Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Honest To Dog

The single biggest issue with dogs no matter the topic is the language that is used to describe the dog’s “state of being”. Be it physical, or the emotional state, a human will attach a term, a phrase, or a feeling to the dog and the event. Often the two are conflated, such as the overly analyzed “hackles up equals aggression” hypothesis, which is actually sign of adrenaline, not “aggression”. Though a dog may raise its hackles prior to aggression or during aggression, it is not a determinant of aggression.

One observer deduces the dog has “fear” in play situations, where as another’s determinations are “the dogs are fine”, in dog play. What determines the actual behaviors in play are Meta signals; accurate history and how well humans shape the play into favorable results; are all more reliable than flooding the dogs with play stimulation then punishing or scolding to tamp down the play.  One observers “aggression” is another’s “frustration”.  Determinations of “aggression” are the dog’s bite history and some context.

The opinion biased deductions go on and on, until someone that has no overly biased views obtains an accurate history and observes the dog and then issues some quantifiable data to determine the dog’s “state” in the context the behavior is occurring. That is how it is done legitimately. The lucky people and dogs get this assessment; the unlucky dogs get lots of nebulous double speak.

Much of the interpretations have to do with the observer’s biases and knowledge base. Herein lie the problem with gathering info on dogs, anyone can say anything and many times the observers have a preconceived nebulous “understanding” of dogs based on the persons own self-aggrandized, self appointed “gifted with dogs” accolades. Or they are simply attaching the most popular phrase and the most ascribed terminology to dogs that are in similar “states” that they themselves are simply familiar with yet hardly understands the terminology.

Take the term “dominant”; it is not a behavior; it is a relationship parameter based largely on access to resources.  Yet “dominance” gets used for all manner of behaviors that the human cannot explain or condition the dog out of. It has become a panacea for anything that the dog displays that people do not want or like.

The hypothesis of dominance motivated aggression towards humans has been debunked by many people of extreme accreditation. The most thorough debunking of the dominance directed aggression towards humans has been by Tortora in 1983. His research postulated that the aggression towards humans was motivated by “escape and avoidance” and “not from a dominate subordinate” relationship, or competition related motivation.

It is interesting to note that it is the self appointed “specialists” that seem to cling to their false narratives the most. Even in the face of factual data and proven scientific findings that are accepted across the board in all the main scientific disciplines, as quantifiable evidence of said claims. The “I am gifted with dogs and have been so for X number of years” are by far the most steadfast in their fictional beliefs.

Let’s take the word discipline. This is often used as a blanket statement to defend or provide a reason for harsh treatment, usually it goes something like this, “the dog needs discipline, which is why we shock, choke, kick, hit, yell, threaten or coerce”. This is then supported by the word “structure”. Which means that the human will do these fear and pain based punishers as a matter of course for any behavior in any context that the human desires the dog to exhibit impulse control.

Remember that last sentence about “impulse control”. It’ll be handy later on.

These so called experts with a “gift” do this hash punishment in the name of discipline? Interesting perspective.

The definitions of discipline do indeed include the terms “punishment inflicted by way of corrections and training”.  In addition the definition also includes the terms “behavior in accord with the rules of conduct, maintained by control”.
The definitions includes “learning thorough adversity”, it does not use the words fear or pain, not once. It does not even allude to fear and pain, not one time. However pain and fear is what some people will read into the definitions of discipline. It is interesting to note that in legit non force behavior modification as well as in the animals view of the environment, control by way of corrections is also a major component, again no fear and pain are alluded to here. Humans control access to resources and dogs want to control the environment so they are receiving “safe and neutral signal form stimuli. Animals are looking to avoid pain and fear.

On the surface, this discussion over words and phrases, may seem innocuous, however, consider who is doling out the punishment and or maintaining the control. Do they even have rules or a training criterion? Is it just a nebulous directive for the dog to stat “calm” or “be submissive”?  Remember, “calm” and “submissive” are not behaviors, those are human constructs based on the humans biases and knowledge base. Many dogs that are labeled “calm & submissive” are also dogs that are lip licking, stress yawning, lowering their heads when people approach, looking alert at the horizon and not attending to scents on the ground, so the terminology may or not match up with the reality, again depends on the observers knowledge base and biases.

“Discipline” has many of its meanings derived from military contexts. If that is your thing then I suppose it is useful to frame your interactions with dogs around the construct of leader and subordinate. It fits nicely into the limited mind that lacks the ability to think past archaic ways when dogs were not as understood, behavior was not as understood as in todays modern world.

Indeed a human can obtain behavior from dogs by using fear and pain based approaches, no one is arguing that. Nerve endings are very real in dogs. They are connected to every inch of the surface of the dogs skin. They are real. They cause the dog to feel pain, thus develop a fear and thus the “trainer” hopefully achieves impulse control. That is the how fear and pain based conditioning works. Ironically punishment can be doled out without fear and pain. That we’ll see is where dogs learn about impulse control and not simply learn to “survive the event” by shutting down.

When stress is issued to dogs whether it is being subjected to fear and pain by way of humans implementing harsh methods, or simply the threat of it, even the environment that supplies stress, a shelter for example, the body and the brain will be affected. Those effects will cause cognitive, emotional and physical damage to the dog.

These devices are a constant reminder to the dog that at any second they might be issued a form of pain. The dogs that learn fast get the least amount of choke or shock, the dogs that do not for what ever reason “get it”, are repeatedly shocked or choked or what ever the fear and pain based punishment is. When they are riddled with fear and lash out they are euthanized or shocked into a catatonic state and then the pain “trainer” feels they have “succeeded”.

The problem is that actual fear and pain or even a perceived threat is stressful. Stress will cause all manner of internal problems for dogs and humans.

Remember I mentioned impulse control and how that is what the pain trainer is fast tracking towards? Here are some experts in the field of behavior and biology that actually know what they are doing when it comes to stress related fallouts in animals.

