[Insert Shiny, Eye-catching Title Here]: New Dog Training Techniques as Marketing Ploy

[Insert Shiny, Eye-catching Title Here]: New Dog Training Techniques as Marketing Ploy

Recently, some dog training colleagues and I were batting around the issue of popular dog trainers denouncing standard dog training technique as an advertising ploy. The rules and methods of changing an animal’s behaviour are pretty well-known, in the way that “tonsil removal surgery” is pretty well-known, or “building a frame wall” is pretty well-known. Sure, advancements and refinements are made by practicing professionals and scholars, but no one expects tonsil surgery to suddenly be carried out by butterflies or frame walls to suddenly be made out of black matter. And yet, we regularly see dog training professionals suggest that they themselves have come up with a whole new way of changing an animal’s behaviour or emotional state, and furthermore, suggesting (with alarming alacrity) that current practice is wrong, dangerous, and out-dated. Don’t head to a dinosaur surgeon for your child’s tonsil removal! We have kinetic tonsil-fishing technology™.

“Non-operant Conditioning: The New Dog Training Technique that will Blow Your Mind”

In the time since I’ve studied dog training and animal learning theory, and was therefore exposed to the pure, clean logic behind operant and classical conditioning (it’s magic if you step back from it, isn’t it?), I’ve always been befuddled by this. Jean Donaldson, the matriarch of the Academy and a brilliant mind, worries that the invention of new and shiny training methodologies is a sparkly costume worn by those with shallow knowledge of animal learning theory. This glittering shoe, sadly, fits. But it doesn’t describe the whole picture.

According to my also-brilliant colleague at the Academy for Dog Trainers, Erik Tamm, there is more than just ignorance involved. There is money involved. And more specifically: our money, as dog trainers are often part of the target audience for this revisionist material. Erik says:

It's just a sales tactic. Take existing, established practice and vilify it in blogs/social media etc. Then (how surprising) launch your own coaching/course/ebook that does things "different". (It doesn't have to, you can just give existing exercises new names). After a few years, do a 180° turn with a new blog/social media post ("why I changed my mind about x, y, z") and launch yet another new product. You see this again and again when people are selling coaching/courses/ebooks. Fitness, personal finance, weight loss, stress management (and apparently dog training)—it's all the same. Very predictable but it does work from a sales perspective.

Now, I love ‘shiny and new’ as much as the next person, so I admit I find it hard to pass by the gorgeous and evocative marketing materials and the promises of quick results or ‘whole new dog’ that slide by in my social media feeds. But I do resist, and I resist because I care about someone else’s money: my clients’. They pay me to help them with their dogs, and the best way to do this is to use well-vetted techniques based on the science of how animals learn. I also resist because I care about my reputation. My reputation was built on the successful resolution of my dog training cases... and here we go, back to the science of animal learning and behaviour change.

Of course, this isn’t to say I ignore refinements to the practical application and ethics of animal learning methods. These are the refinements made both by people doing research, and by people who are training hundreds of dogs in the same area that I am: pet dog training and behaviour modification. Staying abreast of new research and best practices is an important part of my job. But these are usually a tweak, not a seachange. And if and when I jump ship on any technique, it will be based on a preponderance of evidence, not on a personal manifesto, no matter how charming, no matter how tempting, no matter how deft.

 

Cover photo credit lilu13 via iStock

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In Defense of Puppy Socialization

In Defense of Puppy Socialization

Don’t hold back when socializing your young puppy. Create as many positive associations as possible before 14 weeks of age.

If you’re a puppy parent searching for guidance on how to socialize your puppy, you risk coming across some concerning misinformation, even from professional trainers. The most worrisome recommendations include ‘Don’t use food during socialization,’ and ‘Don’t teach your puppy to expect good things from strangers.’ This advice is misguided and dangerous. Here’s why:

During the very brief window between 3 and 12-14 weeks of age, puppies can learn that the world is safe, or unsafe, much more easily than is possible later in life.1-4 As I tell my puppy class clients and puppy socialization interns, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. When it comes to puppies liking strangers, for example, an ounce of prevention translates as a few weeks of introducing puppies to new people in a positive way. A pound of cure? Months or years of work to try to help a fearful adult dog become a little more comfortable with strangers.  

