Friday, September 3, 2010

Are You Experienced? How human behavior affects dogs & what to ask dog trainers before you hire them

When a new client sends in a behavior history form or contacts me I feel like a fireman hoping for a “cat in the tree” type scenario. However many times people are getting in touch because the dog’s behavior has reached a point where it cannot be ignored. Its true people rarely call a dog trainer to brush up on some basics. More times than not it is a problem and there is stress involved. Many times I am contacted with a three alarm fire scenario raging in the form of fear, aggression or some type of behavioral scenario that has the family stressed out.

I realized a while ago that my main job for dog owners is to reduce stress. Of course I have to educate and demonstrate for people how to train. Moreover I have to implement a plan that will as soon as possible relieve the house or the dog walks of stress.

This is usually accomplished by having a management plan and reassuring clients that "it is perfectly ok to manage”, in the immortal words of my mentor Janis Bradley. Then a plan to train or modify dog behavior that will achieve results sooner rather than later has to be issued. That plan is based on the three D’s of dog training Distraction, Distance and Duration. As these come into play in all dog behavior scenarios.

Far too many people think that the ill mannered dog has too meet every one that comes to the home, or that they cannot crate train and gate train around kids or other dogs that may have an issue. Additionally many people sequester the dog when what the dog needs to be trained and socialized or engaged in the proper way so the dog learns appropriate responses to social situations.

Far too many people have so much disinformation about dog behavior and training that they are literally in a state of abstention about what to do. This leads to inaction which in many cases will cause unwanted behaviors to increase.
Or it leads to using methods that are iatrogenic, meaning they are making the problems worse by the approach they are taking.

Normalizing dog behavior for people is in many cases the exact thing they need to relieve stress. Once they have a legitimate understanding of why the dog is behaving the way it they can get some perspective and start to reduce the unwanted behavior.

The next step is getting some tools and training in the hands people that will give immediate results. The caveat here is that everyone has different mechanics and timing which are the hall marks of being a good or great dog trainer. However if you have a dog, your already using mechanics and timing to some degree, and once you learn how to improve mechanics and timing you’ll see an improvement in your dogs behavior.

Here are some basic things to consider.

* For the door dashing ill mannered greeting dogs that have jumping as their greeting card, get a gate or barrier up right away. Once you a have management plan to stop the unwanted behavior you will see an immediate decrease. Give your dog a work to eat toy to keep him busy in the crate or behind the gate while you deal with the visitors. If it is planned visit, make sure your dog is hungry, skip a meal and leave 3 – 4 hours of “hungry time” for your dog to be super motivated by the work to eat toy, put some super yummy food in there as well, this helps keep interest,. You’ll see your stress with visitors evaporate right before your eyes.

Then start setting up practice greetings with willing participants. The nano second the dog jumps have the people leave. Do this until the dog can keep 4 on the floor or sit for greetings. Instruct people to be relaxed and stand upright ignoring all jumping.

* For the dog that has aggression with other dogs in the home, get a gate or train your dog to like a crate. You cannot have the dog rehearsing aggression as it will only make matters worse. It may cause irreparable damage to the relationship between the dogs.

* Contact a board certified veterinary behaviorist. This may be the extra step you need. You always want to rule out medical causes and perhaps have the appropriate medication as part of the dog’s protocol.

If there are small kids in the home under the age of 16 you absolutely must consider their safety. When dogs are aggressive it is out of fear, and fear generalizes very well for dogs, kids under 16 do not have the capacity to assess risk.

Adults will want to set up 100% no fail management protocols for everyone when dealing with aggressive dogs. This will help to relive stress for dogs and people almost immediately. Use a visual barrier of needed, a blanket over a baby gate can be a great way to stop unwanted spats between dogs.
Remember aggression’s purpose is to create distance, so create distance for your dog by using gates, crates and visual barriers.
Once you have your management system set up, meaning you have discussed it with the family, the dog walker etc…you then need a proactive and humane approach to reducing the dogs fear and aggression.