Dr. Bruce McEwen has discovered in his research that chronic acute stress will cause the brain to “loose the ability to remember things”. He goes on to state that chronic stress will “change brain circuitry” and in essence “stress makes you stupid” as he puts it.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University studied the stress in monkeys and found through brain scans, that chronic stress supplied daily by the environment from other monkeys caused the brain to atrophy and cause a smaller development of the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain responsible for long term memory, the excitation or inhibition of behavior and regulates the autonomic nervous system which deals with stress related bodily functions, heart rate, bold pressure etc…Now think about the dogs that deal with chronic stress from prong and shock collars or being flipped over or hit? Are they “calm & submissive” or perhaps they are simply shut down due to brain damage?
When an animal has chronic stress, regardless of where the stress is coming from, what occurs is the following: a lack of neuron receptor binding occurs due to brain shrinkage from stress and that means less dopamine and that equates to less happy dogs, more shut down dogs and thus the “calm and submissive” hypothesis derived from “discipline”, is largely a result from over loading the dogs with fear and pain - stress to a point of brain damage and causing learning disabilities.

It has also been recorded through FMRI scans that repeated stress will cause plaque to build up on the walls of the heart as well as cause lesions in the brain. Stress can lead to tumors on the internal organs and wreck immune systems.

Dr. Carol Shively also studied monkeys that had been subjected to chronic stress and discovered that the monkey’s that had the most stress also had severe build up of plaque on their arteries.

This results in the heart getting less blood. In essence this is how a heart attack and heart disease occur. The artery plaque build up, brought on by stress, she contends, “affects the whole immune system”.

These are not opinions of mine. As Dr. Shively states, “this is not an abstract concept”. These are verifiable and factual statements recorded in peer reviewed medical and scientific journals. This is not fiction.

Chronic fear and stress over time may produce lesions on an animals brain, thus they may either have an overly generalized sense of fear and aggression and lash out more and more, or shut down and freeze in a state of learned helplessness.

It has been verified that stress actually shrinks the brain and impedes its ability to learn information, and learn new information specifically. It has been verified that stress can cause heart disease and heart failure. Perhaps these will sway some people from using fear and pain based methods that cause undue stress?

There are some other interesting cognitive functions at play for dogs when they are learning and formulating associations about their environments.

The amygdala, which is a regulator of fear, is also responsible for memory. Seeing as the amygdala is primarily processing generalized and non-specific fears, it would behoove the dog handler and trainer to build a sound amygdaloidal structure as not to atrophy that area or cause lesions. One possible explanation for a dog that has seeming no ability to regulate fear is that they have amygdaloidal damage.

The hippocampus has a number of major functions in relation to stress regulation. One aspect to consider is that the hippocampus is a memory indexer.  The hippocampus is also where long-term memory, specific memory and context is stored.

When the hippocampus has been damaged, the dog has trouble processing memories, long term memories to be specific, it may only be able to process the ones that signal to shut down or mainly trigger aggressive displays, or anxiety displays or frustration displays. The hippocampus may not be able to regulate the cortisol needed for impulse control.

When positive reward based training and kind consequences are the approach to training and behavior issues, the opposite occurs, and the dog learns new information by way of new sequences taught not forced or coerced, and dogs brains actually expand and gain more neurological plasticity.

Sadly, the uneducated “trainer” blames the dog for being “dominant”, or “stubborn” or blames the breeder for “genes”, or they make up some fiction about “leadership” and “energy”. No matter the excuse, the real help is not being doled out and that is the tragedy.  This gap in the education of dog professionals is largely due to a massive problem in education for dog training professionals, and specifically veterinarians.

Once this is widely known, or even if there is no knowledge of these potential damaging occurrences in brain function and formation, and the risk of heart disease, from fear and pain, why would anyone risk doing it?

The main reason these fear and pain based “trainers” are doing what they do is they are not educated properly, Vets are busy being Vets and they also are not being educated in behavior, and masses are not educated enough. It is a cascade of failures.

Many so called dog trainers are operating from a construct where ego and hubris are the main motivations for their “work” with dogs. Or it is a cultural hold over that has been handed down through myth and fabrications. Many professionals “think” they “know” based on their own “evaluations”, however some of these so-called “experts” lack even the most basic introductory knowledge of how behavior works and what the ethological implications of behavior are for dogs.

Remember environment has more of an influence than genes, and humans make up a large part of all environmental stimuli for dogs. Humans are the variable that matters most in the outcome. Just about all of every environment has humans attached in the stimulus package of the context.

For far too many “trainers”, it is akin to having a bricklayer perform open-heart surgery. Sure they have a steady hand and they want to do a good job, but they have no real knowledge, other than they have a heart and it has been working “fine for over “40 years”.  Many people are out here professing their skills with dogs and spouting their “knowledge” about dogs and causing dogs fear and pain under the guise of “discipline” and then walking away from it when it does not “work out” for them.  Then those dogs that are deemed “hard cases” are the ones where they make up even more nonsense to explain away their lack of actual ability to help the dog.

This fear and pain “methodology” disguised in the definitions of “discipline” or whatever the buzzword is this week are certainty not derived from any form of scientific inquiry or study. These euphemisms are smoke screens and act as subterfuges for people looking for real legitimate information on dogs and how to train or perform behavior modification.

I have never once read, watched or met any one that has used fear and pain based approaches with dogs that had a criterion and or a systematic and quantifiable procedure for using the shock or choke collar. Nope. They just do it when they are pissed, stressed, or have not actually paid any proper attention to the building antecedents in the context. Those are the signs that the dog is being influenced by something. These so called gifted with dogs types just implement fear and pain on the dog at will, when ever for what ever.

Here is what it is happening in most cases with people that use fear, pain and intimidation with dogs.