Most studies of puppy socialization have found that deliberate socialization efforts are correlated with good results for puppies. These good results are things most of us care a lot about: less fear and aggression, and increased likelihood of puppies staying in their homes long-term.5-14 Most trainers and scientists agree that these socialization experiences should be positive in nature (rather than neutral or negative) to reduce the risk of future behavior problems.15-20 In practice, dog behavior professionals do this by exposing puppies to new things in a way that doesn’t scare them, and by using food, play, affection, or anything else the puppy loves to create a positive association.

Why deliberately create positive experiences, rather than let a puppy get used to (habituate to) new people and animals? Habituation is going on all the time. But when it comes to things adult dogs commonly fear (e.g., strangers, other dogs, noises), we need to do better than hope puppies just “get used to it”. Fear of strangers and other animals presents real quality-of-life issues for both dogs and their families. There is evidence that fear can be easily acquired in puppyhood, and that a single negative experience can affect the dog for the rest of his life, increasing the likelihood of fear and aggression.21 The most ethical choice for behavior professionals is therefore to tip the odds in favor of puppies liking strangers and other animals by working to make puppies’ experiences positive.  

Puppy genetics, environment during gestation, and early life experiences can all work against us in our mission to create a well-socialized puppy.22-23 This means that even if we socialize perfectly, we might not be able to teach the puppy in front of us that new people and animals are safe. So why would a behavior professional urge owners to limit or even avoid creating positive experiences with all kinds of people and animals during the precious early weeks of a puppy’s life? The arguments are all over the map, but perhaps the most egregious is the warning that teaching puppies that strangers predict good things (treats, attention, etc.) will create the “Too Friendly Puppy”—a puppy who will be so excited to meet new people that he will be “out of control” and ill-mannered, jumping up and pulling on leash.

For dog trainers to advise limiting positive experiences for puppies in order to avoid potential behavior problems associated with friendliness is akin to a doctor recommending hand amputation to avoid the possibility of future hangnails. It also fails to distinguish between socialization and basic manners training. This is not a trivial error. Any competent dog trainer, and even most puppy parents, can teach a friendly dog to walk politely on leash and sit to greet, relatively easily, at any age. We have very little time to convince young puppies that the world is a good and safe place.

As noted above, the majority of available studies on puppy socialization suggest that puppies who undergo deliberate socialization programs benefit. On the flip side, there is no credible evidence to suggest that socialization programs that actively work to create positive associations with new people and animals cause behavior problems or harm puppies in any way. And we know that insufficient socialization can be disastrous.

Behavior professionals who work with fear and aggression in companion dogs know first-hand just how terrible the results of poor socialization can be. Please pause a moment to reflect on the sad, short lives of dogs euthanized every year in animal shelters because they are fearful and aggressive. Sit with the family whose hearts break as they make the decision to euthanize their beloved dog, whose fear and aggression has made him unsafe. This is the potential cost of cautioning puppy parents to limit their puppies’ positive interactions with the world around them. What if every stranger these dogs had met before they were 14 weeks old had given them treats? What if they’d met friendly new dogs every day during that period? Might a positive regard for strangers and other dogs be worth the small cost of teaching a friendly puppy to sit to say hello and walk politely on leash?

So please, if you have a young puppy, teach her to love all people and other animals while you still can. Use food and play to create positive associations, and do your best to make sure your puppy is comfortable and having fun. If your 8-week-old puppy develops into a 4-month-old who is enthusiastic about all strangers, congratulations! Your hard work has paid off, and count your lucky stars that there weren't any overwhelming genetic factors or early bad experiences that made this result impossible. It is a relatively simple matter to teach your friendly, socialized puppy to greet people politely (use that “sit” you learned in puppy class!), or pass people and dogs on leash when greeting isn't appropriate. If you struggle with this on your own, reach out to a credentialed positive reinforcement trainer to help (click the links below to conduct a trainer search):

The Academy for Dog Trainers

Karen Pryor Academy

The Pet Professional Guild

Trainers love to get calls about friendly dogs who just need a little manners tune-up!

