Saturday, April 19, 2014

Boundary Training (or why I don't like buried electronic fences)

It's starting to thaw out here, though now that I've said it I'm sure snow and ice will fall from the sky any minute now. Anyway, thawing means warm weather and more time outside with your dog. Time outside means that your dog needs a safe place to play and run with you. My ideal environment for this is a fenced in yard- since Roxie isn't terribly dog friendly we don't let her off leash unless she's in the house or behind a fence (even then, we rarely leave her unsupervised just in case). There's a couple downsides to fences, I know, I know. They are expensive, they take away from your view, they require maintenance, and some dogs can still get over an 8 foot fence. By the way, if your dog can jump an 8 foot fence here must be something pretty awesome on the other side and your yard needs to be more fun and second, enroll in agility classes right now! I mean it, make that behavior productive and fun for both of you!!
Fine. You don't like a physical fence. You want an underground electronic fence don't you? I knew it. 
Eek. I'm not gonna lie, I'm not a huge fan of those. I know they can work perfectly well for some dogs, and some families have one for years and multiple dogs with no issues. I'm glad that it works for them, but that doesn't mean it will work for you and your dog. For one, they aren't necessarily cheaper than a fence you can see. Then there are the behavioral issues that can arise. Behavioral problems?! Seriously? Yup. I've seen it firsthand. But first, let's review how they work. Most of these underground fence systems involve a shock collar, which provides a bit (or a lot) of...discomfort...when the dog crosses the boundary. This is a positive punishment. Positive punishment is one of the elements of operative conditioning, and involves presenting something unpleasant when the dog offers an incorrect response to a certain stimulus. In this example the stimulus is the boundary and the punishment is the discomfort provided by the collar. Why the heck is it called positive? Because the punishment is added to the situation based on the dogs response. Positive doesn't indicate that it's something nice or good, just that it's added to the equation. And why do I keep calling it "discomfort" instead of pain? Because the level of discomfort is dependent on the one receiving it and everyone, even dogs, have different levels of pain tolerance. I'm not saying it's not painful-I'm actually sure it's painful, but not all dogs will necessarily see it as being at the same level of painful. I consider this type of training as a last resort only, and it is never something I would consider for a puppy or a dog who already exhibits aggression or fear in any way. I still know how it works though, because I want to understand everything I can about training and behavior (I figure that goal will keep me reading and attending seminars for years!)
For this to work properly, the punishment needs to work within as few times as possible (less than 3). See, the more times you have to use this punishment, the less meaningful it is. (At your own risk of injury) slap your thigh as hard as you can. Do it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. You could keep going until your leg goes numb, but I wouldn't recommend it. Did that last one hurt as much as the first one? Probably not. Your body adapts to the pain and eventually the nerves stop sending the message that it hurts because it learns that the pain isn't going to stop. The same thing happens when you get a tattoo (at least a large tattoo). After a while, the area goes numb because the nerves stop responding. Since nerves are the same among different mammals, the same thing happens to dogs too. If you constantly offer discomfort or pain, it will eventually be less meaningful and will no longer be an effective consequence. An ineffective consequence is pointless and possibly abusive. So, the thing with positive punishment when it involves discomfort or pain is that it needs to work in very few instances, without causing undue harm or damage (I'm not going to go into the hypocrisy in that statement). Too low a discomfort and it becomes meaningless because it's not enough to stop your dog from chasing the squirrel, too high and your dog is terrified the collar and of going outside at all. 
The question is then, how do you determine the exact discomfort level that will stop the behavior quickly without causing harm? Great question. To do it perfectly, you would have to (somehow) determine that level for each individual. That would be difficult because of the aforementioned phenomenon of the pain lessening over time...and it would be kinda mean. 
Fine. You get lucky and get it right the first time and find out the correct level to stop the behavior within 3 or fewer attempts. This works until your dog sees something he really really wants and he runs out if the yard but now can't get back in (the shock works on re-entry too, ya know). Or a strange/scary/mean/rabid animal gets into your yard and now your dog is stuck with it. 
Again, I know it works for some people, but I feel that a real, visible fence or a leash with a puppy parent attached to the other end is your best bet. 
Even if you get the shock right, there can be strange behavioral consequences. I've seen otherwise quiet dogs who suddenly become reactive outside, and dogs who don't even want to go outside. Parents of dogs who are already reactive or aggressive can see the behavior increase and intensify.
I'm not trying to get into a discussion on types of training- I'll save that for another day-just trying to explain why those buried fences are not the best for everyone.
My original point was to talk about clicker boundary training. I had found a short tutorial on the Karen Pryor website a couple years or so ago and have used her method with success with multiple clients. I must preface this with the following: No fence or boundary training can completely take the place of you- the puppy parent. This type of Any boundary training is good for dogs who don't have really high prey drives (or at least have worked extensively to proof this training in all environments), a solid recall and for puppy parents who are going to be outside with their dogs. Honestly, if your dog is outside off leash and not in a fence, you are breaking a leash law. An underground fence won't stop your dog like a physical one will.
Here's the link to the tutorial:
The great thing about this boundary training method is that is uses no force or pain, and rewards a dog for returning to you from the boundary-which is what most of us want!! It's super easy and helpful for all types of dogs and people. 

Ok, that's all for now. I'll try to not make a habit of this whole two weeks between posts thing...

Karen Pryor website
Excel-Erated Learning by Pamela J. Reid, PhD (if you want to understand behavior and training, this book is a fantastic resource. 
The Official Ahimsa Dog Training Manual by Grisha Stewart, pages 22-23