The human decides they want the dog to stop doing a set of behaviors. They do not take into account the context, distance or duration of the stimulus causing the dog to behave in the manner it is behaving in.

They forgo any observations of the antecedents and the mitigation of them by way of legitimate conditioning or management, i.e. training and handling of the dog to orchestrate distances amenable to reduce behaviors. Thus teaching the dog, not simply stopping the dog.

They wait for the dog to be flooded or met with the stimuli at a level that will cause the dog to exhibit behaviors they want decreased or eradicated, then at the moment of peak environmental stimulation they apply the aversive, fear and or pain based punisher. In essence they have the dog rehearsing two sets of responses they no one would want,
1 - the rehearsal of the behavior they want decreased and 2 - the emotional response of fear and the resulting associations.

Behavior that is rehearsed becomes stronger. Why rehearse unwanted behavior? Why cause a dog to feel fear or be flooded with a stimulus that causes the dog stress? Why risk a generalized negative association to the context, sloppy at best abuse at worst.

In essence pain trainers are many times simply flooding and punishing. Then hoping that the dog self regulates the event, they tout that they are training impulse control, and that they have a “gift” or “skills”. However reality dictates, due to spontaneous recovery, many dogs may have fear outside the context they were shocked or choked in.
These pain “trainers” hope the dog does not develop any residual fallout such as increased fear, increased aggression or any other anxiety phobias related to that context. However they don’t know which dogs will be better equipped to handle the harsh aversive approaches.
These pain trainers also do not have any idea what the stress related signal of dogs are, or do not care, as in may cases they tout how “calm” the dog is yet forgo detailing any signs of stress.

What they are doing is stopping the dog; not teaching the dog. What they do is flood the dog with glucocorticoids and cross fingers. Extremely sloppy “training” at best, at worst it is torturous abuse founded on fictional notions.

Bio Speed Limits
Dogs make three determinations when met with a change in their environment, safe, unsafe or neutral. Remember dogs generalize fear very well. It is why they all make such great watchdogs and we love them for their alert sensibility. This determination of safe, unsafe or neutral is done by way of the amygdala for general fears and by the hippocampus for context, facts and events. It is why a healthy dog will bark when you come home, and be fearful when they cannot see you yet, then once they realize the human is their friendly companion they wag their tail and become happy.

The vast majority of the changes that dogs determine as “unsafe” are actually safe.  The way a human conditions the dog by way of “discipline” i.e. fear & pain based approaches, ends up confirming to the dog that indeed that stimulus does predict fear and pain issued from the handler of the dog. The dog may or may not associate it to the handler, after all that generalization of fear is often a very slippery. The non-specific slope of anxiety and stress for the dog that has been human delivered by way of threats or violence just may be associated to people in general. There are many variables when modifying behavior.

Let’s consider this. What if the stimuli that the dog was startled by or perhaps was interested in checking out were a dog or person or for that matter a cat the dog wanted to chase?

All of the people I work with want their dogs to like other dogs, and people, and cats or at the very least tolerate them and not have major issues. The predictive value of these forms of stimuli should be safe and or at the very least in terms of cats; shaped into a sequence that teaches the dog impulse control by way of learning based on natural stalking behavior, not simply shutting the dog down and inducing stress.

If the dog that is barking today at other dogs is given too much and even one time is “too much” fear and pain based “training”, or  “discipline”, tomorrow that same dog could wind up being fearful of dogs, or humans, or if that cat they wanted to chase is the cause for the them being challenging, and they get shocked or choked or issued some form of harsh punishment, they may not want to chase cats but they also may have some stress related illness when that “discipline” is being issued over & over to get that “calm” dog.

The dog may also develop a general fear of being on leash or in the back yard if they are shocked for cat chasing. It happens. Indeed you may just end up causing a lesion on a dog’s brain because the shock was one too many, and that is how they are “trained” into being calm and submissive, by shrinking their brains ability to properly process stimuli.

If that is what you call “training” and if that is what you call “love” then you are operating on a whole different level of human consciousness, and it’s one I am not remotely interested I partaking in other than making people aware of what is actually occurring.

My mind, and the minds of many other legitimate dog trainers and behaviorists move forward and upward, and when we do need to operate at bio speed, at the level of the animals and act as an intermediary to teach dogs, we remember one simple thing all animals are wired to process information as safe, unsafe and neutral. That is how bonds are truly built by truly understanding the behavior of the being you are connected to.

Give dogs some credit
Animals are keenly aware we are bipeds and we have thumbs, and that gives us access to reinforcements that they would other wise not have or have to work very hard to obtain. In the case of negative reinforcements, the removal of access, the creating of distance, animals are also aware we will make those choices for them.

In essence humans have all the power and to abuse the dog based on a false notion that they are trying to “disobey on purpose” is ridiculous. It is a fabrication constructed for the insecure and the intellectually weak minded.

Dogs do not have the same amount of serial memory as humans, so they are not capable of stubbornness and spitefulness, or any other construct that humans have for competition. Dogs are keenly aware of what is reinforcing and what is punishing or what is fearful, to them, based on their innate knowledge of survival. Humans mainly influence dogs as we make most of, if not all of their choices or choices that influence their choices. This is known as imprinting. Humans, all humans cast some form of an imprint on the dog.

Dogs have long-term memory, it occurs mainly in the hippocampus. Long-term memory is the by-product of conditioning. This is a fact. This is why dogs learn to go to the back door and scratch for a potty break, or get the leash, even if you never “trained ” it. This long term memory encoding is not fiction, and when part of the brain is conditioned with positive reinforcement and safe punishments, or kind consequences, and not filled with lesions and fear related memories that are causing the dog to have an overly generalized sense of fear, the dog becomes well trained and stays sound. That is far better than fearful, shut down and or aggressive.

