Monday, June 5, 2017

The Fallacy of Dominance Theory; Flawed Science (part 1)

Fair warning, there are citations of peer-reviewed articles in this post and it might get a little technical. Where I can, I have linked to a copy you should be able to access to read for yourself, otherwise you may have to check out your local library or university for access to scientific journals. Enjoy!

When observing a demonstration of the skillset of a working police K9 recently, my heart sank. It wasn’t because I saw a dog being abused, but because I saw the normalizing of a training method that has been proven to cause problems. This was all before the dog was out, too. The police officer was explaining the equipment to a small crowd, including a child who seemed to be 3-5 years old. The police officer was showing all the typical tools meant to cause… well, let’s just say discomfort to be diplomatic. Prong collars and shock collars were among the mix. It was being explained to the group that these things don’t hurt the dog at all. I had to walk away for a minute, because that was ridiculous. They do cause pain, or at least discomfort, otherwise they wouldn’t work. When a dog is highly aroused, like in police or military work, they are in a part of their brain that will only respond to pain. Saying that it doesn’t hurt dogs is a flat out lie. You know what else was once common belief about (non-human) animals? That they couldn’t feel pain; that even surgery could be done without medication. We were wrong about that one, what else could we have wrong? Training an animal should never be a situation where force or pain are status quo; the belief that it's the only way to get reliable behavior is simply not true. I do understand the importance of the work of military and police dogs and I love that they have such an important place, but I have seem military working dogs from European countries who can do all the same work, without the pain. Maybe it’s time to leave the past behind and move away from a training protocol that was developed for WWI.

When dog training first started on a big scale, for the war, it was commonly believed that the only way to communicate with any animal was to use force. It worked. Dogs learned quickly what not to do. There were also many dogs deemed “too stupid” for work because they could not learn this way. This belief was further cemented by a study done in 1975 on the behaviors of captive wolves. These wolves were not a familial group, as wolves in the wild are, and they were in what was to them, a very strange environment. The researcher, Zieman, saw some pretty intense displays of aggression including the now well known “alpha roll”. The animals sustained major injuries. He proposed that there could be a multitude of reasons for these incidents including time of year, standing relationships between the wolves and status, but seemed to harp on the status part. With this, the industry continued on this path and wolves were compared-incorrectly- to our own dogs. Despite the work of other researchers explicitly demonstrating that this is not normal behavior for wild wolves (Mech 1999; Fatjo et al, 2007), this fallacy persists. During 13 summers in Canada, on Ellesmere Island, Mech never saw displays as violent as the ones observed by Zieman. He saw what is most common in all animals- subtle and not so subtle body language meant to communicate in social situations (Kerkhove 2004 p 281). In the study by Fatjo et al, similar results were found in wild wolves: “overt aggression was rarely observed in the pack included in this study and never led to open wounds in any of the wolves involved in agonistic encounters.” It seems that the most logical conclusion to be drawn is that unrelated wolves in captivity is what caused the severe fights, not simple rank determination displays (Kerkhove 2004 p 281-2). Despite these findings, too many people out there still believe the words written in a 42-year old study.

Since the theory of dominance cannot be unilaterally applied to wolves, it is not logical to apply it to modern dogs, who diverged on the evolutionary path from wolves 11,000-16,000 years ago (Freedman et al, 2014, pg 1, 5). Furthermore, there is no need for dog owners or trainers to establish themselves as the ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in an effort to prevent or stop canine aggression since most aggression is actually in defense or due to general anxiety (Herron et al 2009 p 52). Punitive displays on the part of dog owners have a correlation with increased aggression displayed by the dog, so trainers and owners may be endangering themselves and family members when attempting to train this way (Herron et al 2009 p 52, Hiby et al 2004). The theory of dominance and the belief in a rigid social structure for wolves and dogs has simply been debunked. The rules of this theory do not accurately apply to wolves or their distant relatives who now occupy our homes.

To paraphrase another trainer, have you seen a wolf “dominate” a monkey? No, because alpha based dominance is within that species. The wolf could show aggression towards a monkey I suppose, but that would not be dominance. It would be something akin to “hey, outsider, get out of here!” Would the wolf go back to his wolf buddies and say “look, I totally dominated this monkey today, now he knows I’m the boss!” The type of dominance people refer to when excusing the use of force it called Alpha Regulated Dominance. It only exists within a species. By exerting ‘dominance’ over your dog, you are attempting to do something that a logical animal would not do (see above monkey example). By doing an alpha roll, you are being irrational and mean and your dog does not understand what is happening or why; they only know you are mad as hell and they will do everything they can to not make you mad in the future. A human attempting to ‘train’ using force in the name of dominance is bullying, plain and simple. Teaching our dogs to live this way seems to me analogous with staying in an abusive relationship because that person provides you with a place to live and food to eat. We tend to believe that people deserve better; don’t our dogs also deserve better?

Some of these I have been able to link to the full text and others are just the abstract, so again check with your library or local university for scientific journal access. 