This is done with counter conditioning the desensitizing the dog.
It sounds fancy but it’s not brain surgery, but I’ll tell you this; it is precarious and the devil is in the details. Too many slip ups and you can make it worse and the reduction time will be longer.

You don’t want setbacks of the dog rehearsing the fear or aggression.
Knowing what triggers the dogs fear and or aggression will greatly help you and the dog from being in situations where it is rehearsed.

The first step in behavior modification is an outright stoppage of the unwanted behavior or a dramatic decrease by humane means. This is done through management and awareness so it is not triggered and rehearsed.

It is highly advised that you seek out a humane non force dog trainer for all your dog training needs, especially when your dog has fear and aggression problems.

It is sad that we still have the antiquated notion floated by some “trainers” that all unwanted behavior is rooted in some form of the dog being intentionally bad or misbehaving to strive for a high rank. That is like blaming the rain you got wet. It is a ridiculous notion, cannot be proven, and it’s purely the work of misguided uneducated people culpable in the mistreatment of pet dogs by way of spouting unscientific mumbo jumbo.

You’ll get way more mileage out of jolly talk, and reassurance, or padding situations with high value food rewards than by scolding or causing the dog pain. Fear cannot be reinforced with food, but it can be made worse by using fear and force. Fear also generalizes well in dogs, so you may be creating a generalized fear of life for the dog.

Think of it like this, if you are afraid and a friend comforts you and creates distance from the fearful thing/situation you will feel better. Now imagine of you were yelled at and hit while you are afraid. Get the idea?

* For the dog with no behavioral emergencies such as fear, aggression, or anxiety it all boils down to the humans in their life being proactive with a legitimate approach to create a well mannered and attentive dog.

If there was a quick fix or some magic way of having dogs attain 100% perfect behavior all the time every time, it would have been found out by now. It does not exist. Behavior is contextual and humans just have to deal with that, like they deal with gravity or taxes, its part of life, so get used to dealing with the fact human behavior has to change.

Despite the claims of half wits and hacks, there is nothing that replaces kind consistency and leg work to build; yes build a sound and reliable dog. As Jean Donaldson calls it in her book “Oh Behave”, it boils down to owner imprint.

Just what are we humans imprinting on our dogs or dogs in general with our behavior? Human behavior has the largest effect on dog behavior.
Even a onetime meeting with a dog leaves that dog with an impression.

Pam Reid PhD says “learning for dogs is a change in behavior based on experience”. What types of experiences are we subjecting our dogs too, hence what are WE teaching dogs? Dogs are learning all the time, taking in thousands of bits of information mostly through scent. So humans would do much better by looking at their behavior first, and then proceeding with training that is kind and consistent.

Changing human behavior is the hardest part of my work as a pet dog trainer. In most cases I can usually get a dogs behavior to change relatively fast, sometimes right away if it something simple, like say the dog needs to disengage from something that it’s looking at or the dog needs to relax and chew while I speak with the client.

Once I know the issues based on a lengthy behavior history form we have people fill out, it’s either kind consistency or some form of management or teaching the dog a DRI, a Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible behavior.

This fancy term DRI means teaching the dog an alternate response/behavior to the one they have been doing that you’d like decreased.

- A barking dog cannot bark with a bone in his mouth, or a cream cheese filled Kong.
- A dog that has a rock solid sit or down stay is less likely to jump for greetings.
- A dog that sits and waits at all doors is less likely to door dash.
- A reactive dog that has the appropriate distance (management) and learns to “leave it” or simply gets a high value food reward for not reacting will take the food and focus on the handler more times than not.
- A dog going for an illegal object like a shoe, will stop if you’ve practiced the “leave it” cue and have you good timing in your rewards and consequences.

All of these interactions require the human to change their behavior. This behavior change in the human also reduces the human and the dogs stress.
Even learning to reassure your dog, that “it’s ok” in time when they are frustrated has a calming effect on the human and the dog.

When dogs alert bark around the home or even on a walk, and the human addresses it with “its ok buddy”, the dog will get out one or two barks and then stop. You can reward or redirect the dog at that point.