The dog that is conditioned to feel safe more so than not safe, over time that dog does truly better, not because they are not responding due to fear; but because they are responding in a manner that has been conditioned by the human so the dog learns and feels better or even elated about the event, then and only then are dogs are actually communicating with us, not shutting down due to the threat of fear and pain. Using fear and pain or the treat of it is not communication; that is coercion and servitude, not cooperation.

When you use shock and choke and use harsh physical violence on dogs you are on a slippery slope that will lead the dog down a dark road of misery in either their emotional or physical states, probably both, as they are related and cannot be disconnected.

These nebulous phrases such as “calm and submissive” or “aggressive and dominant” are not assessments of contexts and the resulting behaviors that occur when stimuli has been introduced to the dog. These phrases are human constructs that look to explain how humans feel many times, and the human many times is wrong or half right, usually they are not 100% accurate.

“Discipline” is not meant to be harmful or painful it is meant to be something that connotes corrections and learning in a consistent manner. The definition says nothing about choking, shocking, intimidation or threats. When people give dogs some credit and actually learn how to train without fear and pain, then and only then is the relationship based on cooperation and humans are helping dogs not merely having dogs.

An example of two perspectives

Fictional ObservationThe dog is aggressive around kids. He will bark and pull on leash, and not listen to any training cues. I am worried for my safety and fearful he will bite someone or me.

Fictional Assessment – This dog is dominating and aggressive and needs discipline. This will require the dog to be on a prong collar to start and if there is no change in the dogs temperament a shock collar will need to be used as stimulation to stop the behavior of barking and lunging. This will teach the dog to obey the hander.

Factual Observation – The dog is reacting by way of barking and pulling to investigate when kids in the age range of 5 – 12 are running and screaming at a distance of no less than 50 feet. The dog has met kids in this age range and done well as long as the dog is on a shortened leash no more than 1 foot in length,  and the kids are instructed not to act in an excited manner. The reactivity is mainly when the dog is on leash and the kids appear suddenly. When there is time to expose the kids to the dog, counter conditioning is easily achieved.

Factual Assessment – The dog’s history shows no bites over a three-year period with interaction between 100’s of people and dozens of dogs of all ages and sizes. Dog is now age 4 years. The dog is to be walked in areas where there will be no sudden appearances by running screaming kids. Walk dog in open areas for at least 14 days where sight lines and stimuli will be amenable to counter conditioning. There should be proactive conditioning sessions set up with known kids that appear suddenly at a distance of no less than 100 feet. No running and screaming in the first part of the conditioning.

There will be intermittent exposure of the child walking with an adult at 100 feet away.

The dog will be marked (clicked) with the word “YES” for simply orienting to the child and adult stimulus package, and then dog is issued a high value food reward. Any over threshold responses that include barking, pulling or sudden lunging will result in distance given and use of environmental blocking.

This is to be repeated until the dog is noticing the child and jumping the “YES” marker. This will create a one to one association, to kids appearing, and in time as long as the handler has been staying aware of the environment and managing the dog out of any scenarios that could potentially flood the dog with child stimuli, and have them reacting by way of barking and lunging etc…the dog should over time develop a conditioned emotional response to children, even running kids could predict a high value food reward.

Orchestrated interactions with known children under the supervision of their parents or guardians will also help the dog have better associations towards children.

The pain trainer may achieve a “dog looks at handler and not kids”, behavior, but they achieve it by way of the dog now having the kids predict the fear and pain administered by the choke or shock collar.
The dog will not like kids more so; the dog will like them less, as they predict fear and pain. In fact the dog may develop a negative association to kids or the general context that the dog and kids find themselves in.

Human Behavior is the focus.
No matter the level of expertise or self appointed skill sets with dogs, the human that employs a version of a positive non force approach will not be creating a dog that has a worse association of kid. Or for that matter, the humans that do not use fear and pain will not be causing a dog to have a more generalized sense of fear than they already come equipped with. When it comes to associations to humans, any humans, in any context, the goal should be a positive association for the dog.
In time with the proper guidance and the proper knowledge of dog and kid safety you can have a dog that was once startled by kids liking them and tolerating the kids that my be a bit more rambunctious, but the humans need to do the work and buy “all in” to the actual factual way that dogs learn and process information, other wise they are barking up the wrong tree.

I prefer the word dedicated, over the word discipline, as that word has no connotations of fear or pain associated with it. To be dedicated is to be fully involved in the process. That means obtaining the proper knowledge of dogs and also of behavior and how that is to be increased and decreased by way of legitimate, safe and scientific ways without fear and pain.

The words used and mindsets subscribed to by humans matter greatly when it comes to dogs. If the human has a preconceived notion that the dog is “out to get them” then all that the dog does that the human does not want the dog to do will be viewed as such, when in fact the dog is simply operating based on the imprint of the humans in the dogs life as well as many biological processes that are hardwired. These hardwired inclinations can be modulated and shaped. The sequences the humans can change, and they can change all of them they should, in order to teach not simply stop the dog.

ALL dogs know, and all dogs know about is reinforcement and consequences of either their actions, or to the stimuli in the environment. Period. When people start to ascribe other notions of the dogs “understanding” they are treading on the thin ice of fictional assessments and in some cases, downright lies or fabrications that are figments of cultural disinformation that has settled into the humans as “truth”.

As soon as the corporate hacks and cultural saboteurs are gagged and shut down perhaps we’ll see a resurgence in at the very least, common sense knowledge about dogs and in time we can get the legitimate information heard and understood over the din of misinformation and lies about dogs.

When reinforcement is issued for behaviors we want and like, the behaviors are increased and when kind consequences are issued to decrease behaviors, those behaviors are decreased, in some cases eradicated, and the dog shines. The dog has learned and is having fun learning.

The humans and the dog really start to understand their respective languages in a very profound way, not in a way that has them living in fear of another painful reprisal. The human can avoid having to “get mad” or use threats or devices to “control” dogs, they can simply communicate with the dog. Is that not the whole point?