1. Zimen, E. (1975). Social Dynamics of the Wolf Pack. In W. M. Fox (Ed.), The wild canids: Their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution (pp. 336–362). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. (This one is a book)

2. van Kerkhove, W., 2004.
 A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. J. Appl. Anim. Welf. Sci. 7, 279-285.

3. Mech, L. D. (1999).
Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of
Zoology, 77, 1196–1203.

4. Herron et al (2009)

5. Hiby et al (2007) 
Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare

6. Fatjo et al (2007)

Ambivalent signals during agonistic interactions in a captive wolf pack

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Everybody Poops... Hopefully Not On The Rug

House training, potty training, housebreaking- whatever you call it, teaching a dog to poop and pee in the appropriate place can be harrowing. Most puppies learn early on to poop and pee away from where they sleep and eat, though not all. You may recall my post on puppy development  where you hopefully learned that very early on, puppies learn to go to the bathroom in the right place when they start leaving the den:

Transitional Period: Days 11-21

Motor and sensory skills start to develop, eyes and ears open, and they start to walk instead of crawl with trepidation. Their teeth are coming in, so they can start on soft meals (sometimes regurgitated by their momma), even though they will still be nursing for a few more weeks. Louder vocalization occurs when they are left in a new environment and since they can hear, they will initially startle at noises. At this age they also start to navigate away from their nest or den to go potty, because they can go potty without mom's help and realize that they don't want to sleep near that. Up until this point, their sweet momma has probably been eating their poop. The puppy is able to adapt to new stimuli and develops the senses through experiencing new stimuli like handling, playing with toys, experiencing new types of floor, bedding and climbing on stuff (not unlike human babies). Play fighting will begin during this time and positive reinforcement training can be used to teach them (by their mom or their humans). An interesting side note, potty training is already starting at this point and what happens here will have a lasting impact:
"From this point on, the puppies should have the possibility to leave the nest site to eliminate. Puppies who have been thwarted from doing so may become almost impossible to house train."

See that? As early as three weeks old, your puppy could be delayed in potty training if their environment is not ideal. Puppies who come from pet stores are notoriously bad at learning to potty appropriately. Due to the nature of the setup, their poop and pee tends to not get cleaned up right away and they become accustomed to it, even in their kennel. This makes potty training especially difficult because you are limited in where the puppy can be placed while you are unable to watch him. Other puppies are raised using potty pads, which can have an effect on house training. This is typically done for puppies who are born during winter in cold climates or toy breeds who could be picked up by a bird of prey when out on a potty excursion. Now, potty pads are not inherently bad and they can be really helpful for tiny breeds and folks who live in high rise apartments and condos. The problem is when a puppy generalizes the padded surface of the pad to any soft surface of the house- the bathmat, the front door mat, the dining room rug, etc. 

" bad."

Since this whole potty thing can be so frustrating, I wanted to pass along some potty training DO's and DO NOT's. 

1. DO NOT punish your dog for having an accident. It was an accident, your dog doesn't know any better, or they do not have sufficiently developed muscle control to hold it when playing/excited/very full of pee or poop. This means you should not yell, scold, or rub your dog's nose in the excrement. This is pretty rude of you and will confuse your dog. It can also lead your dog to be afraid of going potty anywhere around you and learning to hide it better when he does go in the house. You will find poop in a shoe in your closet suddenly, and your dog will be afraid of going potty around you, even outside. That makes it pretty hard to adapt appropriate potty habits. 
2. DO NOT let your dog watch you clean up the poop or pee on the rug. Admittedly, I'm not sure exactly what goes on in your dog's mind when they see you clean up, but I suspect it's something like "oh, wow! I left that there and now look at how dad is enjoying it! He's sitting on the floor, rubbing that towel on it, he must want to keep my smell forever. I will have to do this again later on, so he has more to play with!" Have another family member take the dog out to finish going potty or just sniff around while you clean, or have the dog crated or gated where he cannot see you cleaning up. 
3. DO NOT let your dog outside in the yard and assume they are doing their business out there. That is like sending a 3 year-old into the bathroom and expecting them to go potty. They might, the might not, they might flush bath toys down the toilet. It's really a toss up. If you are having trouble potty training, you need to know if your dog is going outside so you know what to expect when he comes back inside. 
4. DO NOT free feed a dog who has poop accidents in the house. Remember that if food goes in at fairly predictable times, it will come back out at predictable times. 
5. DO take into account the size of your dog. A Chihuahua and a Great Dane will see a 1200 square foot apartment as very different space, and potty problems may develop as a result. A 7-pound chihuahua may have no problem pooping on one side of the living room and sleeping on the other side. It's enough distance! The Great Dane on the other hand, may not want to poop anywhere inside that home because it is all too close to where he will sleep. 
6. DO clean up with an enzymatic cleaner, such as Nature's Miracle or Anti-Icky Poo. This actually gets rid of the proteins left behind. Using Resolve is great for us, since it smells pretty, but to dogs it smells like the poop/pee and that weird fake flowery smell, so they have no problem going there again. 
7. DO reward your dog for going potty outside. This can be praise, but a treat given outside, right after a pup goes potty where you want can go a long way in them repeating the behavior. 
8. DO label the 'going potty' with a term such as 'go potty', 'make', 'go to the bathroom', etc. It really doesn't matter what term or word you use, as long as you don't mind saying it out loud and sharing it with anyone who will care for your pup. 
9. DO keep track of when and where your dog goes potty, this way you know what to expect as a pattern develops. 
10. DO remain consistent with taking the dog out at regular intervals and taking them to a designated potty spot. This will set him up to be more likely to go outside when you take him. If you are keeping track of when and where it happens, your consistency will result in a predicable potty schedule. 

