Thursday, December 19, 2013

Leave-it: What It Means And Troubleshooting

In my last post I discussed how to teach a dog to leave and walk away from something that he wanted to pursue. 
The natural question is if leave, categorically, means he never gets access, or if  means: Leave till further notice. 

Opinions are split, as usual, but here is how I apply the command:
If there is a real risk that a dog will harm a person or animal, then leave has to mean access denied. Period. With absolute certainty, and you better be a darn good manager so that your dog, indeed, doesn’t get what he wants during the training phase. 
For all others, though, such finality limits the command’s use. Sometimes, something or someone can become available after a leave cue, after I had a closer look, and I want the flexibility to change my mind. 
For example, there could be dog in the distance I don’t recognize at first and want my dog to leave, but as he comes closer I see that it’s one she played with before. 
Or there could be a stranger my dog wants to greet, but I need to ensure first that the person is okay with that. 
Squirrels are initial leave-its, but when I see that it is safe for squirrel and dog, I allow mine to chase. 
For me, having a reliable leave with the liberty to change my mind is the best of both worlds: It allows my dogs to have fun and socialize – something I take great joy in, but it is on my terms, not theirs. 
It keeps them out of trouble, they practice self-control, and it strengthens our bond because they understand that access to things they want happen through me. 

If your goal is the same, then, during the training phase, periodically let your dog have what he originally wanted and you initially told him to leave, but make sure that he waits for a release cue. I use get, my universal signal for: access granted. 
And don’t let the dog get the original item every time, or he’ll expect that and becomes frustrated if, one time, he can’t have it. Realistically, a dog can’t always get what he wants. No matter how friendly yours is, not every person likes dogs – I know, hard to believe but true – and not every dog wants yours in his space. 
So, don’t be so predictable: Sometimes, you offer something else, sometimes he gets that plus what he originally wanted, and sometimes he only gets what he originally wanted. Not only do you train against frustration, but you also raise your dog’s attention to you. 

Leave works! It is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental commands and I teach it to almost every dog I meet. It is generally easy to teach, but periodically I encounter a dog where it’s less straightforward. Here are a few common hurdles and how to solve them:

  • The dog is not interested in what you toss! Up the ante and use a higher valued treat, and/or play games with the food first. 
  • The opposite: The dog is so hyper-motivated by what you tossed that he cannot shift his focus. Lower the value. And feed your dog. Heck, if an animal has to jump through hoops for every piece of food, food becomes a really big deal and all he can think about. If your dog still can’t do it, you can name-prompt to give him a clue what you are after. I’d rather wait a dog out and let him find the behavior, but some dogs really do need the initial extra help. 
  • The dog is too scared to go for the tossed treat. That is typical fallout from punitive training methods. Because he experienced in the past that acting  spontaneously it could hurt, he becomes too inhibited to offer behaviors, is stressed by the treat on the ground, and shuts down. In that case, you need to build the dog’s confidence first: Play, reinforce offered behaviors, and of course don’t use anything aversive. 
  • You are raising criteria too fast. Which means you take it to the next level before you mastered the present one. Don’t go from kibble to a hambone, or your dog might offer you a quick glimpse as a trick, but won’t be committed to leave the thing for good and walk away from it. Remember, it is commitment you want, so raise the bar gradually - and when you ask your dog to leave something he really wants, the reward has got to be similar to what he wanted to do away from you. If it was to chase a squirrel, don’t shove a cookie in his mouth, but play chase. If he wanted to play with a dog, then play with a toy or run with your dog. 

The goal is that your dog will want to hear you say the cue. Then, don’t be surprised if he puts his own spin on it and uses it to solicit for rewards and interaction. Not kidding, whenever Davie and Will thought I was especially boring on a walk, they would hang the schnoz into something, typically scat or deer poop, and look at me a split second later, waiting for the leave command they enthusiastically and instantly heeded when it came. There is no other explanation. They weren’t collecting intelligence, they wanted some fun with me, and prompted it by trying to get me to say leave. 
If your dog does that, it’s okay. He is not dominantly controlling you, he is thinking – and leaving whatever it is he shouldn’t have. Exactly what you want. Be proud and play along. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thank You For Teaching Him CahCah

A few months ago we were dogsitting my friend’s then 6 months old Border collie for a couple of weeks. Our Will is 12, so having a pup in the house was fun. Especially a collie. My affinity for herding dogs is old news. 
Of course our life was a tad jumbled - there is a striking difference between a juvenile, and a seasoned, wise dog, but everything went without a hitch, mainly because my friend had already taught her lad a bunch of things, including cahcah, her cue for leave it. 
Born and raised in Germany, I was amused by her word choice: Kacke, stemming from the Latin cacare, is coarse German for feces and other repugnant things and situations, and kinda fits the purpose as a leave-it command, doesn’t it? 

Leave, or cahcah if you like the word, stands for: 
It is not available to you. 
Forget it. 
Not happening. 
Shift your focus and, the way I teach it, walk away from it. 
The purpose is clear: A generalized command that stops a dog from pursuing something that caught his eye, ear or nose. 

Step One happens where you should teach every new behavior: In the home, the place of least distractions, with the dog on the 6-foot leash, and ideally on a body harness because there is likely going to be some lunging or pulling. Depending on the dog, a flat collar could also work, but we don’t want to use a choke or prong collar, or Gentle Leader type snoot-loop, where the dog only behaves to relieve discomfort and pain. 

Have a handful of kibble handy, and some yummy treats. If you have good footing and control, step on the leash; otherwise hold it in your hands. 
Toss a kibble out of reach, and when your dog focuses on it say your leave-cue in a lower, but not intimidating, tone. You don’t want to inhibit your dog’s motivation to learn and be with you, but don’t plead either. Tell. 
Brace yourself. Depending on your dog’s degree of gusto, he might pull or lunge strongly toward the treat. Your job is to do nothing other than preventing him, via the leash, from accessing it. Don’t say a word and don’t tug on the leash, because we want our dog to self-learn that fixation, straining, barking and whining will NOT get him what he wants. 

After about 20-30 seconds most dogs realize that and change their behavior, which is: Shifting their attention away from the treat. Catch that moment, and indicate with your higher-toned, upbeat voice, that he is on the right trail. It is not that important at this stage that your dog looks at you, only that he doesn’t look at the loot. 
What is important, though, is that you don't mark and reward, because there is a second part to leave-it: The dog must walk away. Yes, I lump the two actions. I want looking away and walking away to be a habitual sequence, and every dog I have worked with gets it – albeit rarely straightaway. 

What typically happens after I open my mouth with: “You got it, what a smart pooch…” is that he promptly zones in again on what’s on the ground - as if my voice alone is the release command. You simply repeat the lower-toned leave cue, and wait until he shifts his focus again. Most dogs are quicker this time, more ready to reorient to you, and to hold that attention for a moment. That connection is what you’re after. Now keep your dog engaged with you, then lean or take a step backward to check if he is willing to walk with you. 
I want to stress that there must be a slack in the leash – that is why you need a 6-foot one, because we need walking away from something that caught his interest to be the dog’s choice. We want him to own that behavior, so that we will have it when he is off the leash. 
As soon as your dog walks with you, a party begins: Be animated, playful, toss a few of the yummy treats as you continue to create distance to the one on the ground. If you can convince your dog that making that choice is more rewarding than the other thing, you’ll set the stage for voluntary compliance in the future regardless what it is you ask him to leave. 

Practiced a lot, at one point your dog will skip the “looking at the loot” part, brilliantly thinking he can take a shortcut to the rewards you have. That is when you meanly throw him a curveball by incorporating a novel item, for example a toy, then a different food item, then another toy, and so on. Practice in various areas outside, and step by incremental step generalize the cue, so that it will be a universal one that prompts your dog to leave a cat, person, poop, squirrel, or another dog – even a sound he is hearing. 
Shifting the focus and walking away from a stimulus on cue could be as automatic as you putting your foot on the brake when something darts in front of your car.