Remember, dogs are the oldest living domesticated animal or plant, at least 2,000 years before agriculture. This is an undisputed fact. Dogs were domesticated before electricity and molded metal. Humans are the most reinforcing thing a dog has ever known, and dogs are the most loyal and trust worthy thing humans have known, so they work well intrinsically.

Indeed dogs do understand fear, pain and intimidation, and they also forgive and show massive amounts of deference. To me, it sounds like more humans should be acting like dogs in that regard. Then perhaps we’ll see dogs behaving in ways that are more to our liking and we’ll have a better understanding of their natural inclinations. This then allows humans to be flexible and not take things personally, as dogs are the only friends that humans have that do not have a moral agenda when dealing with us. Dogs are looking for safety and reinforcement, they are not, repeat not interested in gaining “rank” on humans.

When the proper understanding of dogs, from basic ethological and biological perspectives are used to view dog behavior, humans become a true teacher and spiritual guide to the dogs, not simply a master and keeper of beasts of burden as they were thought of so long ago.

Dogs are here for many reasons, and in the modern age, I believe they are here, and still intertwined with humans like no other animal has been, ever, is they here to teach the human race about empathy, about the giving of yourself to another that is truly helpless and innocent and what that responsibility entails. Dogs do not ever really “grow up” the only grow old and pass on. They are innocent all of their lives right to the end.

Dogs when allowed are able to be great teachers of basic and elaborate understanding of how behavior works and the subsequent sciences and math associated to behavior. Dogs are a true spiritual connection on earth that we are allowed to partake in truly for free and with our moral compass aligned as we see fit. 

Why or how could anyone hurt, scare or in any way bath that act in various forms of euphemisms is profoundly disturbing. It sounds like the thinking of sociopaths or severely under educated humans stuck on a Descartes nightmare.

Dogs deserve better as they have given humans their very lives for us to prosper and survive on earth. It is about time a whole lot of people stopped faking it and get real. Remember dogs are the conduits of the truth and you can’t mess with for too long before being found out.

All one has to do in order to do right by dogs is be honest just like a dog would.


Q&A with Dr. McEwen

Interview with Dr. Shively

Stress: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Interviews with Dr. Sapolsky, Dr. McEwen and Dr. Shively.

The Hippocampus and Imagining the Future: Where Do We Stand?

Lindsay Vol1 Applied Dig Behavior and Training 2000


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The source of your dog’s problems may be the source

No matter the behavioral goal, if the humans are implementing protocols based on bad information that is not properly founded in safe reinforcements and safe consequences, most likely the dog will not have the reliable training that most people are working towards.

Last year, 2013 there were a number of cases that we worked that have illustrated this perfectly.

In one instance a vet tech and a vet both described a puppy’s unwillingness to be restrained as “something deeply wrong inside this puppy” and that the people should “seek help right away”.

This of course sent the poor women out the vet office door with fears and worries that were absolutely unwarranted. The fact that it came from a vet made it all the worse and all the more egregious.

When the dog was properly tested for handling issues and general stress the dog was 100% normal. Absolutely zero cause for concern. All self respecting puppies struggle when restrained add in a Veterinary exam context and it was all very normal. The real concern is why did the Vet and the tech not realize this and have the skills to finesse it?

How could this simple puppy frustration be over looked by someone as educated as a veterinarian? Simple, vets along with the rest of the population are walking around with many of the same misconceptions and lack of education as far as behavioral sciences and dog training are related, and they most likely, along with the vet techs, they have little ability to finesse a dog that is experiencing some stress, let alone a puppy. This is due to most people not having the mechanical skills with dogs they need to achieve results.

It seems many want to jump to conclusions, and diagnose the worst possible scenario without even the slightest inquiry to make the determination.

This one’s “aggressive”, this one’s “stubborn”, and this one is that, the echo camber of dis / misinformation keeps banging around dog culture in a very damaging way. Remember that terms such as aggression and stubborn etc…are human constructs that rely heavily on context to determine if those labels are accurate. Aggression is not a behavior, biting is a behavior. Barking is not always aggressive; it is a vocalization that may mean a myriad of things.

The damage is this; the dogs are not receiving the proper behavioral analysis nor are they then receiving the proper treatment or training so they can learn effectively what humans would prefer them do. The humans are confused and frustrated and now the relationship between the dog and humans is strained in some way. Humans far too often have a false view of the dog’s behavior and it’s root cause, and many times this view is based in a fictional adversarial narrative pitting dog & human against one another. Or they carry some fictional breed bias that was sold to them via the breeder or rescue. This breed is “this and that” and should “never do this or that”, which is all nonsense, and equally damaging.

Many people expect dogs to just “know” what humans want or what to do in hectic situations or in general situations that are made hectic by improper approaches to training and behavior modification.

This “dog should know” is based on myth, the Disney effect, the last dog they had, the last time the dog they have now did a similar behavior yesterday, last week or this breed is supposed to “fill in genetic breed bias that fits”; ex: This breed is great with families and will love to please and work for you”.  They all say that pretty much, don’t they?

These over generalizations about a breeds characteristics get people thinking the dog “should know” what to do, or the dog is naturally “stubborn” etc…What they need to know is one thing, how to finesse the dog in the context they are struggling in, so they achieve more desirable results. This takes learning about and understanding reinforcements and how dogs view the world, which is safe, unsafe or neutral.

Dogs like humans, have memory hindrances, and like humans they need reminders from time to time when things may be out of sorts. Dogs and humans are both distracted and not always attending to what will reduce the stress.

Humans have a sufficient amount of serial memory needed to make complicated long term thought processes coalesce into what we call “plans”.  Dogs do not have the same amount of serial memory as humans; they have some, enough to get by, though mostly dogs operate from semantic memory. They live in the moment and take their cues from momentary changes in the environment, known as antecedents. These antecedents are usually predicting some form of reinforcement and or consequence.