See how painless that was? The truth is, with some dogs this takes weeks to months. With a pup who has been having accidents for a long time, it will take longer to break the habit of peeing or pooping anywhere. If a dog has been going to the bathroom indoors for 4 years, it will take more than 4 days to change the habit. Consistency and patience are the key here, as well as a good carpet shampooer! Of course, if you are struggling, you should contact a certified dog trainer who can help you and your dog. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Choosing The Right Dog For You (Part 2: Breeds and Keeping the Odds in Your Favor)

I will start this post with a disclaimer- it is chock full of stereotypes and generalizations. I'm not typically a fan of stereotyping, but when considering a new pet, I think it's best to put the odds in your favor. Knowing what different breeds generally are and how they typically behave will help you to choose a new family member who will be a good fit. So many people love the idea of getting a border collie or cattle dog because they are very smart breeds; people see them do tricks, agility courses, jump to catch a frisbee, or are fascinated by their ability to move a herd of animals. Unless you have a herd of sheep, cattle, or literally hours to devote to teaching and training new behaviors, tricks, and exercises, you do not want one. Trust me. Those are two of my favorite breeds, but they require a very specific type of life and a very specific pet parent. Odds are, you are not that type. I'm sorry, I wish you were. I wish I were, but I know that I'm not at a place right now where we can be a good home to a high maintenance dog like that. We have two small children and both my husband and I work full time. We have just enough time to play tug or fetch and go for walks with our 8 year old pit mix. She is low-key and easy to please, and fits perfectly in our life now.

I am a proponent of adopting from rescues and shelters, though if you are certain you want a specific breed and you are sure you want a puppy, I think a reputable breeder is a also good direction to go. I really prefer you not buy from a pet store or from someone selling a dog online via Facebook or Craigslist, as you may be supporting irresponsible breeding or a puppy mill. It's easy to rationalize it as the puppy getting a better home with you but you are still financially supporting that industry so it's a double-edged sword.
Anyway, you have decided you want a dog, you can worry about where he/she comes from later.

First, you need to figure out what type of dog will fit in your life well. These are the same questions I ask when someone wants me to help them pick out a new puppy. Let me tell you right now, hearing my response when I look at client's answers to these questions seldom makes them happy. They are often disappointed because they had already decided on a specific breed. Sometimes, people get angry. I don't blame them. I dislike being told what I can and cannot have- after all I am an adult! Once they get past the disappointment/anger/sadness/confusion, I explain that if they are really set on a breed, they should contact a few (reputable) breeders and explain all the same information to them. The breeder may echo my advice or may say that they have the perfect pup. If the breeder has a litter where one pup is not the norm and may fit in that home, it can work perfectly. I also tell them that if they are fully committed to any dog, they will have years of happiness.
Things you need to ask yourself and answer honestly:

How many hours a day do you have to spend with a dog? 
     -You will need to commit significantly more time to a puppy than an adult dog, no matter the breed. Getting a puppy is a lot like having a newborn; the exceptions are that puppies have more hair and legally, you can lock up a puppy in a crate for a few hours at a time (doing that with your kids is frowned upon).
     -Any working breed including herding and scent/sight hounds, will need adequate mental and physical exercise to stay happy and out of trouble. A smart dog needs a job and needs to solve problems; if you don't provide that job or problem to solve, these dogs will find something to do, like how to get into the trash, the bathroom, how to open the door to the playroom and chew up all the legos, etc.
     -This is also true of any dog bred for field work- a labrador who comes from hunting lines who is not worked in some way will have trouble doing well in a house where his day is divided between looking out the window and going for two short walks a day.
     -This time does not necessarily need to be consecutive hours, but you need to have time to devote to a dog, period.
        -Even if you get an adult dog and not a puppy, you need to be prepared to sacrifice free time to be with your dog! Getting an adult dog can be like adopting a toddler or elementary-school aged child. They need a schedule, fair rules, and consistency to thrive.