Question! Does cahcah mean you can’t have it until further notice, or you can’t - ever -have it? 
I’ll answer that in the next post, plus share a few troubleshooting tips. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is not a dog being bored and unruly or destructive because of it, but one who panics when left alone. Symptoms can include jumping, clawing or mouthing when the person is about to leave and when she re-enters, but commonly the expressions are more severe: considerable damage to doors, window frames or walls, urination and defecation in the house, ongoing loud vocalization. 
Understandably, that is difficult to live with, and finding a solution a pressing issue. Unfortunately, there is no magic quick fix that makes a dog who feels unsafe, suddenly feel safe and relaxed when separated from her humans. 
Popping the dog in the crate is not a viable answer. Rather than it being a refuge, the dog feels even more trapped and in an attempt to get out, could injure herself. 
However, there are number of things that, in time, indeed enable a dog to deal with being left alone. 

One of the best ways to make an animal feel safe is to reassure her that care is available when she needs it. With many micro exists and enters the dog experiences exactly that. If you return before she becomes unnerved, latest with the first whimper, she will increasingly feel more secure in her environment and ability to communicate, and then can be left for increasingly longer periods of time.

Don't leave your dog guessing, but provide information if she is coming or not. A precise word and gesture that tells her what is happening next makes events more predictable, and that can decrease anxiety. When my Will questioningly looks at me when I get ready to leave, I either grab her harness – the informational cue that we are taking her, or say seeya - our departure cue followed by the  commonly used good-bye gesture. With the former, she excitedly moves to the door; with the latter she settles on her mat, discontent perhaps, but not distressed.

When you return, acknowledge your dog right away. Yes, I know that is against popular advice, but when you reunite, your dog is really happy to have you back, and that often starts when she hears the car, footsteps, or keys in the door. If you ignore her greeting, you raise frustration, and underlying tension builds. Obviously, when we are dealing with a dog who is already anxious, adding to it is counterproductive. 
Acknowledging should be low-key. Ask your dog to perform a couple of tricks, or engage her in a hand-target game. That is structured interaction without overstimulation, she gets to do something with you and think, and because she learns that she gets a piece of you as soon as you walk in the door, she is less stressed and settles more quickly. After the initial hello, go about your business and direct your dog to a self-entertaining activity, and once everyone's settled, invite her for a longer walk or playtime. 

What you do when you are home is as important as your exit and re-enter behaviors.
Never deprive your dog of attention, but you also want to create opportunities for her to have fun without you. If you constantly stroke and entertain your dog, you make yourself indispensable and will be sorely missed when you are gone.
In our home, we are very affectionate and interactive with the dogs, but there are times each day when I do human-only stuff, with the pooches allowed to hang around, but otherwise ignored. An always-accessible, well-stocked toy box is essential for a dog to learn to self-entertain, and also should be the go-to place to self-sooth. 

Overly pampering a dog can create separation anxiety, but being inconsistent, overbearing, erratic or angry, in other words putting pressure on the dog, also does. Suzanne Clothier, author of “Bones Would Rain from the Sky”, said at one of her seminars that how dogs respond to dogs and people depends on how they know them. I’d like to add places to that. Places by extension. If the group the dog lives with feels safe, the place by association also does, and vice versa. So, make your home a refuge for your dog. 

There is more you can do:
Return home at different times. Dogs develop an internal clock with a daily routine, and if you always come back at the same time, your dog will expect that and stress when you’re happen to be late.
Dogs connect the dots, and dogs with separation anxiety are hyper-aware of dots/cues that precede their person’s departure, and charge up long before the door closes behind them. Changing the routine can decrease that anticipatory agitation.
Leaving the radio or TV on during your absence can be a safety cue. Safety cues are anything that trigger a feel-good emotion, and can also include a filled Kong or safe chew toy. In addition, background sound tunes out outside noises, and your dog won’t wind up with every sound she hears, thinking it is you. Introduce the safety cue when you are home, then when you are in another room, then when you exit the front door but re-enter right away, then gradually increase the time you are gone.
The D.A.P. collar or diffuser releases appeasing pheromones and is marketed as easing dogs’ anxieties. Good pet stores and veterinary clinics carry them, and also other natural products such as Biocalm. They don’t replace behavior modification, but can take the edge off and accelerate success.
What about another dog for companionship? Although I have had clients where this worked, it can also backfire: There is a real risk that anxiety spills over to the initially problem free dog. As well, some dogs are only interested in their human and won’t accept a canine replacement.

All of the outlined steps should happen simultaneously, not consecutively. The good news is that with patience, most dogs will improve. However, sometimes the temporary use of psychopharmacological drugs is necessary. Your friendly holistic veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist can help you with that.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Do That Action - Words Every Dog Should Know

If you know me personally, read my book, or follow my blog posts, you might have a faint idea that I am not a doggie micromanager and abhor obedience for obedience sake. That doesn’t take away from the fact that people, including me, who are in charge of a dog’s welfare and liable for her conduct, must be able to influence or induce her actions when necessary. 
That is what commands are for, and which ones you teach is ultimately up to you. Safety first, but aside from that you really do not have to pay attention to what other people believe how a dog should behave. Every dog/human relationship is unique, and if it works for you, it works.  
For instance, I don’t care if there is a little tension on the leash because then I don’t trip over it, but because I love to live life off the leash, and want to offer that to my dog, reliable halt, come and leave are paramount, and I put a lot of effort into mastering these skills. 
Before someone gets the wrong idea, we do observe leash laws – mostly, and I am not suggesting for a minute to forgo any kind of leash work, just that my time with my dogs is better spent than practicing heel to obedience-rink-style perfection. But if that turns your and your dog’s crank, than do that. Trained without pressures, any activity can be quality time and satisfying mental stimulation for your dog. 

So, do what matters to you, and have the confidence to stand behind it. That said, there are several commands, when solid, that just about ensure that life with the pooch is pleasurable. Proactively taught, they keep the dog out of trouble, and are also the principle ones I use when dealing with behavioral issues. 

Name Attention: When Will hears her name, she connects with me and arrives on the scene because she knows that what I do next involves her somehow. That’s what the name is for, and it could be the dog’s recall command at the same time. Some use the name in that sense, but I like a separate come cue cause it is not always necessary for Will to come all the way back, only to pay attention what I cue next.

Come: Self-explanatory. 

Give: Means open your mouth and drop whatever is in it. 
So, give is different than leave – the latter is to stop a dog from accessing something, the former to release something after the fact. 

Halt: Means don’t continue to move in the direction you are moving and wait till I catch up, but you don’t have to look at me. 

Touch: Is targeting the hand and very briefly touching it with the nose. It has several real life applications, but one is to bring four paws on the floor when your excited dog jumps on you – or to channel jumping in case you own a young boxer. 

Settle: Means park yourself somewhere, ideally on a specific mat, and hang out. You may choose the position and change it, just don’t move. 
In day-to-day life, whether a dog sits or lies is irrelevant, but I still teach a down and sit separately. 

Beep-Beep: The dog backs up – like a truck. Children love to train that, and it is fun for the dog as well. The practical use is… Well, have you ever entered your home with your hands full of groceries? But it can also jog your dog’s memory what she could do if an out-of-control toddler makes her uneasy, or to prompt her away if she infringes someone’s space. 

