tiff.

When dogs work, they aren’t always visually connected with their human in charge. A collie has to keep his eyes on the sheep, the pooch doing dog sports on the equipment, and the hunting companion on fowl or game. Lorna McMasters believes that dogs should learn to respond to verbal commands without looking at you. Indeed, that’s when verbal commands make most sense because obviously the dog will not see your hand-signal or gesture.
I almost exclusively work with people who, all they want is a well-mannered family member they can take anywhere dogs are allowed to go. For that purpose, visual connection between dog and person is important, and I aim for eye contact the dog offers whenever she needs direction, and eye contact given when I call my dog by name to direct her. I do have one command, though, that allows Will, who sometimes just can’t shift her visual attention away from whatever in the environment holds it, to keep it, while I still get the control I am after: “Halt” means: “Don’t move and wait till I catch up with you”. Perhaps I should elaborate in my next post, or the one after.
Interestingly, Lorna McMasters also likes to catch up with the dog after a herding lesson instead of recalling him. She places the collie in a, for a collie natural, lie-down and as she approaches gives lots of repetitive verbal reminders to stay in that position plus pays attention to her breathing so that he knows that she is calm and he has done nothing wrong. Calm, not assertive, just calm and relaxed, makes a person appealing rather than repelling. Even when the dog breaks, she doesn’t discipline, but repositions and tries again. It is never about letting a dog do as he pleases, she says, but to help him understand without creating resistance, ambiguity or nervousness in relation to the handler and the work they do together.
And this surprised me: After three tries she reinforces even if the dog is still not getting it right to avoid that he becomes “stale”. Rewarding a behavior you don’t want counters positive reinforcement rules, but I think she on to something: The long-term goal of a functioning working relationship must overrule laws established in a laboratory.

Aside from using verbal commands, both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye use their body to make their intentions clear. In the beginning, they exaggerate gestures, and as the dog becomes more skilled, they become subtler. For example, McMasters invites the rookie dog with open arms and moving backward when she recalls.
Randy Dye had an indoor arena, and at our workshop all dogs were off the leash right away. Instead of using a long line to influence the dog, he taught us how to use body movements. Always the whole body, he stressed, not just hands. Facing and blocking the dog makes him change directions, and being at his flank causes him to move out. Being at the dog’s tail, he said, only makes him run faster away from you. If the come command is ignored, he walks in as close as he must to get the dog’s visual attention, and then entices him with whatever works to follow. He doesn’t grab the collar to pull the dog away because he wants him to follow voluntarily. After the workshop, I implemented that right away with my group clients.
Lorna McMasters does use a leash and long line with dogs not yet off leash ready. I wish the general public would do that too, instead of taking the dog they adopted 24 hours prior to the dog park. A leash and a long line for managing and training purposes is a must until the relationship is established and the dog reliably responds to his person’s requests. However, and especially with puppies, I do prefer to work off the leash, especially regarding following, but it must take place in the house, and areas outside that are securely fenced-in.
McMasters says that a dog should always wait for a release command, active permission, before allowed to interact with the environment, and that he should never completely disconnect from the owner; that the person should never be excluded from the relationship the dog has with other dogs, or animals. I totally agree with that. If playing dogs don’t respond when their names are called, it is high time for a play pause.

I was also surprised by Lorna McMaster’s take on leash tension. In a time when everyone preaches to have a loose leash, she says that leash tension is not always a bad thing because it signals connection, and like voice can provide support when the dog is confused or nervous, but she stresses that it must be even tension, not jerking.
Ideally, I don’t want any information coming through the leash. Ever. Loose leash, ideally, is my tune too, but I also know that ideal isn’t always realistic. Our Will, without our doing, does perceive the leash as connection and support around unfamiliar dogs and small children, and when there is a passing bus or truck. And I must admit that I like a slight tension in the leash because then I don’t trip over it.
Even pulling a dog along McMasters doesn’t see as a problem, but again advises that it must be without a correction, and that praise and reward ought to follow as soon as the dog mentally connects with the handler again. I heard and saw that at a Suzanne Clothier seminar a few years ago. Truth is that with most dogs sooner or later a situation arises where there is no option but to pull the pooch along with you, and it is important that laypeople, my clients, understand that it is not all that bad when it happens; that they are not messing things up forever as long as they don’t discipline as they pull him away, on the leash, from a situation he can’t handle – yet.

In essence, both Randy Dye and Lorna McMasters are heavy on relationship, and controlling the dog by controlling what the dog wants: his drive, his instincts, instead of setting traps and punishing for mistakes. The sheepdog must heed to the human’s directions to access the sheep, and because sheep are important to any good sheepdog, it works. Herding is advanced obedience without the use of food treats. If you find what floats your dog’s boat, and then make access contingent on behavior, it will work for you too.
Is a punishment ever warranted? Not in my world, but both Lorna McMasters and Randy Dye do not shy away from adding something unpleasant when absolutely necessary.
Sheep are a shepherd’s livelihood. Not just that, but the human has the moral responsibility to care about the welfare of all animals, not just the dogs’. A bad herding dog is not only useless, but harmful. Lorna McMasters uses one type of correction, a whip across the nose, but only when the dog aggressively violates a sheep’s flight zone, and only when he persistently disregards commands and body pressure.
At Randy Dye’s workshop there were 17 dogs, and only one had to be corrected in the same way: an out-of-control, non-responsive Groenendael who was about to rip a sheep apart.
Personally, I prefer to manage the dog until the desired behaviors are established. Nevertheless, the sharp corrections didn’t compromise the value of Randy Dye’s workshop and Lorna McMaster’s book. One must remember that these are knowledgeable handlers who correct correctly, a skill lost on all lay owners, and many of the punitive trainers who take a six-week course somewhere and then let themselves loose on dogs with behavioral issues. Those quickly “certified” folks lack the experience, knowledge, and even general interest in dogs and behavior, and rather than sending one clear message, like McMasters and Dye do, they punish ineffectively, on an ongoing basis, or so harsh that they mess up the dogs and the relationship with their owners even more.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The 4 F Responses When a Dog Feels Threatened

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.