How many hours a week do you work?
     -This is an extension of the first question, but time you are spending at work is generally time away from your dog. If you work 16 hour shifts, seven days a week, that only leaves eight hours when you are not working. You may need to sleep on occasion and though my dog has tried, it's hard to play fetch or tug while sleeping.
Are you physically active? Can this activity involve your dog?
     -If you are a runner, this can be wonderful physical exercise for an adult dog, as well as added security if running at dawn or dusk.
     -If you tend to bicycle, this may not be the best activity for your dog to partake in with you, are you willing to take some time away from this to be with your dog?
     -If you like to stay at home and do yoga, you can probably involve your dog from time to time, though a puppy will get bored with this quickly at first.
     -If you are physically active and strong you may be able to get a bigger dog and not get pulled down. I would not recommend a 130 pound mastiff to an 80 year old, for what should be obvious reasons.

Do you have a yard? Is it fenced?
     -You do not necessarily need a fence to have a dog, and many times people think that having a fence means they can let that dog out in the yard to play and that counts as exercise, which is wrong. Having a fence makes it easier to play outdoors without worry, though.
     -You should have space for a dog. If you do not have a yard, is there someplace you can take tour dog for walks, exercise, long-leash or off-leash play? Dogs (generally) like the outdoors- it's full of sights and sounds that change day-to-day, even by the hour, and getting out there together is really fun for your dog!

Do you live in a house, apartment, or condo/townhouse?

     - Is that apartment/townhouse pet friendly?
     -Are there breed restrictions or size restrictions?
     -If you are renting a house, are there pet restrictions?
   (you would not believe how many people do not look into this before getting a dog)
     -Is there actually room for that dog in your small apartment?

Do you have children? How old are they? 
     -A good dog and good kids can live together, with responsible parents
     -If you expect your 7-year old to be responsible for all the care of a 50 pound dog, you need to reconsider your connection with reality.
     -If you have small children, a small dog may not be the best, as they can be too in-your-face. Also, a herding breed can have trouble with small children who move quickly, unpredictably, and make squeaky noises.
     -Any training you do should involve your children, and kids should at least help with the daily routine. My kids (age 4 and 19 months) argue over who gets to feed the dog each meal and who gets to snuggle with her.

How much money do you have? 
     -I don't phrase it like this when I talk with clients, but you need to be sure you can actually afford a dog. I'm not trying to be a scrooge, but if you can't afford your current bills, you should not get a dog and add to it. If you want a companion, volunteer at your local shelter, pet-sit for friends; don't go buy a dog because you are lonely. That is selfish and only serves you; a dog is a living being whose well-being need to be considered.
     -A good 'doggie savings' plan is to put away some money each month or each paycheck- put it in a savings account in the bank and see how much you have after at leads 6 months (a year is better). Dogs are not cheap. Puppies are even less cheap, they need booster vaccines evert 3-4 weeks from the time you bring them home (depending on what the breeder did), until they are about 17 weeks of age. Plan to spend at least $100 on annual vet visits, more for heartworm prevention and flea/tick prevention. Oh yeah, then there's things like emergency visits, or at least unexpected visits between those bi-annual ones. Pet insurance can help, just buy before you have a problem or it won't be covered. Keep in mind that pet insurance is reimbursement- it's not like your own health insurance where you see the bill saying how much the company covered- you pay the vet, submit your request and get refunded by the insurance company for a portion of the bill.
     -Food- your dog needs to eat and there are enough options out there to make you dizzy. For a good food (research and ask your vet), you should plan to pay at least $45 per 40 pound bag. For a medium sized dog who eats a couple cups a day, it's not terribly expensive, but if you have a large breed like a Great Dane or Mastiff, you will go through that bag of food in just a matter of weeks.

Now that I have said all that, keep in mind that even with the stereotypical cattle dog who needs to run and play and work lots, a committed and imaginative pet owner can have a great pet (and lots of fun).

The key is to pick a dog who will fit with your family- energy level, time, and your general lifestyle, then fully commit to the dog. Keep up with medical needs, buy good food, have a good selection of toys (and play with the toys with your dog), and please teach your dog some basics like sit, down, stay, impulse control, and come. I'd prefer you use a force-free trainer, of course! 

If you still have questions about getting a new pup, feel free to contact me and I can do my best to help you out.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why We (Usually) Can't Use Sex To Motivate Dogs

I really just used that title because it made me giggle, though it is true. I could tell you a story about working on a pig farm and a discussion on power tools and breeding pigs, but I'll leave it to your imagination (nobody was hurt).
I'm going to let you in on yet another dog trainer secret. I keep doing this because I really want what's best for your dog; you being educated is really great for your dog. Us dog trainers have a pretty good handle on motivators and how to use them to teach dogs. Really good dog trainers even know what motivates their human clients!

First, some basics about motivators. Every living thing has motivators- things that provide a reason or stimulus to do something. There are three basic elements of life that are important to all animals (even people): food, sex, and fear. There are pros and cons to each one:

Food: fast, fun, easy, allows quick learning in different situations, BUT you do have to learn how to fade out the food rewards and still have a strong behavior.
Sex: very motivating, fun, BUT it is not ideal for achieving quick learning, quick repetitions AND it requires another animal.
Fear: Changes behavior quickly, BUT the animal tends to over-generalize and have trouble learning distinctions when in a fearful state. Studies have also shown lingering effects of punishment based techniques (see resources).

