Monday, August 25, 2014

Calm Submissive State, My A%#.

My blood pressure has been rising almost exponentially lately whenever I hear about other trainers who look down on or dismiss the effectiveness of reward based training. These trainers are always spouting someone else's mantra about your dog needing to be in a "calm, submissive state". They are even right here-gasp-in my hometown. They are claiming that there is a limit to what you can do with reward based training or that after a certain age, you simply need to switch to using compulsion-based methods to get results.

I'm calling shenanigans.

Think about it in human terms, if it helps. If you are relaxed, laying on the couch reading a book, that's a "calm state" right? If someone bursts through your front door and begins to threaten you and your family, you'll switch to being in (some degree of) a frightened or submissive state. Are you still as relaxed as you were when you were relaxing on the couch reading your book?
 My point is that it is physiologically impossible to be both calm and submissive at the same time. This is true across species. When you are calm, your heart rate is at a normal, low rate and your respiration rate is even and relatively low. Muscles are relaxed and your body posture will reflect that. On the other hand, when you are feeling submissive your body will reflect that you are unsure and on edge. Your heart rate and respiration rate will be (even slightly) elevated. Say you are in this unsure, submissive state and you are then given a random, unrelated written exam or multiple choice Japanese (it's a notoriously difficult language to learn). How well are you going to do? Will you be able to focus and learn new things while in this environment? Will you retain it? Will you want to learn more from this person?
A dog who is calm is comfortable, relaxed, serene, tranquil and safe.
A dog who is submissive is unsure, anxious, meek and passive.
The two cannot exist together in the same animal at the same time.

Quick history lesson:
Compulsion based methods have been used widely since the first days of dog training in the early 1900's (military dogs during WWI) and back then, we honestly didn't know any better. Things like alpha rolls, scruff shakes, choking, etc were originally used because it was a fast effective way to get a dog's attention and slow them down to give the human the advantage.
Unfortunately, these are still fast, effective ways to get most dogs to stop demonstrating any given behavior. They are not resolutions to behavioral problems, and the dog does not suddenly respect the trainer/handler who is using these methods. The dog is likely shutting down because they are mentally overwhelmed and literally cannot respond any more (we call this "flooding")and has stopped fighting back because they feel their survival is at risk (this may or may not be rational). The dog is learning to distrust that person. Over time, dogs stop doing just about anything (even new behaviors) that may get them in trouble. This is called "learned helplessness"; the dog has learned that they can have no impact on their environment so they stop trying.
Back when dogs were first trained to do work and these methods were implemented, it was believed that any dog who did not respond well to training was simply not capable of being trained.
Using these methods, training cannot start until the dog is over 6 months of age. Ever wonder why? First of all, the physical force could do serious damage to young puppies, that's pretty obvious. The other thing is that this is after dogs have grown out of their Fear Imprint period in development and they have an understanding of what things are good and what things are bad in life.
Sure, go ahead and slap a prong collar on him- that won't be at all confusing.

What I'm trying to explain is that these 'trainers' who go on about a "calm, submissive" dog are so full of it I'm waiting for them to explode. The terms are made up. Their methods are antiquated at best and abusive at worst. Most of them don't even have an actual education beyond attending a few seminars on these methods. They have no real knowledge of Behavior, Cognition, Development or Learning Theory and they wield tools meant to cause harm.

You know why positive based training methods started being used and how clicker training developed? Marine mammals- you can't really punish a whale or a dolphin. They swim away and don't want to interact with you if you are a big jerkface. We had to come up with a way to motivate them to want to hang around and interact. Yeah, yeah that initially involves food rewards. Big deal. We ALL like rewards and food is something we can provide easily to animals when we train. Then we fade it out. Check out my post on bribery here to learn a little more about proper use of food in training.  What's wrong with that?! I'm not saying your dog gets 3 Big Macs every day, his own meals can be the reward if you're worried about weight gain. Food is a different topic entirely anyway, so I'll stop with that here.