This is not meant to be a how-to article on puppy socialization, but there are good resources on how to properly socialize puppies. Here are a few:

 


Citations


1Scott JP, Fuller JL. Genetics and Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press; 1965.

2Freedman DG, King JA, Elliott O. Critical period in the social development of dogs. Science. 1961;133:1016–1017.

3https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2015/02/why-you-need-to-socialize-your-puppy.html

4https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/07/the-sensitive-period-for-socialization.html

5Kutsmi et al. Importance of Puppy Training for Future Behavior of the Dog J. Vet. Med. Sci. 75(2): 141–149, 2013

6Casey et al Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 152 (2014) 52–63

7Howell et al. Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior.  Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports 2015:6 143–153.

8Duxbury MM, Jackson JA, Line SW, Anderson RK. Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003;223:61–66

9Vaterlaws-Whiteside et al Improving puppy behavior using a new standardized socialization program Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 197, December 2017, Pages 55-61

10Cutler et al. Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2017 Dec 15;251(12):1415-1423

11https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/11/extra-early-socialization-for-puppies.html

12https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2018/03/puppy-socialization-practices-and-how.html

13https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2015/12/make-your-dog-happy-puppy-class.html

14https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/201903/teach-the-puppies-well-let-them-enjoy-their-childhood

15https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/puppy-socialization/  

16https://positively.com/dog-behavior/puppy-knowledge/puppy-socialization/

17https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/puppy-socialization-stop-fear-before-it-starts/

18https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Pages/Socialization.aspx  

19McMillan, Franklin D. "Development of a mental wellness program for animals." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 220.7 (2002): 965-972.

20https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Documents/socialization_puppies_kittens.pdf

https://fearfreehappyhomes.com/socialize-new-dog-puppy/

21Serpell, James A., and Deborah L. Duffy. "Aspects of juvenile and adolescent environment predict aggression and fear in 12-month-old guide dogs." Frontiers in veterinary science 3 (2016): 49.

22Dietz et al The importance of early life experiences for the development of behavioural disorders in domestic dogs Behavior 2018 Volume 155: Issue 2-3.

23Bray, Emily E., et al. "Effects of maternal investment, temperament, and cognition on guide dog success." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114.34 (2017): 9128-9133.

 

 

 

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If They Learn Just One Thing: The Academy team weighs in

If They Learn Just One Thing: The Academy team weighs in

The founder and director of the Academy, Jean Donaldson, has a particularly brilliant pedagogical tool. Whether she’s delivering a webinar, crafting an article or chapter, or creating some stand-alone content for the Academy’s core curriculum, she makes sure to answer the question “if they learn nothing else, what is the one thing I want them to take away from this lesson?” Setting up a key message helps build a framework for the lesson and ensures her teachings have that punchy, clear, and concise quality that she is known for. Each paragraph, each page, each slide, and each module leaves her audiences satisfied that they see the whole picture she is painting, and they see it clearly.


Successful dog training is due in no small part to the successful coaching and instruction of the human clients we work with, so the Academy program allots considerable time and effort to the theory and process of teaching and coaching. When our students get to the module on teaching, Jean draws back the curtains on her use of “if they learn nothing else”. It is, as she points out in yet another clear educational module, useful at every level of information production from class instructions to client homework to drafting website text to structuring webinars.


For the twentieth anniversary of the Academy, the Academy’s staff decided to pull together their favourite and most compelling “if they learn nothing else” messages for the students of the program. All staff are professional dog trainers with outside businesses, and all contribute to the educational experience of our students. However, each bring a different message and a different perspective for our student body.

 

Jean Donaldson

Jean is the school’s founder and director. She also marks most of the written assignments our students must submit and pass to move through the program. Jean supports students and graduates with case coaching and academic coaching as well, and her rigorous attention to critical thinking and ethical training sets the bar for all Academicians.