Leave: Means shift your focus away from whatever caught your interest and walk away from it. 
If you are thinking with me, you may have noticed that leave isn’t actually a Do That Action command, but a Do Not Do That Action one. Technically, if you have a variety of really reliable Do That Action cues, you wouldn’t need leave, would you? You’d just prompt the dog in the behavior she should be doing instead of targeting that cat or sniffing the pile of poop. But in real life, a solid leave is handy, and I like it and teach it – in a way that my dog feels good when she hears it.  

So here they are, the words I think every dog should know. 
Certainly, if you’re ambitious you can teach a lot more than that. Our Will also understands: Over, This Way, Forward, Behind, Follow, Find, Get, Take - and the last three are distinct behaviors, Cross (the road), and a cue that conveys that I’m beyond happy cause she nailed it: Yay as in  “you’re so awesome – I love you”. 
Aussie Davie knew a bunch of Rally O’ positions in addition to that, and both dogs learned to comprehend a few cues not meant to bring forth a specific action, but to provide information about the present situation.  
Later means not right now but feel free to check back in a moment, and All-Done means no interactions with me for a while. 
All-done is binary information, the off-switch, and opposite to name attention, which is the dog’s on-switch. I’ll mention binary information again when I chat about the word No. 
It’s Just is a relaxing cue that stands for: Don’t worry about it, it is not going to harm you, and if you use it you’ll better make sure that whatever your dog is concerned about indeed doesn’t come closer.
Brilliant, sweetly spoken, tells my dog that she’s on the right track and meant to encourage her to keep doing what she’s doing. The same word enveloped in a number of other soppy ones maintains my dog’s attention. 
Lastly, quick spoken staccato-like in a higher pitched voice eggs my dog on to move faster. I use it when we cross the road and she lags, or when she’s on her way back to me when called. 

Many words, eh? I know, but I haven’t met a dog yet who doesn’t have the potential to learn them, if you teach them. I admit, depending on you and your dog, it may take some time, but trust me: It is worth the effort. 

I Cue With Words

Do dogs understand words? 
It seems so. We all know dogs that make the connection between word that is always used in the same context, and a certain event, subject or object that is relevant to them: Walk, leash, car, cookie, kitty, park…
However, up until recently the scientific sticking point was if dogs actually comprehend the word, or pick up non-verbal cues at the same time and respond to that. Professional opinions are still split, but we’re getting increasingly more evidence that, indeed, dogs are capable of understanding our human verbal cues. 
You might have heard of Chaser, the Border collie who knows 1022 words, independently confirmed. 
Alexandra Horowitz, in “Inside of a Dog”, says that the sound we make carries meaning for our dog; that dogs have the cognitive ability to understand words they learned as important information for them. 
And Claudia Fugazza, an Italian scientist and trainer who does groundbreaking, and fascinating, work with dogs’ social learning abilities, states that a cue given verbally has mental representation for the dog. She says that almost every dog she worked with was able to learn to distinguish between words, but also says that the verbal aptitude depends on the dog’s experience with words. Sadly, many dogs have little experience. 

A chief peeve I have with the famous TV pack leader is that he doesn’t verbally communicate with the dogs he interacts with – although that isn’t quite true cause he does use the “tsst” sound as a threat. Famous means that many dog owners follow his guff and dismiss a whole segment of information transfer, and as a result there is a gap, or abyss, or complete breakdown, in communication between dog and person, which adversely affects the relationship and the dog’s welfare, and ultimately behavior. You can bet on that.
But it’s not only the Whisperer who doesn’t speak to dogs. Disappointingly, some positive reinforcement trainers’ goal also is a dog who is watchful and attuned to his human’s non-verbal gestures and movements, aligning his actions accordingly. Even though it is more pleasant for the dogs because they’re not shocked and collar corrected, they are still missing out on an important part of communication. 

Teaching cues in words is not just a theoretical concept. It has real life practical advantages: You are heard, you lower stress, and your dog stays attentive and learns better. 

Newsflash! Words also work when your dog is NOT watching you. Dogs can split attention and still know you exist even if they don’t look at you. Yes, of course we want the pooch to offer eye contact a whole lot, but to expect that he completely blocks out every stimulus that is part of the world he lives in, and only fixates on the handler, is unrealistic, and a bit narcissistic. 
And whenever he doesn’t look at you, you’re out of luck with your non-verbal signals. They are not received. 

Words are information, and information lowers stress. Christina Maslach, researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, found that one of the strongest predictors for job related stress and burnout is a vacuum of information from the top down. In the human/dog relationship, you’re the top, so give helpful cues when the dog needs them. You could argue that information transfer can be non-verbal, and you’d be correct, but the thing is that we humans are a wordly species, and often more precise when we speak instructions.
When you use your voice in a supportive way, it becomes an emotional feel-good trigger and then, regardless what it is you say, it puts your dog at ease when he is nervous. 

Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods in “Genius of Dogs” state that several studies showed that talking while demonstrating a solution to a problem helps dogs pay attention and learn better. 
So babble away to keep your dog engaged and relaxed, but when you give a direct instruction, one word precision is best, spoken once, then giving the dog a chance to respond, but helping him if he doesn’t understand. 
Helping sometimes means adjusting the situation, but often repeating the word works. Repeating is okay, but verbal diarrhea isn’t. The difference is that with the former you give the dog a chance to think and act, and the latter is an irritating staccato-like: down-down-down-down…” or whatever it is you’re teaching.

You can also help with a gestural hint, so don’t shelve non-verbal communication altogether. Use your words, and your body, and your eyes to communicate. All is valuable social information for your dog.
You build cue/action awareness every time you connect a word and non-verbal signal with the specific action. If you want your dog to respond to both, Claudia Fugazza advices that the time between word and gesture should not be more than ½ second, but should not overlap. Whether you use the word or gesture first depends: When you teach a new behavior with luring, the gesture naturally comes before the word; when you follow Fugazza’s “Do As I Do” social learning protocol, it’s first the verbal cue, then the gesture. 

The take-away message is that it is foolish to deny a species that has receptive human language skills the opportunity to learn words. Talk with your dog. It’s what many people already do anyway. That is how we are programmed. Now we have scientific evidence that it’s a good thing. 
The more you talk with purpose, the more sensitive your dog will be to your voice. He really is bilingual, and will get better the more you do it. He’ll soon listen for words he’s learned and are relevant to his life, and respond to them – and to you. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cues and Commands

The term cue has replaced command with a certain group of trainers. Commonly understood, a command is an order, backed with the threat of an unpleasant consequence for disobedience, and hence out of vogue with the force free crowd. They want to distance themselves from the trainers who still – blech – use compulsion to get a dog to do their bidding, and disapprove not just of command, but several other words that were and are used regularly, and I’ll elaborate on sometime in the future. 
Without compromise, I am force free. Choke and prong collars are archaic, and shock collars outright inhumane; were they not, they wouldn’t be banned in several countries and people wouldn’t go to prison for using them on a child. 
Nevertheless, I use both cue and command, because a cue is much more than a direct instruction we give our dog, but also that.  

Animals, including dogs, act based on information they receive from the environment and information retrieved from the brain. A cue connects a situation with the corresponding memory - it is a stimulus that reminds, prompts the animal into a certain action.  
Anything can be a cue a dog will respond to: The fleeing rabbit, a piece of garbage on the road, a barking dog, the mailman approaching. In fact, environmental cues can be very potent action triggers, and we need to understand that, at that moment, the dog has no choice but to act. He isn’t behaving badly to piss you off, but because he can’t help it. 

Fortunately we humans are a brainy species. We are able to teach our dogs our own cues, you could call commands, and why we should is obvious: Dogs who live in a human social setting have a better quality of life when they follow human social rules.
Successfully done, my dog will discriminate between cues, and defer to the one I give. In other words, my cue overrides whatever out there catches her attention and interest. That’s what we call obedience, and I want it. Every dog owner does.