No matter the clients or the dog’s training and behavioral needs I always illustrate in as many ways as possible that dogs are poor at generalizing, (unless it’s fear) and dogs are great at discrimination, however they are distracted easily, by changes in the environment, and this is the aspect that people need to stay flexible with.

This ability to generalize fear easily has kept dogs alive for many millions of years, the fact that they are poor at generalizing has also kept them in the proverbial “dog house” basically because humans are not getting the proper information to teach the dog based on distractions, distances and duration of stimuli that has the dog excited, confused, stressed or fearful. Sadly, the educational options for simply teaching the dog a set of behaviors for daily interactions, walking on leash, playing in the back yard, riding in the car, waiting at doors etc…are all muddled in folk lore and pseudo science. Heck I have seen people suggest they literally choke a dog off their feet to simply ”sit”.

Sadly the meme and the myths still persists that dog’s are “ doing it to spite humans”, to gain “rank”, despite a plethora of validated and credentialed research, scientific evidence on how dogs learn and how people can best impact the dog’s ability to learn reliably, and most importantly feel good about the experiences they have while learning and or dealing with stress, sadly these memes of spite, jealously and “dominance” still persist and the are causing damage to the bonds humans forge with dogs.

Credit a TV celeb hack “trainer” and the popularity of a fictional show’s promulgation of the meme “dog’s want to gain rank” on humans.

Many people obtain a recommendation by their veterinarian about training or they get the info right from the vet.  Sadly veterinarians, and even some veterinary behaviorists are not all that accurate in behavior assessments, or all that educated about training and behavioral issues let alone have the actual mechanical skills and protocols to solve the behavior or training issues be it long or short term. They dole out lots of general “advice” or “tips”.

This makes understanding the proper info all the more difficult, as now the dog guardian has competing theories as to why and how things are the way they are with the dog. If the Vet says it, then it has to be true, they are vets after all. Not so.

Next I would have to say is the Internet, TV, media and what ever written material in the form of books or magazines people buy to learn about dogs and training. Again this leaves the dog guardian in a quandary when they have a number of differing view points from trainers or people calming they have solutions to behavior issues.

In addition, anyone can write a book or say what ever they want about dogs and no one is minding the store, no one. It is literally open season when it comes to speaking about dogs and making stuff up.

Third is the ever present and the most damaging, the “dog park education”, or the “shelter parking lot education”, and we can also add in the “Facebook education”. This is where people dole out “wisdom” and claim all sorts of things that “worked” for “this dog or that dog”. This is the equivalent to taking medical advice from some dude on the street that says he “cured” himself in some way.

Now I am not saying that there are no good avenues for learning about dogs and it is possible to obtain some valuable information from all of these sources that I listed, they are not a entirely bad way to get info and learn.

The trouble is this; people do not use their critical thinking and or think through their behavioral choices based on how the dog actually learns, with the underlying principal being this; how will the dog feel about it? What memories will be created? What is the cumulative result of the approaches being taken?

Here’s some ideas on how to better prepare yourself and educate yourself for a life with dogs.

1 – Understand the foundational aspects of the information you receive, i.e. the underpinning’s of the behavioral issues or the foundational aspects of learning theory that the “approach” is based in. This lack of understanding impedes the process and the dog can’t learn as efficiently as they would be able to had the humans been given the proper information as well as the proper guidance about the mechanical aspects of training dogs. When humans learn how to train and deal with behavior properly the dog can be taught properly. Proper is not using fear, pain, force or coercion to “break” dogs of certain behaviors. Dogs are sentient beings that do feel and have emotional components to their behavioral pathologies. They do catalog memories. There are fall outs to using force based “training”.

2 - Dogs first learn about their environments based on safety of the context, this is based on what the particular environment is offering, each passing second.  Then dogs process how to make the information they take in work for them to continue to be safe. This is regardless of where they are, or what a human is attempting to teach the dog. This is fact, proven through canine cognitive and behavioral sciences.

Dogs need to know first and for most that they have control over the environment in a safe way and that the predictive value of the events are signaling safety. The more the merrier in fact. When the environment does not predict safety or reinforcements of some kind the dog will either shut down or become aggressive, frustrated, anxious or a bit of all those, in an to attempt to control the events playing out.  Dogs are not behaving with moral imperative in an attempt to control the humans.

Once a dog feels safe and the context has been associated to positively, or at least the stress of the event has deceased, things go more smoothly. It is all about the human’s mechanics and timing of reinforcements, kind consequences and staying flexible with criteria.

A criterion is “what am I asking the dog to do in order to receive some form of reinforcement”?

EX – “Sit” and “wait” at the closed door for 2 seconds until I release the dog with the word ”OK”, then door opens.

An example of flexible criteria; the dog is really excited and a “sit” may not be possible, so a simple “wait” and  “ok” are issued, in order to get the least behavior possible to keep the training reliable. You can go back later and get a perfect “sit and wait” when the dog is not so flustered about the event. The important aspect is obtaining the consequence and the impulse control at a door, also for general life with dogs’ safety reasons it’s not about getting the “sit” perfect in this case.

The environment in training changes, sometime gradually sometimes suddenly, and so should the criteria of what we ask the dog to do in real world real life settings. Fluid contiguity with sequences and positive associations and sensitivity towards the dog’s feelings about the event go a long way in achieving reliable behavior and creating sound dogs across many contexts.

EX  - One dog responds well to a “leave it” cue, when they approach a counter with wet dog food on it set back three feet from the edge.

While the other dog needs to be “timed out” repeatedly over a 5-minute trial for 30 seconds each time out - until they “get it” that jumping on that counter does not work out for them and will equal a time out in the crate or other room. Manage the environment in other times with a gate so no rehearsals are had and things will smooth out.