Time and time again I hear “You are really training us humans”. Or “Wow once we stopped yelling, hitting, jerking etc…it became less stressful and the dog’s behavior improved”.

In the end the goal of pet dog training is to create bonds not binds.

There are some important things dog owners need to ask when considering hiring a dog trainer or joining a class.

1 - What Methodology do you use? What exactly are they going to do to train the dog and educate you? If it is all choke chains, throwing mesh bags of chains and yelling, or dog forbid shock collars, or teaching you to be a “pack leader”, or asserting your dominance, run away and don’t go back. Your already in charge, what you need are practical approaches to reduce unwanted dog behavior. If you need an overhaul of your personality or some confidence building, seek out people with legit qualifications to work on your behavioral issues. That is not the job of a dog trainer, if it can happen through the process, great. But it’s not taught in any dog training school I know of.

If the dog trainer does not explain it in a scientific or verifiable way, by saying they use classical and operant conditioning in humane ways, that is the key here, in humane ways, then stay away.

2 - Do you offer after session support in the form of written reports, email support, class homework and phone consults? If they say no, again question the level of commitment this dog trainer has to you and your dog. No one gets all the information in a one hour or two hour training session.
Responsible dog trainers will have some type of written back up for their clients so that they have a plan to reference so the dog and the client have a better chance at success.

3 - How comprehensive is your service? Many dog trainers will only work with the basics, but can they effectively address the issues under the surface of the problem? For instance, the jumping to greet dog that has a sit stay without distractions needs to be worked at a level the dog will succeed. Far too many people have come to me after seeing two or three “trainers” and the dog is worse or the same. This is because far too many dog “trainers” are one or two trick ponies and have no real education in how to decrease unwanted behaviors and increase behaviors dog owners like. Understanding what is causing the dog to behave in the context is a great asset in setting up a training plan, without it you might as well be blind folded. So if a “trainer” tells you your dog is dominating you or trying to take over or spiteful or jealous, say Thanks you and move on.

Essentially these hack “trainers” are not equipped to educate, instruct and then issue a well written training plan for the family to follow. This leaves people feeling ripped off and more stressed out.

It’s not all fear and pain based dog “trainers” that are letting people down. Sadly I’ve heard of positive pet dog trainers also ill equipped to handle basic issues let alone serious fear and aggression cases.

The main thing for me is to set people up for success by reducing stress. Then educate fully and completely by answering and addressing all questions with verifiable information. Once that has been accomplished in the initial session I deliver written training plans and include email support.

Credentials mean little as quite a few dog training “schools” are little more than camps that do not teach any real legitimate behavior knowledge or skills to their students. There are a few I do recommend.

The now defunct SFSPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, check the alum referral list for trainers in your area.
Karen Pryor’s Academy.
Pat Miller’s Behavior Modification Academy.

The dog trainers from these schools will have a much better understanding than most, and they will not hurt or scare your dog to “train” them. This is what you are looking for.

No matter how great the dog trainer is and how well detailed the training plan is success is based on client compliance.

In the end YOU have to train your dog, no matter how great a dog trainer is they do not live with your dog. It is about how well they can educate you and support you with written materials and how well they instruct you in live sessions.

You have to do the work between sessions and well, for the life of your dog.

I do not recommend you send your dog away to a boot camp. You need to be there when your dog is being trained so you learn how to train. Plus dogs are great discriminators and they may discriminate the training to the facility or to that particular trainer.

The goal is to keep the dog in the house when appropriate, (more on that later in another blog) with as little wear and tear on the family dynamic as possible. Dogs can be a joy to live with, and when they have issues serious, silly or somewhere in between people need humane practical ways to address dog behavior that will achieve results sooner rather than later, that means client compliance to the training plan which translates to a change in human behavior and dog behavior.

This way that joy of living with and caring for a dog stays in place and the bond becomes even stronger, because you’re helping your dog legitimately without creating more problems.

SFSPCA Academy Referal list

Pat Miller

Karen Pryor Academy