If I could teach our students but one thing it would be to train using an incremental plan. One big advantage is that training this way requires knowledge of the usual-suspect plan parameters and when to incorporate which. In turn, this not only allows for effortless plan construction but suggests splits once one is training. Training plans can feel really constraining if one has been primarily pleasure training, where there is not efficiency pressure the way there is with an at-risk dog and fed-up client. But a sound, vetted plan optimizes the balance between incremental and efficient, and keeps RoR where it should be. The alternative–reinventing the wheel from first principles case after case after case, often without parameter fluency–, while romantic, is grindingly inefficient at best and incompetent at worst. So we emphasize that, when they’re messing around for fun, they can meander about at will. But when they’re taking someone’s hard-earned money to resolve problems in the real world with time constraints and limited client resources, it’s time for a training plan.


Sarah Pennington

Sarah is a student coach and mentor, and provides most of the video coaching for our students. All Academy students must submit video for a set of increasingly difficult training tasks, and Sarah’s fantastic coaching provides both feedback to ensure the students gain proficiency in the mechanics of dog training and a playbook for how our graduates should coach their own clients.

Take full advantage of the video coaching. The video submissions are an opportunity to be coached on, and therefore improve, your training mechanics. The Academy training methods may be different from what you are used to, but we strongly encourage you to jump in and give them a try. You’ll get very useful feedback. For example, we’ll remind you to always be aware of rate of reinforcement. When you are losing the dog it is almost always a rate issue. You’ll hear this message over and over: Train fast and shorten your inter-trial latency. We’re also coaching you to be proficient at production training, which is extremely efficient. It may feel awkward at first but following a plan and the Push Drop Stick rules, both key elements to production training, will take your abilities to a new level. And once you’re a sophomore, approach the free-shaped retrieve assignment as an adventure. It was purposely designed to be a challenge. Once you’re through the retrieve, you will be able to shape any behaviour with confidence. This exercise is not a race to see how fast it can be installed. To get the most out of it, find a dog who does not readily pick items up. The more challenging the dog, the more you will learn. And finally, recognize that the coaching you are receiving is a model for how you will coach your own clients in the future. Coaching laypeople is critical to this business. Clients are not trainers; it is important to acknowledge their efforts. Every session reinforce one or two things that your human client is doing well.


Kristi Benson

Kristi is a student mentor and coach, and runs special projects for the Academy. She leads the Academy’s Husbandry Project, and also manages several other Academy-led research projects. Kristi handles the Academy’s weekly Wednesday webinars, ensuring that this ongoing content is interactive and fun while meeting students’ educational needs, and collecting an ever-growing stable of wonderful guest presenters.

If I could teach the participants in our program just one thing, it would be to identify, accept, and be realistic about their own fear of dogs. We all have it: I do, you do, all the staff here do, your friendly neighbourhood dog guru does…everyone. Fear of dogs is perfectly natural, just like a dog’s fear of thunder or fear of painful veterinary procedures is natural. But even though it’s natural, we don’t seem to accept it in ourselves. We pretend we’re not scared of normal dog behaviour, which leaves us in a bit of a quandary when the dogs around us are aggressive, tense, jubilant, forceful, or whatever button they happen to push. If we see ourselves as not scared, but dogs scare us, then our minds make a simple but incorrect leap: the dog in question must be scary. Acknowledging that every dog pro and every dog student gets a racing heart about at least some of the stuff that dogs do allows us to take a step back and view dog’s behaviour through a more careful and scientific lens: normal dog behaviour (even aggression and even rough play) isn’t pathological or dangerous in cases where standard ethological benchmarks of safety are met by the dog. There’s a danger in allowing our heartrate to be the barometer of a dog’s safety.


Lori Nanan

Lori directs the Academy’s public-facing media, producing and curating educational content aimed at both the dog-owning public and the pet services community. She also welcomes new students into the Academy and provides assistance to students navigating the program’s two-year, multi-level curriculum. Lori is in charge when the Academy hosts seminars such as the two multi-day sessions with vet behaviourist Daniel Mills held in the summer of 2018.

I’d want them to understand that gaining skills such as client counseling and empathy building are as important as learning the technical skills involved in training. It’s so important that our clients feel heard and understood and as professionals, we owe it to them to let them know we are on the same team. For so long, dog training as a profession has attracted those who say they like dogs better than people, and as part of their Academy experience, I hope that students come away recognizing the importance of the human end of the equation. And that they do so with the understanding that this cannot be ignored and that it must be cultivated and nurtured. The benefits in doing so exist not only for each client and individual trainers, but to the industry as a whole, as it helps legitimize and validate our profession.


