Sunday, July 23, 2017

Click and Treat, But Why?

I use clicker training with the majority of my clients, or at least with their dogs- people look at me funny when I start clicking and giving out M&M’s. I love clicker training, there’s no hiding it so I won’t even try. It fits perfectly in my force-free philosophy and makes training fun and fast for everyone. There are a few exceptions to this- homes with multiple small children can mean the parents have to be extra careful and put more work into hiding the fun little noisemaker and folks who have slower reaction time due to age, physical handicap, or disease. In those cases, we tend to use a verbal reward marker, like “YES!” Let me take a step back and explain all about the clicker. The clicker utilizes the principles of classical conditioning, which is based on the work of Ivan Pavlov. Like so many scientific discoveries, Pavlov stumbled upon Classical Conditioning (CC) by accident. The Russian physiologist was studying canine salivation rates in response to meals back in the 1890’s when he realized that the dogs began to salivate when he (the person feeding them) would enter the room. He put together that some things are innate for animals- drooling is something that a dog naturally does when food is around, so that response does not need to be trained. We call these responses Unconditioned Responses (UR) and they are generally paired with an Unconditioned Stimulus (US). US are things that trigger an innate response; food makes hungry dogs drool because their body begins producing saliva to aid in chewing and digestion- dogs don’t need to learn to do that. What Pavlov accidentally did was to pair the UR with something new, something without meaning- a Neutral Stimulus (NS). Next, the can opener that he used to open the canned dog food was paired with the food enough times that the dogs began to have the same response to the can opener as the actual food. He took this farther and tried pairing the salivation with another NS- a bell. He wound up with dogs who would drool at the sound of a bell ringing. That is exactly what we do with the clicker- it starts out as this noisemaker that means nothing, but quickly becomes an indication that the dog will get a treat for doing what we want- a reward marker. Do you know why clicker training became so popular with marine and other large mammals? Because it allowed people to train and work with them without punishment. There a few problems with using coercive techniques with animals who weigh tons more than people- the people can get hurt and if uninterested, the whale simply swims away or the elephant stomps on the human who keeps hurting him. Clicker training is used with dogs, horses, chickens, and a world of animals in zoos. It allows us to work with them safely and build a healthy, strong relationship with the animal and a tool to effectively communicate.

You have questions, I know. I have the answers:

Do I always need a clicker?
Of course not, you also don’t need a pouch full of jerky, either. These are only needed for initially training a behavior or cue. Once fluent in the words we teach, you will begin to fade out the use of treats and the clicker. We then use real life rewards- toys, free play, tug, belly rubs- whatever the dog loves.

My dog doesn’t need more food, he’s already overweight.
That's fine. You can use part of your dog’s daily food as rewards during training most of the time and if you need to use more tasty treats, you can simply cut back on their regular food. Also, you won’t always need treats, over time your dog will do what you ask for petting, praise, toys, tug, fetch- whatever he likes. Lastly, we use really, really small pieces of treat in training- my rule of thumb is that the treat should be no bigger than a pea.

Does this really work?
Yes. Do you go to the door when you hear the doorbell? Do you answer your phone when it rings? Those are both examples of things that were at one point in your life, neutral stimuli but were given a new meaning; that’s all we are doing with clicker training. If you need further proof of how it works in people, check out this article on TAGTeach, which is essentially clicker training used in people, especially for young athletes to perfect form and to help those with certain developmental challenges.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Your Dog On Drugs

It's almost time for the loudest holiday in many cities- July 4th. Fireworks, firecrackers, sparklers and lots of bright lights in the evening. While many of us get to enjoy the festivities, this night can be a harrowing one for dogs who have aversions to noise. How do you cope? Well, you start by working on desensitizing way before July 2nd. You may feel your dog needs medication and you may be right, but that can be where the real frustration starts.

It seems as though we are a society more and more dependent on pharmaceutical intervention. This is a great thing much of the time- people are living longer, better lives, and doing more with illnesses that would have limited them severely in the past. The same is true for our dogs- since dogs are similar metabolically to humans in some ways, your veterinarian can prescribe similar medication (or the same at a different dose) to help with a variety of disorders and diseases. Antibiotics, anti-fungal, insulin, thyroid medication, even anti-anxiety medications can be commonly prescribed. The world of canine medication has advanced significantly and our dogs are (usually) living better lives because of it.
I want to say this: I am not inherently against medication at all. What I am cautious of is over-prescribing and inappropriately prescribed medications. I am not a veterinarian and have no legal right to prescribe or recommend medications for any dog. That is a discussion to have with your veterinarian. If your veterinarian is unsure about behavioral medications, they should get in touch with a veterinary behaviorist. Many veterinary behaviorists across the country will consult with your local veterinarian for free or for a low fee to help out if your area is under-served in that specialty. Let me be clear- medication can work wonders for dogs, but it has to be the correct medication for your dog, so ask your vet and seek out a veterinary behaviorist if necessary.

Generally, I see problems in dogs who are put on a medication that is essentially a tranquilizer to aid in anxiety. Let's look at Acepromazine, which is regularly used pre-surgery in cats and dogs and likely too often used in an effort to reduce anxiety in them. This medication has been around since the 1950's and works by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is responsible for perceiving pain, pleasure, aiding in motor function and digestion. The patient's blood pressure, heart rate and temperature are all decreased on this medication. This is acceptable in surgery, since all those will be monitored the whole time anyway. The problem comes when the medication is used in an anxious dog because it tends to be the opposite of helpful. I will explain why in human terms.
You are out at a bar with a friend. Your friend goes outside to take a phone call and warns you it will take more than a few minutes, which you are kind of ok with- you don't really like being alone in this poorly lit place, but you figure you can handle a few minutes. As you sip your drink, you realize that you aren't able to move as well as you should be, your motor skills are not where they should be. Either your drink is really strong or someone has put something in your drink. You look around for your friend but suddenly the lighting seems worse and you can't see much. You try to get up and stumble off the barstool...
That is what it's like for (many) dogs on acepromazine. Imagine if you are a person who already has a very high level of stress associated with a bar and this happened to you. Would you feel better not being able to respond to what you perceive as threatening, realizing you physically cannot do what you want? It actually makes anxiety worse, but the symptoms are masked by the medication so to the untrained eye the dog looks "fine". In surgery, the drug is given IV and the dose is relatively low since it is only needed short term and the muscle relaxation is useful in that context. After all, nobody wants a twitching leg in the middle of an ACL repair! Now, acepromazine is just one example; there is a world of drugs out there and new ones are developed regularly. What I want to stress is the importance of getting the right drug for your dog, monitored by you and your veterinarian. Most of the time, a simple sedative is not the right choice for anxiety or aggression and will likely make those behaviors worse. Remember that aggression or fear is a response on the dog's part to a perceived threat, however unjustified we may see that perceived threat. The right medication may take weeks to take effect and you will also need to do some behavioral modification training with a certified trainer fluent in reward based training (adding in the stress of a physical corrections, shock, pinch or prong collars does no good). In the best case scenarios, a dog is on a medication for a period of time, goes through training which includes desensitizing, counter-conditioning, and teaching more appropriate responses to triggers and is able to be weaned down to a low dose or no medication at all. (study questioning the ineffectiveness of acepromazine not long after it was introduced into human mental health) (use of operative and pre-operative drugs)