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.