Casey McGee

Casey oversees the application process and handles student records. She is the first point of contact for the many interested Academy applicants. She also coaches students and oversees the process whereby senior students and new graduates gain coaching skills by assisting new students. Here, Casey models with remarkable care both the problem-solving skills and client-centred approach we expect from our graduates.

Until I experienced it firsthand I didn’t fully appreciate how powerful–and more importantly, efficient–it is to work with upset dogs under threshold. It’s a tricky concept to grasp as a trainer, and even trickier to explain to clients. I suspect that’s because it’s counterintuitive to conventional wisdom about how fears are conquered: by testing limits, pushing past the pain, faking it until you feel it. But it turns out that all the magic happens in the invisible space below threshold, where the dog notices the Scary Thing but still feels completely safe, and it can take some creative problem-solving to pull this off. My best client script has been to ask them to consider how many times their dog has been exposed to a scary version of X stimulus–whether it’s a kid on a bike, a large dog, the nail clippers, or being alone at home. It’s usually in the dozens, if not hundreds. Our job going forward is to start with a clean slate and expose him carefully and repeatedly to safe versions of X stimulus. Insist on this without compromise, and your clients will become believers as well.


Erik Tamm

Erik is the computer virtuoso behind the Academy. He is the administrator of the Academy’s comprehensive online learning platform, The Dog Scientific. He also handles the technical aspects of the application process, and with his rare and unique combination of technical skills and dog skills, is working with the Academy on some exciting new tech-based applications for the future.

The one piece of advice I would like to give to students (especially the ones that are just about to graduate and take clients) is this: make it as easy for your clients as possible to be compliant. When you get your first "X is not working" and start asking questions to figure out what is going on, you will discover that most of the time "X is not working" really means "I'm not doing it". Your clients aren't lazy, they just have other priorities in their lives. They are not dog trainers, so what is effortless and fun for you is tedious and a burden to them. Set them up for success, not failure. Make their to do list as short as possible. Then make it shorter. Go for the simplest solution that could possibly work. This might feel disappointing in the beginning. The solution you choose for your clients will often be different, and less ambitious, than what you would choose for your own dogs. But soon enough you'll find real joy in your client's relief at an efficient and easy training protocol that works for their lives and their dogs. And just as importantly, your professional reputation will benefit, as you focus on helping real people in their own messy lives.


Kelly Duggan

Kelly is the Academy’s artist-in-residence. She creates the visually appealing hand-outs, logos, and other graphic design elements that give the Academy its image.

Design matters. Don’t skimp on visual communication for your business–whether it’s your logo, handouts, website, business cards or social media posts. They should be persuasive, informative and perhaps most importantly–beautiful. You’re losing clients if they aren’t, no matter how great a dog trainer you are. There is a science to this art–science that a professional designer understands. So don’t be afraid to hire one! It’s a small investment that will yield big results.


Claudine Prud’homme

Claudine heads the Academy’s French Connection. She reaches out to Francophone students and communities, spreading the word about both the Academy’s program and force-free training. She works hand-in-hand with Lori to translate Academy articles and educational posts, and liaises with Francophone students as needed as well.

Pick your battles when working with clients. Prioritizing is so important. And that does not necessarily mean prioritizing what you want and would expect as a trainer (or even personally). It means prioritizing what is important and what will help your human clients, in their own reality, and right away. Unless welfare or safety is at stake, the person in front of you should dictate what should be addressed and/or trained. Our goal is to alleviate their burdens and make the training process easier on them. We need to be able to walk a mile in our client’s shoes, to normalize what needs to be normalized and to be able to verbalize it properly and nicely, without judgment. Pick your battles and prioritize what is best for the person in front of you. Then make a plan for it, and then stick to it.

 

The Academy is celebrating 20 years of educating the finest dog trainers with the most forward-thinking, comprehensive, science-based, and ethical curriculum we can. Follow our Facebook and Instagram to see more and join in the festivities.