It should come to no surprise to you to hear that I prefer to use food as a primary motivator and reinforcer in training, at least initially. I always teach my clients about fading food rewards, which you can read about in another post coming soon. To train your own dog, you have to understand what motivates him. Food is a solid motivator for all animals since they need it to survive. The only times a dog doesn't want food are when he is already full or is over-threshold and is going into fight/flight mode. When initially training a new behavior or cue, food is a wonderful way to keep your dog engaged, get quick repetitions (as long as you keep treats small), and keep the training enjoyable for you both.
Some dogs are differently motivated from the start; my buddy Darwin loves nothing in life more than his frisbee:
Catching a frisbee: 

Holding a frisbee: 

 Even when the snow is up to his belly: 

I have known dogs who like attention more than food, or the reward of running with another dog more than food. Motivators will not only vary by dog, but by situation. When a dog is in high-energy exercise like running an agility course, he may not want to stop to eat a treat (it's physiological), but will gladly play tug or fetch with his handler for a minute. It keeps him excited for the agility course and is a reward- perfect motivation! When a dog is in his home with minimal distractions, his own dry food or petting and attention from his humans may be sufficient to drive him. In class, with other dogs, smells and sounds, his humans will likely need a more tasty treat to keep their dog engaged and motivated while learning. When a dog is overstimulated and stressed, food will not be high on their priority list. If they are fight/flight mode, digestion is shut down and they will not stop if you toss a steak in front of them. Humans are the same way- if you are trying to escape a burning building, you probably will not stop to grab a slice of pizza from the fridge because food is literally the last thing on your mind. A good trainer will know this and actually wants to keep a dog from feeling this stressed while training, and in every day life. I'm not saying dogs have to have perfect lives where everything is handed to them, but the things that really upset them and make them freeze, growl, bark, bite- those should really be removed and reintroduced properly (read: gradually with the help of a certified trainer). A dog who is scared is not going to learn anything good; I know I keep saying this but only because it's so true. We want the best schools for our kids because it's the best environment, right? Free of undue stress, filled with teachers who want them to succeed, even if they learn differently than other students, right? Why not get the best for your dog? If you are enlisting the help of a trainer who lets your dog get into that stressful state time and time again, especially if they are adding in any coercive method, they are not really helping your dog. They are scaring or hurting your dog, no matter how it is sugar-coated or how many different ways they come up with to describe a shock, choke, or prong collar, it's still something that is meant to be uncomfortable to dogs. For more on reinforcers check out my post from a little while back.

Want to know more about motivators and why they make a difference to dogs? Check out the resources I read for this article!


Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them, By Pamela Reid

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Like a Pack of Wild Dogs

Actually, the dog on your sofa or floor is not a wild dog or a wolf and has not been for somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 years. That isn't to say that today's dogs are not pack animals- they are in fact, quite well suited to live in a family group.
I prefer the term family instead of pack, because when we start tossing around the word 'pack', somebody inevitably feels the need to talk about a 'pack leader'. Then they tend to jump to the need to "establish dominance" or "assert dominance". The problem with those terms is that the come from observations on captive wolves from the 1940's. There are a few fallacies here, so I'll briefly put it in human terms to highlight the important ones.
Think about how human behavior was understood in the 1940's, how well understood were human psychological issues and human development compared to today? (Take a look here) They were starting to turn away from old traditions that we would pretty much consider barbaric or torturous today and look into science- starting. 
Now, if we didn't even understand our own brains, how could we assume to understand those of dogs, especially wolves who were in a situation very different from a family/pack in the wild? How could we assume to think that those wolves in captivity, living in what was quite different from a wild pack of wolves and were thousands of years different genetically from our own dogs, could be accurately compared to our pets at home? We were wrong. It's ok though, everyone makes mistakes, right?
The problem is that these beliefs are still haunting us and our dogs today. It's right under our noses at the vet clinic or the groomer who roughly handles dogs in an effort to be efficient, though they do have the dog's best interest at heart. We even see it in the hands of some dog trainers, who believe that coercion is the best way to train a dog.
It is true that wolves and dogs are social animals, just like people are social animals. It's true that there is a need for some balance within any social group of animals, it's just not as serious and intense as the 'alpha' folks would have you believe. The fact is that even in packs of wolves or in groups of animals put together in captivity (as long as they are grouped well), there shouldn't be frequent violent displays or pain inflicted regularly. In groups of wolves, just as many familial groups of animals, there is a general acceptance of those in the family and a general (at least initial) apprehension towards outsiders. Simply from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to be suspect of someone new wandering into your pack- if they are a good fit personality-wise, it's still another mouth to feed. This could explain some of the more severe aggressive displays we observe at times, but there's more.
Within all social groups, there needs to be communication for everyone to get along. Good communication includes signals on what is ok and not ok, what the animal intends to do, and even random movements at times (after all, animals are not machines!) Good communication is clear, precise and effectively gets the message across, right?
Right, it gets the message across with minimal effort on the part of the animal(s) communicating. Now, this is where those who believe in alpha rolls and other threat displays are put in a funny place. As a pack animal, living in the wild, why would a wolf use any more energy than necessary in a social situation? They don't; it wouldn't make sense. Energy is conserved and used when necessary, not just to prove they are bog and strong. They use exactly what the situation dictates, so in the wild and even in domesticated dogs, you will see a lot more subtle forms of communication in the majority of situations. Using something dramatic is usually not necessary, except in an extreme circumstance; so using an alpha roll or a shock on a dog who simply did not know that he wasn't supposed to pull on leash is certainly an overreaction. Redirecting with a u-turn for pulling is a lot easier and less dramatic. Using an alpha roll on a dog who is just confused will only confuse it more and can lead to fear-based aggression.
Dogs and wolves do utilize a hierarchy in social settings, but it is more fluid than many humans tend to think; many aspects of behavior are situational and are not the only way differences are sorted out.
So many trainers out there use more forceful (or intentionally painful and life-threatening) techniques in a misguided effort to dissuade dogs from trying to establish 'dominance' over us. This is another one that baffles me. Again in human terms, how many of us out there really want to be a president or world leader, or even a mayor? I can't tell you exact numbers, but I guarantee that every person you see walking down the street wants to be in charge of every other person walking down the street. We are not all built that way. Dogs are the same, wolves are the same, all animals are the same- we don't all want to be in charge. Most of the time when I see a dog that another trainer describes as 'dominant', it's either an adolescent who simply does not have manners or a grasp on basic cues or a dog who is so terrified that it is reacting defensively to everything as if it's a threat. With both, the problem can be solved with simply teaching basic cues, impulse control and by the human(s) being consistent in their expectations and training. This can all be done without inflicting pain, by the way.
Since we are not dogs and we can't possibly perceive everything as a dog does, we should not go around tossing in phrases like 'dominance', 'pack leader', or 'alpha' because we only know them in human terms, not canine. This and our ignorance to much of the subtle body language of dogs and wolves put us in a dangerous place when we try treating our dogs like wolves. Worse, it puts our dogs in dangerous situations when they are treated like something they are not- they are not wolves and they are not humans; simply dogs. Let's learn more about them and treat them accordingly, doesn't the pup keeping your feet warm deserve that?

Aggression in Dogs; Practical Management, Prevention & Behavior Modification by Brenda Aloff Pages 30-33 (NOVA documentary on canine understanding of people, compared to other animals; differences between dogs and wolves (short Documentary on the fallacies of punishment training and "alpha" fallacies) (NIH study on Clinical Psychology in the United States between 1940 and 2010)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Stop the Flooding!

It's no secret that I like dogs. It's also no secret that I'm not a huge fan of spiders. I know they have a purpose and I really appreciate that they eat other bugs, but I feel a little uneasy when a spider is skittering across the ceiling in my bedroom. My husband thinks this is hilarious. He likes to catch spiders and hold them up to my face, or worse, over my hair. Uggghh. I don't mind spiders outside- that's where they belong. My face is not any spider's natural environment and I do not like them there. He even went so far to yell "SPIDER!!" while we were swimming in the ocean one day. I won't lie to you- I did look around frantically and start swimming. After a few seconds, I realized how ridiculous it was and proceeded to laugh with him. In addition to the good belly laugh he gets out of it, my husband claims that he is trying to help me get over my spider aversion. The problem is that he is going about it all wrong. He is only making me trust him less, not feel any better about spiders.

My husband is attempting to habituate me to spiders- to get me used to them by exposure over time. His idea is that the more I see spiders, the less scary they will be. This could work, if he was using the correct method of habituation. With putting spiders close to me (or pretending to do so), he is using a technique called flooding- repeated exposure to a high intensity stimulus without any means of the subject escaping or changing the situation. This can work in some cases, where the stress level is relatively low and the animal is very resilient. What usually happens is that the animal becomes so stressed that it physiologically cannot respond any more and shuts down. To the untrained eye, it looks as though the animal is fine. What is really happening is that the animal is so terrified that it has accepted it's fate and stops responding, even though it still feels that anxiety/stress/fear. The other response of flooding is that the animal turns it's frustrations on someone or something else. The case of me hitting my husband repeatedly with a foam baseball bat is an example of the latter.