This idea that a “fix all” solution exists for all dogs everywhere no matter the issue is ridiculous and harmful to dogs. The idea that your dog learned it all when they figured it out once before is also laughable.

This notion the dog “knows it” due to doing it once before, wastes peoples time and money and the dogs are held in a form of behavioral limbo until the humans in their lives, receive the proper information for their dynamics and their dog.

Hiring a professional to help you and the dog.

Think about it, if you have no idea why or what the dog is doing, and no one in your life can really get to the bottom if it, an  “at odds dynamic” can ensue, and sadly does for many people that either are guardians or perhaps work with dogs. The key is properly assessed information for the dog and their dynamic not generic offerings.

One of the first questions needing answered is this:

Who lives in the home along with the dog and their ages

Why? That is who will be teaching the dog intentionally or unintentionally.  “Training” and teaching the dog about how life works will be a part of everyone in the dog’s home or day-to-day life. As they say in basketball, KYP - Know Your Personnel.

Most people that contact me have a significant other, roommates, and or children, live in relatives or perhaps many visitors that are coming and going, perhaps a dog walker?

ALL the people factor in the dogs learning, as the humans in a dog’s life are the biggest variable as to how events will work out for the dog’s associations.

Contexts shift and change, sometimes quickly, these are the reasons why it is imperative to stay flexible. Remember that when behavior changes in a safe efficient manner along with the environment and the context being associated, as safe to achieve less stress better results will occur, as training and behavior changes will take hold much more reliably when stress is reduced, not added.

When the human plans ahead or are good at addressing things properly in the moment, training “as they go”, then success is usually achieved the majority of the time. The best way to think about the training that has to go across multiple human dynamics is this –

- Work as a team – work to help the dog not compete about “training” and who is right or wrong.
- People should work in their comfort zone, as well as the dog’s comfort zone. Don’t create stress always work to reduce it in some way.
- Always make the safest and least stressful choices for training & management of the dog. This is then the smartest choice.
- Children under 16 should not be the sole person responsible for dogs in a home or on leash. When the kids learn to drive they can have the leash and the responsibility of caring for dogs, and this is still a case-by-case decision.

Observations On Human Behavior
Each week I spend on average 10 hours a week in classes observing behavior of dogs and humans. I witness all manner of mechanical snafus and discombobulating of magnanimous proportions by humans when interacting with dogs. I also fix many things on the spot by way of simple instructions about human behavior changes that effect the environment to achieve more desirable behavior and it’s done on the spot with real time examples.

This accomplishes one very crucial thing, the humans see that the dog is not the problem, they are and the environment is. This is done with puppies, adolescent and adult dogs. Sometimes with as many as 4 other dogs in the environment.

Clients also see that by a simple mechanical shift they can also have a paradigm shift, it is not the dog; it is them that is controlling the environment. ANYONE can change his or her behavior for the better to achieve more desirable dog behavior. It is not magic, It just takes wanting to.

Many times I have only been in the presence of the dog 5 - 10 minutes total and the dog is not jumping or jumping less and less and less until not at all, or the dog is all of a sudden paying attention to me by way of lures, prompts, and being paid for behaviors I ask or the dog offers.

Or I get the dog focused on a novel treat in a novel toy. Thus alleviating the dogs stress and placing the excitement the dog has of being in a class with other dogs in close proximity onto a toy that dispenses food.

All this I explain is achieved by way of having proper mechanics, timing and proper awareness of the dog’s behavior as well as my own behavior as it relates to the environment and the current context.

Once they stop “thinking” about “why” the dog is doing XYZ. Stop narrating and chanting the dogs name, and focus on the mechanics of their behavior and the environmental aspects that may cause distractions, they have more success, every time.  In many cases immediate success right after they had been failing seconds ago, simply by changing their mechanics and their minds, and thus changing their behavior. In some cases it is as simple as placing the food in a different spot or stop leaning over the dog etc…not very difficult in theory.

Children 7 and up that pay attention and follow instructions well, can train many dogs, especially puppies, and they know nothing about “learning” or “teaching”, they are simply following proper mechanical steps and the dog is following along. Adults can do this when they are focused. However, adults bring lots of baggage to the dogs and to a public space where they are essentially “on stage”, so they are also a bit more self-conscious.

I spend an additional 10 – 16 hours a week watching videos of myself and clients train dogs in a wide variety of contexts and environments.

The one connecting fact in every scenario is this; with the proper information, better mechanics and empathy through proper education about dog’s feelings and associations, the stress is reduced and success is achieved sooner rather than later.

EX – The dog that jumps on visitors.
1 – Get a text or call from the people arriving, and then have the dog go behind a secured baby gate, in a dog proofed room with a fabulous work to eat toy. Done. Over. The dog will not jump on the people as they enter.
2 – Visitors enter w/out the knock or bell setting off the dog, allow the guests to get settled. Ignore the dog.
3 – Have EVERYONE ignore the dog. The one exception is a family member can reassure the dog they are “ok etc…” and redirect the dog back to their work to eat toy or pay them a few treats each time the dog orients to the visitors.

4 – Allow the dog in with the guests, provided you will be ready to train if needed, or have a work to eat toy on hand to keep the dog busy, but make sure you have it set up so what ever your dogs behavioral pathology is with the specific people that in your home happen to be
(Not all people are the same around dogs and vice-verse). Make sure you have things under control and orchestrated for the least amount of stress and set it up so the dog is learning what you’d like them to learn and having fun along the way.
- Down stays
- Leave it
- Touch
- Look
- Encourage self-entertaining by way of work to eat toys.

Build Bonds not Binds
ALL these suggestions are preferable to blaming the dog, yelling “hey no cut it out” or resigning to some defeatist attitude and claiming “that’s `ol Bowser he just does that”.