Sarah Pennington, Jean Donaldson, Lori Nanan, Casey McGee, and Kristi Benson at Graceland in 2018.

 

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Why We Need to Modify the Humane Hierarchy

Why we need to modify the Humane Hierarchy

Our guest blogger is Tim Steele, a newly minted Academy graduate and owner of Behavior Matters Academy in Santa Clara CA. 

His post is part of Companion Animal Psychology's Train For Rewards Blog Party 2018.

I love the idea of the Humane Hierarchy. We’ve needed a simple-to-understand graphic which gives people a visual representation of what training and behavior modification techniques are more humane and which ones should be used with extreme caution or never. When the current version of the Humane Hierarchy (“HH”) came out, many dog training professionals heralded it and used it in their marketing materials to make it clearer to the public how they train dogs. And the public deserves that sort of transparency.

So, what went wrong?

Despite the best intentions of the creators, I’ve seen the HH used to justify the use of some pretty awful treatment of dogs because on it, R- is on the same level as P-. People with lesser information (or, if I’m thinking more skeptically, people who are looking for a justification to use force) say, “oh, it’s okay, this method is fine – Susan Friedman said so herself.” Now, having spoken with Susan about this, I know she’d disagree with those people. Here’s why.

While I’m absolutely dedicated to not using any Negative Reinforcement to train dogs, I think we can agree that some varieties of R- are worse than others. At the risk of sounding like I’m endorsing R- methods, I’d suggest that crowding and leaning over your average comfortable, well-adjusted, reasonably-fearless dogs to teach them to back up might be effective and harmless. Sure, they’d back up to seek relief from our crowding, but they may not find it terribly scary or painful. I’d not recommend this approach and I wouldn’t intentionally use it myself – but I wouldn’t be worried about the welfare of a dog being taught that way by a well-meaning dog owner.

On the other hand, if someone is pressing a button on a shock collar until a dog recalls, I AM going to worry about the welfare of that dog. And that is a common application of Negative Reinforcement. Likewise, ear pinching to teach retrieve, collar tightening, and pinning a dog to the ground are also common examples of Negative Reinforcement that I suspect the majority of people who the HH was intended for wouldn’t be using.

But the success of the Humane Hierarchy means that it is now reaching people who are new to dog training, who don’t understand quadrants very well, or are balanced trainers who are more comfortable using force to train companion animals. And the Humane Hierarchy provides them the justification they need to continue using pain, fear, and intimidation. How? Because, again, on the Humane Hierarchy, R- is on the same level ethically as P-.

Now, might Negative Punishment be unpleasant for the dog? Sure. As a matter of fact, for it to work, it almost certainly has to be unpleasant. Most dog trainers point to timeouts as the standard P- move. That can be frustrating to dogs. The issue is the same with extinction, which is on the same level as P- and R- on the current HH. It can cause frustration, sometimes in a big way. But here is the thing: Frustration does not equal pain or fear in my book.

The Humane Hierarchy, as written, makes it as easy for a trainer to claim it is OK to shock a dog (at any level of shock, by the way) until they recall as it is to time out a dog for 30 seconds for jumping on a guest.  Or to close your hand in a leave it exercise.

And that’s absolutely not okay.

So, how do we fix it?

The way I see it, we have two options.

First, we could list a wide variety of R- and P- techniques and rank them in terms of invasiveness, pain, fear-inducing, etc. We could color code those we feel are acceptable, caution people about some with yellow, and mark the “really – NEVER use this approach” with red. This takes away from the simplicity of the HH (and that would be a real loss). But the simplicity is causing real harm to dogs now. We have to change that.

Our second option is to completely separate R- from P-. This is the way I’d go. Now, there are arguments against this. Some would say that SOME P- approaches are worse than SOME R- options (so they might like that first ranking idea more than this one). Maybe well-educated professionals are in a better position to do their own rankings and make appropriate choices. But the average pet owner and many self-taught dog trainers aren’t the same – a real understanding of ABA is required for this sort of decision making.