Dogs are not egalitarian. Absolutely, we have a moral, unfortunately in our lands rarely a legal, obligation to meet their needs, but someone has to call the shots, and with dogs that live with us, it’s us.
We are in control of what our dog wants, we have the vision for the future, we set the course for the relationship, and we need to explain to the dog how his, sometimes complex and changing, world functions and what role he has in ours. Cues do exactly that. They are our communication line to our dog, and regardless if you say cue or command, it should never feel bad. 
Alexandra Horowitz, in her book “Inside Of A Dog”, talks about a study that found that when owners used commands during a play activity, the dogs had a higher cortisol level after the session compared to dogs who got to play freely without any demands put on them. I don’t want that. I don’t want that my cues raise my dog’s stress, and yet when I give a command, I expect my dog to heed it.
How can we marry the two? 

By rights, it shouldn’t be difficult. Dogs, unlike wolves, are genetically programmed to look to humans for information. Dogs have an evolutionary history with humans that wolves don’t have, and puppies, even when they have closer contact with littermates than people, offer eye contact and follow human gesturing from a very young age on. 
Brian Hare and Vanessa Wood, in “Genius of Dogs”, write: “Dogs dependence on our social information makes them more like infants than wolves.”
The problem is that instead of taking advantage of, and building on, dogs’ proclivity to take their cues from humans, many treat a dog in a way that turns our presence, words and gestures into a stress triggers.  
Humans can royally mess things up, and as a result we have variations how inclined the individual dog is to seek his human’s cues. Breed can play a role, but also life experiences: Left on their own a lot, dogs understand that stimuli and useful information comes from the environment and that’s where their attention will go, and dogs punished and deliberately presented with stressors, including when micromanaged and never permitted to live out their intrinsic drives, learn to resist and avoid us, and then we have to artificially bribe or demand the attention that should come so naturally. 

How do we do things better, so that indeed our cues will override environmental ones, and the dog will listen to us without feeling stressed? 
I’ll chat about it in various future posts, but there are three critical aspects: 
Don't intimidate, threaten and hurt when you teach a dog what your cues mean. 
The clearer a signal is for the dog, the less he will gamble when he has the choice between several options. One cue for one behavior, and make sure your dog knows it and hears you. 
And we have to give the cue proactively. Duh! I score little leadership points each time I provide a concrete roadmap that helps my dog solve life’s natural pressures, and the more she trusts, the more she’ll look for cues when in doubt, including when she walks ahead of me off the leash and references back which direction to take at crossing paths. She could just follow the scent cue that’s most enticing, but she doesn’t.
People fail in all areas, but often aren't even aware of the importance to be proactive. They wait until the dog makes a choice and then react, and punish if they don't like the choice. 

The information our dogs seek and we provide must come via gestures and words, not the collar or leash. A prong collar is not a steering tool, my voice and body are. 
To prevent that cues are relayed through the leash, some trainers recommend hands-free ones, which is great other than running the risk to lose footing when a powerful and not yet well enough trained dog bolts. I acquired a nice scar exactly like that. So, I prefer leash in hand, but teach my clients not to use it to communicate. Chances are that during a dog’s lifetime the owner will be holding a leash in their hand, so they better learn what it is, and isn’t, for. 

Of course, the leash in itself many dogs respond to because it is a cue that something is about to happen. Commands are what we deliberately teach, but cues are also something the dog picks up and connects in our day-to-day routines. We are often unaware until we notice a pattern – the dog responding in a certain, habitual way triggered by us doing something customarily. 
Sometimes it takes awhile, like Will who halts at always the same spot in our neighborhood to have her leash clipped back on, and sometimes a dog connects the dots very quickly, like our Aussie boarder who settled at my feet each morning when I opened my laptop. I didn’t cue in any other way, and also did not reinforce it. 
The above-mentioned behaviors, of course, are great, but dogs also make  connections that backfire. One experience, if it impacts the dog badly enough, can trigger a strong aversion response when the cue presents itself again. Although the aversion is typically expressed in behaviors we don't want, a dog can also perform flawlessly if that is the only way he can avoid or stop the bad thing. That is why shock collars work - with some, but that has nothing to do with dogs' natural predisposition to seek help and information from humans. 
The only way to foster that is to be mindful of the cues we expose our dogs to: The commands we teach and how we use them, and the cues that are part of their environment. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What Is So Special About A Sit Anyway?

Humans find it tremendously important that a dog sits. There is a shock collar franchise named Sit Means Sit, and one of my friends, a committed positive reinforcement only clicker trainer, co-founded a training facility named Sit Happens. 
A dog that sits is serious stuff and everyone, other than some show breeders, trains it – and trust me: “Everyone” in dog circles doesn’t happen a whole lot. 

One does not need to ponder long why that fixation. A dog that sits can’t jump, lunge or otherwise get himself into trouble at the same time. The other attraction is that it is easy to teach. Every trainer, layperson or shelter volunteer can do it. 
An incompatible behavior to the ones we loathe, and easily trained? There couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with that? Right? 
Wrong! Well, somewhat wrong. I argue that sit is not only irrationally overrated, but can backfire. Let me explain.

I’ve been professionally involved with dogs for almost two decades, and increasingly see more and more dogs who mechanically sit when I enter the home, but latest after they sniffed that I am treat-equipped. That’d be okay if it were a loose-bodied, settled sit. But mostly it is not. Mostly it is a stiff like a statue sit, the dog boring a hole in my head, tensely demanding the treat he excepts should follow the action of putting his butt on the ground. 
When I don’t respond right away, the behavior changes quickly: The dog shifts around, whines or barks in frustration: “I am sitting. Hand it over!” and if still nothing happens he typically self-releases, and often jumps or is otherwise pushy, in frustration. 
With some dogs, you could insert a chosen foul word between “it” and “over”. I am not kidding. I met a few where frustration escalated to anger and aggression, with one dog biting me, drawing blood. Thankfully it was a Pomeranian and the damage to my hand not as bad as it could have been with a larger dog.

How did a good behavior go south? Here is my theory: We get what we train for. 
Sit before the door opens, sit to get your collar on, sit before the leash comes off, sit to get in the car, sit for the toy, sit for a bone and chewy, sit before you cross the road, sit before the walk begins, sit for affection, sit to greet, sit before you can play. 
Sit for your food in the bowl, or worse, sit for every kibble that’s hand fed: Sitclickkibble-sitclickkibble-sitclickkibblesitclick… Sit! Sit! Sit! 
The human obsession with sit becomes the dog’s; he offers it constantly for everything he wants, and because most people fail to put the behavior under stimulus control, he gets reinforced instantly and learns to expect it, and becomes confused and frustrated when what he expects doesn’t manifest. 

There are other drawbacks. In my work, there are a number of behaviors I know will help my clients, and many require the dog to start from a standing position, for example beep-beep = back up. When I want to teach it, what I commonly get is the dog firmly planting himself when I gently move into his space, and I have to teach stand before I can proceed to what I am after. 
Not that big of a deal but still annoying is when the long leash entangles between the dog’s legs and I tell him to halt to untangle it, and he sits on it, and I end up luring or lifting him. Ditto when he has a twig or a poop leftover stuck to butt hair, and I also don’t want an automatic sit in a puddle or slush. With a Newf-size and longhaired dog, that is a real mess. 
More of a concern is if sitting is uncomfortable or painful because of age or arthritis. Yet, the dog still sits, because he knows that nothing good happens unless he does. 