This actually happens in dog training all too often, especially by those on television who are looking for drama to increase ratings. That may make for good television, but it does not make for smart dog training. I have even seen trainers do this who are not on television, trying to pass it off as a legitimate training method. When flooding is used in training, the dog will sometimes respond well and no longer exhibit fearful behaviors. Most of the time, we get one of two results though: fighting/bullying of people or other dogs, or a complete shut down and cessation of responses across the board. Here is how you can tell the difference: a dog who is properly habituated will learn to perform simple commands in the presence of the scary stimulus; the will have relaxed body language and will happily take a treat (as long as they are a food-motivated dog). A dog who is flooded will still respond the same way to the stimulus- act out aggressively, try to get away, or shut down and not respond to anything- not the best treats or a simple cue. They are in "flight" mode but cannot flee; it's pretty heart-wrenching to watch. Those trainers who use floding along with tools like prong, pinch, or shock collars do so when a dog is already over threshold and over-reacting. The reason pain works is that this is one of the few things that any animal in this state can actually respond to, unfortunately. Trainers who use these methods in flooding are taking a stressed out dog and making it worse, which only reinforces the dog's fears about the situation.

So, what should we do instead? I'm SO glad you asked! Two of my most favorite words are coming up, are you ready?
Desensitization- presenting stimulus at a low stress level (at a great distance, or a less scary version), then gradaully increasing the intensity of the stressor over time
Counter Conditioning-pairing scary stimulus (at a low level) with something the dog loves

Think of it this way: habituation has two kids, flooding and desensitization. They are capable of all the same things, but flooding is kind of a jerk all the time- in your face and loud. Desensitization is more reserved and calm. If they are both means to the same end, why not hang out with the nicer one? When desensitization is used in training, the dog is exposed to a low level stimulus, so their reaction will not be so severe and they actually have the opportunity to learn that it's not scary. This is the technique that my cousin uses with spiders- she sends me pictures of spiders and fills my Facebook page with posts about spiders. I still don't like spiders too much, but I don't jump out of my chair when I see a picture of one and I would trust her not to toss a spider at my face, unlike my husband (ok, he probably wouldn't do that). With desensitization, the stress level is gradually increased over time and the dog remains under threshold so they can actually learn that the scary stimulus is not really a threat.
It is worth mentioning that habituation is something present in our dogs minds (as well as ours) for a very specific evolutionary reason- so they learn subtle differences in situations to properly asses threats in life. A small spider isn't as scary to me as a big one; a spider outside hanging out on it's web doesn't bother me like one skittering across the floor in my kitchen will. It's all part of the habituation process. Like so many learning processes, habituation can be really slow, as it should be. To learn all the possible different situations I may find myself in with a spider can take years. With training, we add in counter conditioning as a means to speed up this process a bit. Instead of nothing bad happening when I see a spider, what if I am offered a cookie whenever I see one? Since I am food motivated and enjoy cookies, I would begin to anticipate the cookie when I see a spider, then I would actually look forward to seeing spiders because it would mean more cookies. I would learn that not only are spiders harmless, but they also mean that good things happen when I see one. It's not that I am so happy about the cookie that I forget about the spider, but since the spider is small and far away, I don't feel threatened and can actually enjoy my cookie. Counter conditioning changes the emotional state of the subject, and changes the association they have with the stimulus. With dogs who bark out of fear or excitement, we work on getting them to sit and take treats and enjoy petting and praise from their people in the presence of that scary stimulus. As we change the way they think about the stimulus, we change their emotional state from a reactive one to a relaxed one. This change in behavior causes the external signals (barking, jumping, etc) to cease because they don't fit well with the relaxed body language. Since we are letting the dog decide on his own and set his own boundaries, they learn that they have control over their own life and are less likely to over-react in the future.
The very last piece of the training process is to use operant counter conditioning to train different but appropriate behaviors in response to the stimulus. My favorite example of this is teaching dogs who like to chase cars to sit every time they see a car. I bring this up because other trainers like to show off videos of dogs who are doing down-stay on sidewalks or parking lots with cars driving through. Many times, these dogs are laying down and not getting out of the stay, but they are terrified- there is tension all over their bodies and their eyes are darting all around in search of safety. Having a dog sit-stay or down-stay no matter what is certainly an important skill, I'm not debating that- the use of coercive techniques in these situations is what does. In my experience, a dog who is scared is more likely to react in an unpredictable way and that's not what you want next to a busy street. Generally, dogs chase cars because they are moving and it's fun to chase things. Some dogs don't like things that move in a way that doesn't make sense to them (cars can fall into that category), and other dogs don't like engine sounds, so they chase the car to 'get rid of it'. By training more relaxed body language (sit, down), the dog learns that it is more rewarding to relax when cars go by. By not forcing the dog to lay down and shocking them or jerking their collar when they get up, they actually are relaxed and not fearful. Again, we do this by starting with the cars far away and move closer over time- it takes longer and makes for really crummy television, but in the long run it makes for a healthier dog and better relationship.