I was recently watching a video another trainer in my area has on their website of a "before and after" of a dog who is trained using a prong collar. The "before" is a brief moment of the dog on camera reacting to another dog. The "before" dog is a dog who is excited, pulling on leash, jumping and doing a bit of barking. The tail is up a little higher than it would be for normal friendly play, and she appears to be switching between a play bow and a prey bow, so I would agree that there is some degree of over-stimulation at play and potential for trouble. The dog is not displaying outright aggression and appears to have a generally loose body (no tension, no crouching) which indicates that aggression is likely not going to be her first response. This does not mean that it is out of the realm of possibility, given her arousal level, so I would agree that this dog does need help coping with the stimulus. The "after" is after the trainer and owner have worked a few times with the prong collar on the dog so the dog understands the pressure placed on her by the collar. The dog after the prong collar training could be a different dog, and I don't mean that in a good way. She is nervous, anxious and unsure about everything. Her tail is low and almost tucked, she is completely avoiding eye contact with the other dog and is panting in an environment where the people are wearing pants and jackets. She is stressed out.
But she's submissive as she can be.
You know what she's not?
She's not "calm, submissive" because that DOESN'T EXIST.

Would you be calm if you had this around your neck?

With reward based training, I'm not going to try to change your dog's state or your state- I'm going to give you both tools to communicate and cope with challenges you will face in life together. With reward based training, the goal is to strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Pain and force are not the way to strengthen any relationship, and neither is bribery; which is why I don't use either. It's also why any trainer with an education in canine behavior, cognition and learning won't use them if they want results without dangerous side effects. I also don't just teach cute tricks to dogs using food rewards. I teach owners to communicate effectively with their dog; how to read their dog's body language so they understand their dog. I teach basic commands to help build a bond and use fun games to ensure both canine and human are having fun and thinking. You can have fun and still learn at the same time, you know. Ask a first grader about school this week. Do they have any fun during the day? Do they learn anything? Odds are, if they get to do both they are looking forward to the rest of the school year and the rest of their education in school. Why not set up a similar learning environment for your dog?

Excel-Erated Learning by Pamela Reid, PhD (Flooding- pgs 115-116; Learned Helplessness pages 98-99)
Canine Body Language; A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor (chapter on Fear, pages 115-132) (article on first recorded use of Military dogs in WWI)
Animal Behavior College Dog Trainer's Curriculum (Use of Military Dogs: pages 4-6)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Book Review: It Doesn't Matter, Just Scroll to the Bottom for the Name and Buy This Book

I've been slacking lately. Actually, I have been working on a couple of posts that involve a bunch of research and I have been working with actual clients a bunch lately. So maybe "busy with other things" could be subbed for "slacking".
Anyway, I figured that a book review would be a relatively quick, informative post and I have read tons of books so at least that part is done already!

The first book I'm choosing is one of my favorites (I'll say that a lot, but I REALLY mean it this time). I have read it cover to cover like a novel a few times and I recommend it to clients constantly.
The book is called Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff.
The title kind of takes all the mystery out of it, but I'll do a brief discussion just for fun. The book is all about canine body language, and interpreting the emotional state of a dog. Now, there are those who frown upon us trying to determine a canine's emotional state, because that's attributing human traits to a non-human animal, etc... but I believe that dogs are just as capable of us as feeling scared, happy, sad, stressed, angry, frustrated, and everything else we feel. You can disagree with me all you want, but after living and working with different animals my entire life I'm absolutely convinced that I've seen it. I'm going to list all the main topics covered by the book, followed by an example or two from each chapter.

Canine Body Language starts out with a review of determining a dog's emotional state. The first section reviews relaxed/neutral, confidence, curiosity, rolling, companionship, stress signals, fear indicators, caution, anxiety, avoidance, and smiles. Let's talk about an easy one to start with. 
A 'relaxed, neutral' dog can look like, on different dogs and in different situations. In general, a 'relaxed, neutral' dog has no body tension anywhere, has a semi-open mouth, and is blinking normally.