There was a time when I, too, thought that a dog addicted to a specific behavior because I externally reinforced it was a goal worth aiming for, because, by extension, she would also be addicted to me. 
Not anymore. I changed my mind because, as any person troubled with an addiction will tell you, it is not a healthy way to live or have a relationship; it is emotionally arousing and draining. 
I also changed my mind because a mechanical automatic sit, although sometimes hailed as such, is not a foolproof way to solve problematic behaviors, because often the underlying reason(s) isn’t explored and addressed. 
An anxious or excited dog who sits because he learned that nothing else produces what he wants, or because then the shock doesn’t happen, might display that level of impulse control but won’t feel any differently about the stimulus that prompted the jumping, barking, lunging, nipping, growling, or whatever. A sitting dog can still be intensely internally stressed and aroused, and the unwanted expressions quelled with pressure often resurface with a different handler, or in a different home, or shortly after the pooch is back at home if he was, sadly, sent to a board-and-train facility.

And even when jumping is attention seeking, teaching a dog to sit instead also doesn’t always work. 
I recently had a client whose dog used to be an excessive attention-getting jumper, and at 100+ pounds, she got it. A dog that size is rarely ignored when she bounces against you. The previous trainer taught down as the incompatible behavior – wisely understanding that a lie down is often the more comfortable position for a giant breed dog – which she nicely offered me several times throughout our session, albeit with same “gimme” look I talked about earlier. However, the core issue, her rescue dog insecurity and increased need for reassurance was not dealt with, and she began to spin and lick herself, which she also got attention for because it is hard to ignore, and it has become compulsive. 
The lesson here is that outcomes in real life aren’t as predictable than what is determined in a lab, and the behavior you teach and reinforce might not always be the one the dog chooses. 

I am not suggesting, not at all, that a dog shouldn’t be taught to sit and lie on cue. Sitting is good, just not a mechanical automatic sit not under stimulus control. 
Also, understand that attention, connection, manners and impulse control are not position specific. A dog can have impulse control while standing and moving. In fact, many behaviors I want involve motion: Back away, come, left, right, follow, move ahead or over, walk with me, search for something, even leave-it.
So, go ahead and teach your dog to sit, and acknowledge when he offers it. Have fun playing sit games. But don’t create a dog who expects that each time he sits what he wants will manifest. 
Don’t make everything the dog needs contingent on a sit. 
And don’t forget to teach polite manners in any position, and every activity. Once a dog has them, in day-to-day life, it doesn’t matter if he sits, lies, stands or moves. I let mine choose.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Communication in Pictures: Shy

The Occasion!
PBS Nature documentary shoot about a Border collie named DriftWood who is missing his back paws and has prosthesis. You can find out more about DriftWood here 

The Story!
A number of trainers were asked to participate with their dogs in a mock puppy class to show how DriftWood manages life without back paws and how he relates to dogs. 
I was one of the invited trainers and, in lieu of my own pup, handled my clients' brand new duck tolling retriever, 9-week-old Cookie. At the time she was on the leash for about 4 days, and for the first time since she left the breeder in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people and dogs. 
Also invited was a good friend who came with her 6 months old Border collie Lauchie, who was, at the time, a bit cautious around some other dogs. Because of his own lack of bravery, methinks, he tried to befriend the youngest and least “intimidating” pup: Cookie. The fact that I was a familiar person might have contributed to that. The toller, however, was not at all sure that making friends with the collie was a great idea. 

Notice the collie’s lowered body, appropriate sniffing, not at all being pushy, at one point lying down and rolling on his back, goofily enticing her to play. He tried his best to be sweet and solicitous. 
Look at the toller’s clamped mouth, her slight curved body away from him, her sitting on purpose to prevent him from sniffing her butt. By the way, that can be an indication of confidence that might surface when she is a bit older. 
It is worth to mention that I initially had Cookie in my arms, and would have picked her up again had she indicated that she wanted off the ground. There is nothing wrong with providing your pup or small dog with a safe place when she is nervous. 

The End!
After awhile, Cookie became quite inquisitive, and confidently checked out the training facility and equipment, sniffed some of the other dogs briefly, and then happy-tailed continued to interact with me and her owners.  
Had she been really fearful instead of being shy and needing some time to acclimate, we would have called the session off or increased the distance. 

All the pups in class sniffed the other dogs briefly, but then explored and worked on things with their humans. That’s how my friend Aimee, who was the instructor, runs her classes, and I like it. Nothing against play, that is important for puppies too, but more than ongoing free-for-all out-of-control roughhousing, they need to learn that exploring with their owners, and staying focused and re-orienting to them, all in the proximity of other dogs, is rewarding. That’s what dogs need to do in real life. 

The Dilemma With Rescues and No-Kill

Why Do I Meet So Many Dogs With Issues?
The obvious answer is because working privately with dogs who have behavioral issues is, almost exclusively, what I do. Periodically someone hires me for basic training, or to help them pick a perfect canine match, but most people do because their dog acts in ways that makes life with him unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous. 
However, based on my personal experiences, but also what I read and hear from peers across the continent, I feel that increasingly more dogs display increasingly more severe problematic behaviors. 

So why? Before I give you my take, I’m gonna let you in on a secret: The original title for this post was “No-Kill is a Pipe Dream”, based on this article
To be clear, I still agree with it, but decided that instead of repeating it more or less in my own words, I want to address the topic in its complexity, as much as it can be done in 2000-some words. 
On a side note, I initially published this post on my website, announced it on Facebook, and definitely ruffled some feathers. Some comments were heated, many others supportive, and since I also had a few in-person conversations with friends in rescue who admitted that, although they’d preferred not being presented with below statements, I am right on the mark. 
I am grateful to everyone who had my back, publicly or privately, but also appreciated critical comments.
People who always agree with you don’t make you think, do they, and when someone disagrees respectfully and rationally, I ponder on it. Hence, this post is the original one, but has additional thoughts or clarifications in brackets. 
Now, once again, why are there so many problematic dogs in North America? 

Let’s start with the source: 
Breeders, and by that I mean every person whose dog spermed or whelped a litter, cause every dog, including every troubled one, was once born to someone who either made a deliberate choice to produce him, or failed to prevent it. So in the context of this post I am not going to differentiate between an accidental litter, back yard breeder, and one registered with a kennel club. 
If I am anti-rescue, I am even more anti-bad-breeder, and they can be found everywhere. 
They include people too dense to comprehend that a dog in heat can get pregnant, and large kennel breeders who produce ongoing litters because puppies pay the bills. Both are the originators of overpopulation, and creators of problems, because whoever relies on dogs to survive financially breeds, rears and places pups heedlessly. Breeder mistakes become owner troubles, and when problems exceed skill and abilities, the poor pooch along with the issues is surrendered, cause returning him is not an option, cause rotten breeders don’t have a contract. 
In contrast, a conscientious breeder, who absolutely deserves to make a profit but in reality often doesn’t, pays attention to health and temperament, starts the pups on the right paw, chooses homes carefully, and stands behind every puppy they produce for life by stipulating that the dog must be returned to them if the owner is unable to give care any longer. 
Naturally, if everyone would acquire a pup from a good breeder, we’d have a ton fewer problems and no pure bred dogs in rescue. 
But many people don’t, thanks to pet stores and online sites like Kijiji, who are the bad breeders’ enablers and the place where gullible idiots and stingy misers (not every dog advertised online is cheap, but many are) shop for someone who affects their life for a decade or longer. 
I know, I know, sometimes a good breeder advertises there as well, and yes, everyone knows someone who got an awesome dog online, but by and large it is the preferred platform where unscrupulous breeders and overwhelmed owners make a buck or pass their dog problems on to the next guy. 