Human mechanics aside, as long as people have flexible options for training or managing the dog, stress is reduced, dogs learn much easier and the fun of having a dog is increased. That is the main goal with having a dog in your life, it should be fun even when it is challenging.

It has been proven time & time again, that a little bit of stress is OK, and may actually help humans and dogs acclimate to life more efficiently, but too much stress and too much pressure is not good and will play into many issues both physiologically and behaviorally.

The idea of thwarting the dog through human will is not going to last.
There may be a stretch it works out for the human, that is, but the dog at some point will have a renewal of the unwanted behavior as conditioning is more reliable than pure extinction with no conditioning involved.
This repeated issuance of potential threats or pain, even at low levels, will also erode your bond, create negative associations to your reach, approach, hands, voice or your home or yard in general, this depends on what your behavior has been like, what level of aversive is being implemented daily or weekly, when the stress was present or perhaps no stress was present simply an excited dog that is now fearful due to being “quieted” in some forceful way. Did you create the stress unnecessarily? Did the current behavior and training issues result from causing the dog to feel fear and or pain repeatedly, daily, weekly?

This notion that humans can will dogs through submission, force, intimidation and or some other form of manipulative violence is only true to the extent that the dog will shut down in that context based on their fear.

Look, I am not talking about babying dogs, hardly. Sure if you need your dog to stay and you issue a stern “STAY” and the dog is a bit fearful but stays, that is part of life sometimes, and as long as it is not how it is done daily, the real question is, are you doing this as a matter of course, or in certain contexts that occur rarely like an emergency?

Fear equals stress; stress equals lowered learning capabilities, which can lead to cognitive challenges as well as immune illnesses. Not a good way to live or to teach dogs. The other side of the coin with the heavy-handed approach, or the adversarial mind set that some have towards dogs, is the dog may decide enough is enough and bite.

I always illustrate the dogs can land 25 bites in roughly 4 seconds. I have film of this and I have spoken to others that have worked with dogs for decades, it is true, dogs can land many bites and when they want to, you won’t stop them. Why would anyone want to tempt that fate?

OK, I know someone is saying, “My dog would not bite me and I’ve done all sorts of stuff”, maybe that is true, maybe you have enough in the “behavioral bank, but what about your friends and relatives, neighbors, the kid that runs up without you noticing and startles the dog that has been repeatedly choked when he barks at running kids? Or what if the dog one day has had enough and the stress has compounded into internal physical ailments, along with an immune illness, and the dog does bite someone in the family? Who is going to take responsibility in that scenario? It is not the dog’s fault, the dog did not choose their genes, the choke chain, or the stress.

Essentially when dogs are stressed to the point of inhibiting behavior out of fear of pain or some sort of threat, or a prediction of pain, they are not learning so much as they are shutting down, and they are not feeling good about many aspects of the context. If the context includes small kids and the dog is being scolded around them you can bet that the dog will associate the kids to the fear and the pain. Kids are salient, and dogs associate to the stimuli that carries with it lots of salience.

Sadly this line of thinking has fooled many people for 100’s of years now that somehow the dog has “learned” to “obey” out of “respect”, when in fact dogs simply have tons of deference, and they defer more so than not.

This is the virtue of the dog that earned them man’s “best” friend. This natural deference that dogs have has given many people, and some famous for being  “in dogs” I might add, a false sense of their skills and knowledge about dogs.

Now this meme that persists about “breaking dogs” and “correcting” dogs by way of some force or fear “method” has done the most damage of all, as no matter what people try or attempt as long as they do not use fear or pain with a dog they’ll at the very least keep the dog sound or not compound any issues that may be bubbling under the surface.

Not all behavioral set backs are caused by intentional fear and pain based “training” but they do indeed increase with it as an approach.

I see time and again a dog that had no serious behavior issues, or perhaps general issues totally appropriate for the dogs age and current dynamic, then made to be fearful or aggressive with a bite history by way of the damaging meme that the dog was attempting to “dominate” and needed to be “broken”. The dog is broken all right.

The next part of helping the dog back to soundness may not be so easy. Some dogs never get any help and are euthanized as a matter of course if they show their teeth or growl let alone bite someone. Many of these heavy handed “trained”, ahem, abused dogs end up euthanized or living sequestered and sheltered lives.

People simply need to receive the proper information and then start having fun with it and teaching dogs, communicating with dogs, understanding dogs, not breaking or forcing, but teaching, guiding, and most of all, building a sound animal that trusts the world at large.

Be careful what you believe and be careful whom you trust with your dog’s behavioral development. Pay attention to who is educating you and your family about dogs and dog behavior, there is no one out here reprimanding anyone for making things up and taking money for it.

Know that every time, no matter how innocuous you may think it is, the dog has made a determination about the event, they recorded it as safe, unsafe or neutral, this is a scientific fact.

They have enough memory, mainly through scent, to encode the memory and retrieve it, especially the fear related memories as it signals potential death for the animal. Your dog is not “out to get you”.

Other dogs you come in contact with are also not intentionally out to get you, if they are fearful or aggressive they are in behavioral trouble and need help. If they have specific fears or aggression in a certain context keep them out of that if possible or start finding out safe ways to address the issues with out the use of fear and pain based approaches.

When you interact with your dog for any reason the most important decision you will make, is to interact safely and in a reassuring manner at all times, even when issuing a time out or some sort of kind consequence.

Punishments do not have to be fearful or painful they have to be timed properly and have meaningful consequences to the dog all the while them feeling safe. Then they learn what works, not just shut down.

You’ll make canine interaction decisions 100’s of times daily, millions over the course of a life with your dog or dogs you work with. Choose your moves wisely. Make sure you are building a sound dog by obtaining sound information from vetted legitimate sources. Other wise you may be calling those same legit folks and paying for a whole lot more than you ever needed to deal with.