Exce-Erated Learning by Pamela Ried, PhD
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor

Today's question:
What is your dog afraid of and how have you tried to change it?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Doggie Outtakes; Whispering Dogs Part 2

This week, I want to see if you paid attention to the last post. It's like a little quiz, with pretty pictures of cute pups and a great sense of pride if you answer the questions correctly.
So, last week time (was it three weeks now or a full month?!) I wrote about how dogs have basically three levels of communicating: whispering, talking, and yelling.
Here's a recap of the things you want to look for at each level:

Whispering: lip lick, short stare, slight head turn, scratching frequently or out of context (like in the middle of play), sniffing the ground out of context (in the middle of play or when meeting someone), leaning away, looking away, low tail, yawning, moving slowly
Talking: hyper-vigilant (looking around quickly), excessive yawning, panting when it's not hot, freezing in position, moving away, "whale eye" (looking so far in one direction that you see the whites of the dog's eyes), sudden loss of appetite, tucked tail, curved spine, dilated pupils, shaking/trembling, shaking off (this is a displacement behavior that we see frequently in play)
Yelling: lip lift, closed mouth, showing teeth, snarling, growling, barking, lunging, biting 
Now, I have some outtakes from graduation photos. I love keeping these to look for little body language cues. In reality, the time from the first shot as dogs get lined up and that final shot where three out of four dogs are lined up for a half decent picture is three to five minutes. I probably get 30 pictures in this time, and each one can capture at least one different signal from each dog. Most of the time these dogs are just excited and want to play, but you still see the displacement and calming signals. My goal in training, especially in group class, is to keep everyone under threshold. That means you won't get the chance to see much "yelling" in these pictures. I'll work on that for next time. 

First up, who in this picture is nervous, who is excited and who is blurring the line between healthy interest and play and over-the-top play?

The lab-pit mix on the left has her ears pinned back, probably because she just wants to go play with her big brother next to her and mom is asking her to hold still. 
The big mixed breed in the middle there is very uneasy with the dog all the way on the right. He is turning away, looking away and has a little paw lift going on. All of this tells the other dog that he is no threat and really doesn't want to do anything. 
The pit mix on the right really wants to go investigate the other dogs. She is very sweet, but her normal play level would be way too much for the arthritic big guy next to her. Her weight is to the left- in the direction of the other two dogs. She wants to go check them out and her human mom is blocking her. 

What do you think of this guy? Happy? Sad? Mad? Scared? A little warm?
You may have to turn up the brightness on your computer, but look at Howie's eyes- he's squinting. It's not because it's bright out, but because he's uncomfortable with the fact that I had been taking his picture for a couple minutes at this point and he thinks the camera is scary. 

Here is the first picture I took of him, about 35 seconds before the above picture:
By the time I got that second picture, he was squinting and turning his head away from me, whereas here he is looking right at the camera. His ears are pinned back because he doesn't like the sound the camera makes when it takes the picture in addition to the big, scary lens.

Contrast that with Gracie, who doesn't really care that I'm taking pictures. Her face is relaxed with the exception of her panting because it was about 80 degrees out on graduation day.

Next, is everybody alright with what's going on in this picture?

The chocolate lab on the left is watching the other dogs, because she wants to play.
The doberman in the middle is in the middle shaking off- she really wants to play with the lab but we told her she has to wait util class is over. This is the human equivalent of an exasperated sigh. 
The little schnauzer on the right is really not sure about all this movement. She has a history of reactivity and the fact that she is at such a low stress level around two other dogs and four people who aren't mom is really good. She is still unsure- leaning away and looking away from the other dogs. I intentionally put her on the end next to the doberman for the picture because I knew the lab would be too excited to be next to her.

So they are all ok, because they are communicating well with each other and I won't make them maintain that close proximity too much longer! 

Look close, how has the dynamic changed from the previous picture?
The doberman in the middle wants to play with everyone with the full exuberance of a 1 year old pup, but the schnauzer is standing her ground as well as she can. She's got extra confidence because mom is there, so her weight is evenly distributed on all four legs, indicating that she doesn't want to back down.
The lab on the left is in the middle of a lip lick as a way to diffuse the tension of the two dogs next to her and is probably wondering why she can't bum rush the other dogs to play. 

Ok, I tricked you. Those last two pictures were switched in reality. There was a moment after this last picture where everybody needed to refocus on their owner and then be asked to sit down. Everything worked out just fine and they finally relaxed for a decent graduation picture. This happened because the dogs were all communicating and their owners were paying attention to them! 

Last one, I promise. The two dogs you can see, the Labrador and the Wheaten Terrier, how are they feeling about this situation?
The dog you can't see (because she is blocked by one of her humans) is jumping up to get a treat. 
The Wheaten Terrier in the middle really wants to play with the lab but his mom is trying to hold him still so he's not fighting it too much.
The Lab is trying to go smell the terrier but his dad is adjusting his harness and he is holding still. 
If you look at both dogs, you will see they both have weight evenly distributed on all four legs and they are panting with open mouths. It was really hot by this point in the day- graduation for the noon class was about 1:00pm and it was one of those oppressively hot days. 

Now go out and watch your dog! Watch your dog play with a doggie friend! Take notes and learn about your dog so you can be a better human companion!