Next we have contributors, and there is a group of people you might not think of as contributors: Trainers. 
Many owners are dog-laypeople, and seek and rely on professional advice, but most aren’t aware that there are no industry standards. That means that it’s pretty much the luck of the draw if the information one receives prevents and improves behavioral problems, or if an owner ends up with a trainer who was current 30 years ago, or one who knows how to watch TV and hold a leash but not much else about dogs and behavior. The outcomes of the latter I see frequently, just a couple of weeks ago with a client whose 11-week-old pup bites hard and deliberately. She targets specifically hands and arms, and guess what, her folks followed the popular pack leader advice and forced her on her back, held her muzzle closed, and pressed a finger on the roof of her mouth to deal with normal puppy mouthing. I don’t blame them, they just followed “expert” advice, but now the pup bites – to defend herself. Yes, it is unusual behavior for a pup that age, but in my world I see a lot of defensive aggression directed against owners, or displaced towards others, and sometimes in very young dogs.
By the way, finding a good trainer on Kijiji and such is analogous to finding a good breeder there: There are some, but many aren’t. 

Now let’s take a closer look at rescues, and I include SPCAs and humane societies as well – any organization that takes dogs in nobody else wants at the moment. 
Rescues are the receivers. Sometimes caring owners’ circumstances change that forces them to give up their pet, but more often rescue receives dogs someone messed up along the line. 
Like good breeders and trainers, there are fabulous rescues, with people in charge who have a keen interest in dogs and behavior. They research, ask, learn and then educate, and expect the same standard from their staff and foster homes. 
But there are others, operated by people who either have “broken wing” syndrome or self-esteem issues, and rescue because dogs fix them more than they fix the dogs (Did I ever step on toes with that sentence. To be clear: I am neither without compassion nor do I think that people with emotional or mental issues shouldn’t own or help dogs – as long as the dog’s welfare comes first, and that includes service dogs, for that matter. Dogs can heal and assist, and with the right dog it can be satisfying and purposeful. But one who needs healing, who doesn’t trust, feels unsafe, and needs guidance and support, will continue to suffer in the hands of someone who put’s their own problems first. And that is not okay). 
Bad rescues aren’t interested in staying current, don’t know what dogs communicate or worse don’t care, and take advice from too many trainers or no one. A recent post by one of Calgary’s top training facilities illustrates what I am talking about. 
In essence, good rescues might make a mistake - we all do - but generally make things better for dogs and society; bad ones might make things better for the odd dog, but perpetuate suffering for many others. They amass dogs from everywhere and pass them along without evaluation to unsuspected, kind folk. They follow training methods that make dogs feel less save in their “care” than where they lived before; methods that either fuel or mask problems, which then surface sometime after the dog’s been adopted.

Good rescues evaluate, and reveal honestly if there are red flags. 
Bad ones lack the experience to assess properly, or don’t take the time, or understate their observations. 
Once, I heard a local rescuer I very much respect explain to the potential new owner that the dog bites under certain circumstances and has drawn blood. That is real speak the public comprehends and has a right to know before they adopt. It is necessary to phrase it that way because most people don’t know that “doesn’t want to share his toys” or “not good with cats/dogs/men/children” could mean that he might injure someone badly. 
I wish laypeople would dig deeper, but they don’t. People perceive rescue as authorities regarding dogs, like they trust their veterinarian’s advice on training and nutrition even though many aren’t experts in either, and like they won’t question someone who calls himself a trainer even if what he does goes against their grain. 
Rescues have to be frank so that the new owner doesn’t underestimate the dog, like the person who let his rescue dog off the leash, who promptly attacked a 12-week-old pup and, despite her rolling on her back, bit through the abdominal muscle wall. 
Or another client who had lost her 14-year-old canine companion, approached rescue for another, and ended up with a dog who inflicted multiple, severe injuries to another dog two months after adoption. That dog also periodically watched me tensely, with a hard-eyed fixation, plus he was nervous of people, including children, we saw on the walk, is destructive when left alone and stiffened, in the beginning, when his collar was put on. The owner contemplates euthanasia, and in that case would do what rescue should have done. By adopting him out instead, not only will the dog lose his life after all, but they are responsible for three additional victims: his new person who had bonded with him is devastated, and the attacked dog and his owner traumatized. 

I argue that good rescues humanely euthanize, and yet I am hard-pressed to blame them if they don’t. 
There is a real risk that an organization that is honest about the number of dogs they euthanize loses support and donations. People dislike dead dogs. They don’t want any dog to be put down, they just don’t want to own certain ones, or be their neighbor. 
Groups that kill are badmouthed on social media, at times by other rescues. It’s like a fundraising battle who deserves more money cause they move more dogs than the others. But who checks how many dogs still lead a quality life, let’s say, two years later? That would be a truer measure of No-Kill than intake and outgoing numbers, would it not? 
But no one measures that, like no one measures how many dogs are killed indirectly when: 

  • The new owner euthanizes because they are scared of the dog’s actions
  • The dog harms or kills another dog. If he is of a breed that already has a bad reputation, and yes, the two cases I just mentioned were Amstaffs, the owners of the victims might push for a legislated breed ban, and we all know that that means many more dead dogs including ones that never aggressed 
  • People who are upset won’t look to rescue for their next dog, not to that one and perhaps not any one, and talk about their experiences with their social circle who might do the same. The result is that more dogs will sit in shelters for longer, which means that others are turned away because there is no space – and might be dumped or shot behind the shed. The same can happen when rescues import large quantities of dogs from high-kill areas, and have no room for local ones in need of refuge. Personal experience 
  • Rescues accept only dogs that have a high chance to being adopted 
  • Rescues take litters bad breeders aren’t able to sell. Unless they also remove the breeding stock, they, too, are their enablers and prolong suffering for the dogs they didn’t take  

That is what I mean when I say No Kill is a pipe dream. In reality, it only means: “Not killed directly by us”. 

I don’t lack compassion – another thing I was recently accused of in addition to being anti-rescue. Compassion for dogs is the driving force for everything I do since almost 20 years. But I am realistic, and I am anti-adopting-out-a-dog-whose-neighbor-I-wouldn’t-want-to-be. 
I know it’s tough. I was a volunteer for two humane societies for several years, a foster home, and have been professionally involved with dogs long enough to understand the emotional and ideological aspects: 
  • Killing seems wrong, especially killing someone for actions that are not his fault and not under his control, which is the case with every dog. No dog is bad on purpose 
  • Killing also seems wrong, and unfair, when a dog is really nice other than in the specific circumstance when he is not 
  • And killing seems wrong when the dog is so small that he can’t do much damage, but trust me, I have met toy dogs who caused tremendous heartache to their owners because of aggression 

Dogs, born predisposed to be companions for humans and at least not mutilate their own kind, shouldn’t die, but the way things are now in our society, I believe there is no alternative because we have dogs where the risk that they do harm is high. 
How can things change? Here are some ideas: 

  • Legislation who can breed and sell dogs to address the root of the problem
  • National standards who can train dogs and give behavioral advice, so that buddy who has a dog isn’t allowed to make money with his little bit of knowing not much. Not kidding - A while back I found an ad online where a fellow admitted he wasn’t a trainer, but thought he had certain skills and offered his help for 25 bucks an hour
  • Anyone involved in rescue should be required to possess a set amount of hands-on experience and behavioral knowledge, so that they don’t make matters worse 
  • An informed public. I know, now I am dreaming, but really, wake up people. Please. If you’re too cheap to support a responsible breeder, you either don’t deserve a dog, or can’t afford one. If you are impatient and can’t wait until a proper breeder has a litter, be aware that the readily available pup can come with issues that’ll require a lot of patience to deal with later. If you feel sorry for the pup you see online, also feel sorry its mother who continues to suffer and pop out more litters. If you buy a mass-produced pup out of pity, you’re not rescuing anything, you are enabling. Every dollar an irresponsible breeder receives confirms that he can make money with irresponsibly breeding dogs

In the end it comes down to the consumer. An uneducated public is the enabler of scum breeders, archaic and incompetent trainers, and rescues that release unsafe dogs into the communities.  
If you want to give an unwanted dog a second chance, inquire about the dog’s health and behavior. Getting a dog un-assessed is like choosing a life-mate from a mail order catalogue. Hiring a professional to have a sober expert look is money well spent. 
Don’t buck if the rescue insists on a filled-out questionnaire, references and a home inspection. These are good signs. That means they care. A good breeder does that as well, and every second hand pooch is as deserving of the best possible home as the carefully bred pureblooded pup. 