The thing is, this (and everything) can look different on different dogs in different situations. Everybody thinks that a dog with a wagging tail is happy, and that is sometimes true. Check out my post on tails here from a few months ago. Dogs use their entire body to communicate, so to understand them we need to look at all of it. This includes, but is not limited to:
-Stance/Body Orientation
-Overall tension (or lack thereof) in the body

To get an understanding of what a dog is (likely) feeling, you need to look at all of these, and the book gives great examples of pretty much everything. That's why it's almost 400 pages long.

I also want to point out confidence. PLEASE, PLEASE, do not confuse confidence with dominance. They are not the same at all. There can be elements of confidence in an aggressive dog, or a dog who is trying to control a situation (rightly or wrongly); and there can be confidence in a dog who is performing fantastically on an agility course. Confidence usually involves the body being forward to a degree but not too far, and of course you have to look at the rest of the body (seeing a trend here?).
Section two discusses Calming and Negotiation signals. Blinking, look away, tongue flick, sniffing, shake off, stretching, yawning, paw lifts, and puppy licking. A dog who is yawning is not bored with you (probably). A dog who is yawning is a bit stressed by something in the environment. That something may be a camera taking a picture of them, or another dog who is being pretty threatening.

Section three delves into more of the neutral and friendly indicators and signals. Butt sniffing, inguinal sniffing, friendly, greetings, the "I love you" stretch, pass by and look away. The pass by is actually a good, normal way to gauge how two dogs will like each other. I call it 'going for a walk', and it involves at least two people and two dogs. The dogs are kept on leash and walked past each other, like two ships passing in the night. The third person can be useful to look at both dogs at the same time so their handlers can focus on walking. If both dogs remain relaxed during a pass by, it may be safe to try a walk together. If one or both dogs exhibit predatory or over-stimulated behaviors, that's probably not the best idea (at least not yet).

Section four highlights responses to invaded space, including aggression, alerting, targeting, corrections, warning, and guarding. Targeting is a great example from this chapter. My Roxie demonstrates this perfectly when she sees a cat, squirrel or another dog. She leans forward, lifts a paw, has a high, stiff tail, forward ears, and is very still. It's actually the beginning of a stalking behavior and recognizing it as such can be a great way for pet parents to prevent a bad situation form happening or pick out your dog's favorite toy from the floor.

Section five reviews predatory behaviors, like excitement, prey bow, stalking, and chasing. The prey bow is often confused with the play bow, and this is where a lot of dogs (and their people) get into trouble. A prey bow indicates to dogs that the 'game is afoot' and there will now be motion. There is tension in the body (noticeably absent in play bow), the body is oriented backwards but in preparation to spring forward, head and tail are up (tail is down during play bow), and the mouth is generally closed (mouth is open during a play bow)

Section six is more lighthearted and is all about play! Normal play between dogs, play biting, play bows, role changes during play, prey-predator switches in play, conflict and taking breaks, and play that is turning into something else. People ask me all the time what normal play looks like between dogs. I tell them that taking breaks, taking turns and nobody picking on someone constantly are normal and that depending on the individuals playing, it may look a little rough. Reading through this book is a great way to have an idea of what's normal.

Once you get through the book, you can take the quiz in section seven and give yourself a pat on the back for doing so well on it! If you don't, you can always read it again.

I'll say it again, I love this book. I recommend it to everyone with an aggressive dog, or an anxious dog, or anyone who takes their dog to the dog park. I recently ran into someone who refers to it as the 'dog Bible'. I kind of agree. If I could send one to everyone for the holidays, I would do that instead of a holiday card.

If you really like it, here's a few links to buy it to save you the Google search :)

Directly from the author's website:

What's your favorite dog book?