How To Choose A Trainer

Group classes are popular, but you don’t have to join a class to have a well-mannered dog. In fact, there are dogs that are not good candidates for a group setting because they are too anxious or too excitable to learn in the proximity of other dogs and/or people, or have a bad association to a training type facility. 
You can train your dog yourself if you know how, and yes, that includes socializing. Socializing simply is exposure to stimuli that are, or possibly will be, part of the dog’s world, and exposure means it happens at the dog’s comfort level and without pressure. That is critical, and many mistakes are made in the name of socializing. 

However, if you own a pup, or dog who is suited for group classes, it is more cost effective than private lessons, and can be a lot of fun. 
Private or group, sessions are in reality skill-building lessons for owners. Dog trainers train the people, not the dogs. Now I sound like Cesar Millan, but it’s true. Think about it: even if a trainer sees a dog an hour a week for 24 weeks, 3 consecutive 8-week courses, and that is pushing it because much of the general public quits before, that are still only 24 hours. Meanwhile, the dog is with her people for about 370 waking hours – more or less depending on how much one sleeps. Take away an 8-hour workday, it still leaves more than 200 hours cause there are weekends too, right? 
So, it’s got to be training the people how to train their pooch, and here is the crucial part: How that is done can determine, or strongly influence, whether a dog turns out great or has, sometimes lifelong, issues. 

In essence, there are two types of trainers: The ones who do things to dogs, and the ones who do things for dogs. You want the one who does things for dogs. Why? Because studies suggest that cognition and emotion can’t be separated, and that toxic stress in the classroom impedes learning. For the longest time our school system buoyed the mantra: “Turn your brain on and leave emotions outside the classroom door”. Not any longer. Things are a changin’, and it is not any different with our dogs. 
Dog-centric handling benefits people too by extension, because a dog not under pressure, and not threatened with pain, has fewer behavioral issues. 

Now that we have determined that not all trainers are alike, the big question is how to find a good one. What are the criteria to look for? 
Certification can be one, but unfortunately the dog industry, other than veterinarians, is unregulated in North America. 
We don’t have national standards, and anybody can open a school of some sort and certify whoever dishes out several thousand dollars for a 6-week course in dog training. 
Experience is great, but on its own not enough. Without ongoing professional development, being in the business for 20 years can mean doing the same thing for 20 years and being very proficient in that, like correcting a dog like it was taught 60 years ago. 
Even academic credentials alone don’t necessarily equal competence, if they come without hands-on experience. Dogs in human midst aren’t lab rats. Behavioral laws established in the lab have applications in real life for sure, but there is more to it, and some things are better learned by doing, instead of reading, or at least in addition to reading. 
I, after almost 20 years being involved with dogs, still meet the occassional one who makes my brain hurt and I need to think outside the (Skinner) box. 
The best dog pros understand the science behind behavior, have experience with a variety of dogs, and most importantly a genuine interest to continue to learn and grow. 

Doing things for dogs and understanding the science automatically rules out tools designed to inflict pain: The choke, prong and shock collar. Walk away from a trainer who uses them. Also walk away when:

  • A trainer forewarns you of his methods
  • A trainer sees the need to explains herself to a child 
  • A trainer states that it doesn’t really hurt 
  • A trainer justifies inflicting pain with it being unavoidable because the dog is dominant, willful, or intentionally disobedient

I am not a fan of trainers who stipulate certain gear, and I’m referring to the snoot-loop Gentle Leader type nose harness. Many dogs find it highly aversive, even more so than a prong collar, and still some facilities make its use mandatory, including for puppies. 
Even the clicker, undoubtedly a positive tool, should be optional. Lay people can find it awkward, and spend more time focusing on the clicker and their own body awareness than the dog. They miss things, and become frustrated. I had private clients who ditched positive reinforcement training altogether, and I had to convince that they can be train humanely and effectively without that tool. 
I get it, group classes, by virtue of dealing with a number of different people and dogs, can’t provide the individual attention owners get who opt for private sessions, but there should be some flexibility. 

Good trainers reveal openly and honestly how they work with dogs. All dogs, regardless of their actions. 
It should be stated on their website, they should answer your email when you ask, and allow you to watch a class in progress. They explain their method with precise words and not euphemisms that disguise what they really do. 
A good trainer understands, and points out, when a dog needs distance or a break, and encourages and facilitates that. That means that the owners will learn to understand basic body language, critical for the relationship.
Relationship and mechanical training are intertwined; with commands you explain to your dog how your life together works, and they can offer support and guidance when he is uneasy and conflicted, but the relationship has priority: When it functions, training is quicker, easier and being together mutually rewarding. 

It is the trainer and facility’s responsibility to create a climate conducive to learning, and that means also being nice to all humans. Inter-personal skills are as important as relating well with dogs. No one should openly call you down, or the breed of dog you own. Of course we all have our preferences, but if your trainer doesn’t like seniors or children, teenagers, men or women, shepherds, Labradors, or toy dogs, she needs to keep that to herself. 
A trainer should not make fun of you, or use your dog’s challenges as a center stage bad example, like some teachers did in the good old days when I went to school, ordering the dumbest kid to the front of the class to solve a math problem or read out loud. 
I’ve seen it all. It is called bullying. 
And a trainer who treats you and yours kindly, but yells at her staff, also fouls the atmosphere, and that too affects your dog. Studies with rats showed that one stopped pushing the lever to obtain food if another was shocked. Of course, being sensitive of others’ stress signals means to be perceptive of potential danger, and evolutionary speaking that is necessary for survival. Because of domestication, I believe that dogs are not just susceptible to other dogs’ distress, but also ours. 

Personally, I don’t particularly like large groups, with many dog/person teams coached by several trainers and assistants. It can get cramped, and the continuity that owners need could get lost. I’ve attended classes with my foster pup where the advice changed within 10 minutes from one assistant to another, and had I not known myself what to do, I would have been utterly confused - and indeed other participants were.
But if the area is large enough to spread out, and if the head trainer makes sure that each instructor relays the same message, it can work fine. 

Lastly, I love course setups where a dog won’t advance to the next level until skills are solid – however long it takes. Taking it slow at the foundation level expedites success in the end, and good trainers know that. However, sticking to it is not always easy: The people pay and have certain expectations, so the trainer adjusts and pushes the dog through, instead of explaining, without making the owner feel stupid and frustrated, that not every dog learns the same things at the same rate. So, the onus here is more on the owner than trainer to be patient. 

Humans make choices for their dogs. They have the power. 
Humans that are informed make better choices, and if there are many informed humans, trainers are forced to change or go under.
I want to empower you to ask questions, and have the backbone to walk out of a class and away from a trainer when something doesn’t feel right. If you feel uncomfortable, imagine how it feels for your dog.

If you choose right, your dog will trust you, the leash, the facility and possibly other new places because he has experienced that being with you on unfamiliar ground is still safe. 
Once a dog has the confidence that new is safe, details can change and he will still be able to relax and perform. 
Our Aussie Davie trusted us without reserve, and had a very positive association to the training facility, and it showed when we went to their Halloween party, and everyone was dressed up and the place decorated. It was dark, and there were spooky sounds, and she still behaved wonderfully, and we all had a great time. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Coming When Called Part Three: What If My Dog Doesn't?

Why owners ought to be able to call their dog back to them is clear: It deepens the bond and increases welfare because it allows dog and person to do things together that otherwise wouldn’t be advisable. But even if someone isn’t into trail hikes, beach walks, or multi-use and dog park visits, chances are that sometime in a lifetime precautionary measures fail, and the dog is suddenly running loose and could endanger himself and others.
Most people recognize the importance to have a reliable recall, and yet, with many it means the dog returns 80-95% of the time.
Here are a few common reasons why your dog might not come on cue, and how you should respond, so that, eventually, reliable indeed means 100%.

Your expectations are unreasonable:
Always take your dog’s training level and present ability into account - and regardless of age. What I mean by that is, don’t expect your new rescue dog to come when called just because he’s an adult and “should know it”. Treat a new dog as if he were a pup, and don’t let him off the leash until he is off-leash ready, and until you know more about his social behaviors with people and dogs.
Also understand developmental stages: A 10-week-old pup might come every time, but will likely be much more confident to explore away from you when 10 months old.

You have kibble in your pocket and there is deer poop on the trail:
If “food” in the environment excites your dog more than what’s in your bait bag, up the ante.

You are boring:
If you are doing your own thing - being deep in thoughts, texting, listening to music, yacking with a friend, don’t be surprised if your dog does his own thing.
Be inspiring, and connect to your dog’s mind, not just his stomach, albeit that can sometimes be one and the same, but what you don’t want is a dog who comes, grabs the food, and runs off again. If you want him to stay with you, engage him.

You misjudged distance and intensity of a stimulus and waited too long to call your dog:
When your dog is too close to a stimulus, or surprised by something that moves fast, he has you tuned out. He is not willful or dominant, but magnetized, and doesn’t hear you anymore.
Pay attention to that, check frequently if your dog is still mentally connected with you, recall, reward and release him back to what he wants to do. Don’t purposely trek in sensory overwhelming environments that are full of things too enticing to resist, and if you do, keep the dog on the leash or long line until you built up to that level of training.
If you made a mistake, try to get your dog’s attention. You could stare in one direction, or sniff a bush, but you’re likely much more successful if you are snappy, lively and swift with your body and voice. 
If you can’t get his attention, try to get into his space. Don’t approach like you want to jump on him, but move calmly and casually. You don’t want to frighten your dog, but get close enough that he does hear you again, and then encourage him to follow, ideally without clipping the leash on. The moment he does so willingly, the party begins.
You always aim for voluntarily compliance, instead of “making him” on the leash. Only if you absolutely have to, clip on the leash, but do so without frustration and anger. Be pleasant even if your dog didn’t listen to you, because you don’t want him to associate you and the leash with being punished. Walk away from the stimulus, practice a few recalls, highly reinforce, and if possible release him back to what mesmerized him so.
Better yet, join him. Being curious about things that matter to a dog deepens the relationship and the mental connection, extending to the outside where the stimuli are.

Your verbal and non-verbal communication don’t align:
Fast moving toward can be perceived as a threat or play-chase signal, and your dog might either avoid you or joyously accept. In either case, he’ll move farther away from you instead of coming closer.
If you want your dog to come, walk or run away. Running away is also a strong play signal – for the dog to chase you.
However, in real life it is not always wise to run away from a dog who is busy elsewhere, leaving him out of sight, hoping he’ll follow. In these situations, you can move toward and still come out ahead even if your dog runs farther away. This is how: Agree to his game and chase him, but then pause, play-stare and bow – the play bow appears to be one of the few communication signals a dog understands even when a human does it – and then run away. Very likely your dog will now chase you, and then you halt again and chase your dog, and so on, yo-yoing between you chasing and being chased. When he is close, periodically clip on the leash, reinforce and play a different game, and then return to the off-leash chase game if you like.
You moving toward becomes the cue for the whole sequence: you chasing first, but finishing with the dog chasing you. You always end up with the dog, and even putting the leash on is nothing new, but part of the game and not perceived as aversive.

Come is a poisoned cue:
The term, coined by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, simplified means that a word meant to trigger a specific behavior doesn’t work properly because the consequence is unpredictable for the dog.
I once observed a handler/dog team at a dog show I had a booth at. Throughout the day the dog, a Labrador retriever, was “popped” on a choke collar for one thing or another. When I watched them later compete in obedience, the dog joyfully ran for the dumbbell, but increasingly slowed down the closer he came to his human. I saw similar slow returns with young German shepherd, shock collar trained at a dog park.
Yes, each dog still came when called, but apprehensively, hesitatingly, the Labrador curving and the shepherd with a lowered posture, repetitively licking his lips. Some dogs, though, especially when in a new home with new people or unskilled handlers, might not come at all anymore.
In that sense, beware of calling your dog away from something he really wants to do because it is an intrinsic drive, or needs to do because it is a biological necessity – like having a poop. If you do that often, the recall cue announces that something pleasant ceases and it becomes unpleasant for your dog, even when he gets a cookie upon return. Nothing you provide is likely to override the urge to poop, or watch sheep, or whatever it is your dog is compelled to do at the moment.
Come can also be poisoned if it wasn’t enforced in the past. The dog running off, the person calling, the dog NOT coming, the person calling again, the dog still NOT coming, is a common occurrence. What behavior you think the dog is connecting with the word come?
If you say it, enforce it. That’s what the long line is for. If you can’t and you’re not certain that your dog comes, don’t say the word – and investigate how often he is reinforced for ignoring you in other contexts.
If you have a rescue dog, or if you made mistakes in the past, come might be useless. Choose a new word, for example here, close, by-me. One of my friends uses leash, and it works fabulously; her dogs understand the word and have a great association to it. Leash is a conditioned feel good stimulus, like the cue for coming should be.
Using the new word, train as outlined hereand say it in your pleasant, happy or excited voice, not the demanding or frustrated one that makes your dog nervous to return to you. Be equally inviting with your body: smile, be limber, back up with open arms.

Can you ever punish a dog for not coming? Punish, as in threatening, or doing something uncomfortable and painful, no - not ever.
Negative punishment, as in withholding a reward, yes, you could, but you have to be careful with that too. You never want to discourage the rookie learner, or punish a dog who hasn’t heard you, and because I ultimately aim for the dog wanting to be with me, I rarely apply it. Only when I am sure my dog heard me, acknowledges me, but tells me to “talk to the paw” do I make a big deal out of what she could have had, but won’t get because she ignored the come command. I might play with her ball or fumble with very yummy treats, or in the house make a mock sandwich and emphasize the words “cheese” and “butter”, or become animated and goofy. Anything to get her curious enough to check in, and when she finally arrives and solicits for what I’ve got, I meanly ignore her. Eventually she’ll give up and mosey off, and then I recall right away, giving her another chance. Without fail, this time she comes right away, and I reward.
If you have dog who is an experience comer, pay exaggerated attention to him to draw the dawdler in, but whenever another dog is involved I don’t withhold the reward because I don’t want to create competition and animosity between the dogs. Also remember that speed doesn’t matter, only attitude does.
What about hiding to teach your dog the lesson that if he is not attentive he might lose you? It is a common practice that, admittedly, was once in my repertoire as well, but not anymore. Abandonment is distressing, and I don’t want my dog to only want to be with me because she is afraid that I am leaving her behind.

When a dog doesn’t come, it is the handler’s mistake. Don’t be angry with the dog.
Dogs come most reliably when: they understand the command and hear it, it is rehearsed in many situations, predicts a pleasurable consequence, and if they are bonded with their owners. Training that and building the relationship can take some time – with a puppy and rescue dog. In the meantime, don’t let your dog off the leash. Would you give a 16-year-old who has a number of speeding tickets and rarely heeds the curfew the keys to your car?