Glenn Pierce of PowerPuppy Dog Training has created an alternative hierarchy which gets us closer to something safe. His version looks like this:

 

I’d add in extinction to this like Susan’s version has it – or at least on the same level as Negative Punishment (they are similar – frustrating, but not painful or scary).

I’d make Negative Punishment come after Positive Reinforcement like in Glenn’s example. But because Negative Reinforcement requires the introduction of an aversive that can be removed for relief, I’d move it farther down in the list because many take the hierarchy quite literally and count any magnitude of Negative Reinforcement as equivalent to any other. I would make Negative Reinforcement equivalent to Positive Punishment to ensure dogs are being treated as humanely as possible by the greatest number of people.

And isn’t that the whole purpose of the Humane Hierarchy to begin with?

Can’t we just educate people better?

I’d love to think so. I feel it is all our jobs to educate better and to educate more people. I recently attended a wonderful three-day training with Susan Friedman with about 150 attendees. It’s going to take a lot of those sessions to counter the spread of “oh, P- and R- are equally humane in any form” that’s being bandied about in Facebook groups containing more than 20,000 members. The admins of such groups can only do so much when someone says, “but the Humane Hierarchy which is supported by experts, says…” In reality, we’ll never get to all those people.

So what’s next?

Before publishing this, I’ve already asked a number of people to review it. Now, I’m publishing it here (with sincere thanks to The Academy for Dog Trainers for allowing me to do so). If there’s sufficient support, perhaps a modified version of the hierarchy can become the standard for dog trainers. I look forward to your input.

 

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Predation and Dogs-Normalizing Behavior

Predation and Dogs-Normalizing Behavior

One gorgeous summer morning, I watched from across the pool as a small grey bird fluttered down out of a tree and hovered just a few feet in front of my foster dog, Quinn. Quinn tilted her head to the side and froze for a brief moment before lunging forward and snatching it from the air, issuing a neck-breaking shake, and then tossing it aside—all in one quick movement. She nudged it with her nose once or twice before continuing her sniffari in the pachysandra, as I stood there wondering about the absence of this bird’s self-preservation. I did not wonder about Quinn’s behavior. Quinn is a dog, and dogs are predators. More accurately, they are scavengers and predators.

We tend to forget this about dogs. We easily accept predatory behavior in cats for some reason, marveling at the “good little hunter” that dropped the decapitated mouse at our feet while we washed dishes. We might find it unpalatable, but we rarely classify it as a moral fail, nor worry the cat is deviant and a potential threat to people. We don’t mistakenly assign labels like “aggressive” to our rodent-killing cats. But cats hunt and sometimes kill vermin and birds for the exact same reason our dogs do: preinstalled software that comes with our companion animals from a time when food acquisition skills were necessary for survival.

Yet every year, once spring has sprung, my social media newsfeed blows up with posts from dog owners, upset—often angry—at their canine companions’ leisurely killing of all manner of critter. “Thanks a lot, Fido, you jerk! I’m so mad at him right now!” reads the script above the photograph of a broken bodied chipmunk. And I get it. It’s traumatizing to many of us. After all, most of us who share our homes with an animal are animal lovers, and so it saddens and upsets us to see any of them meet an end in our own back yards. 

I remember feeling horrified years ago when my Tuck was still young and fast enough to successfully dispatch the squirrels that dared to run our fence line. He’d spot them from the deck and stalk slowly and quietly to the foot of the stairs. He’d flat run to the fence, leap up and slam his body against whatever panel the squirrel had made it to, causing it to lose its footing. He would catch it in his mouth as it fell, shake it dead immediately, and then run a victory lap around the yard with the limp body dangling from his mouth. Tuck was having a gleeful time while I was worrying that somewhere out there was a nest of orphaned squirrel babies.

I also occasionally receive emails from clients and friends after these events, the owners worried this means their dog is dangerous. Could this “aggression” be extrapolated to the dog’s behavior toward people? “The answer is no,” I attempt to normalize, “because this isn’t aggression. It’s a feeding behavior, and it’s as normal as a gull scooping fish from the sea or a fox pouncing on a field mouse.” Yes, they use those teeth, but if we classify this behavior as “assault,” we need to recognize that we, too, assault our breakfast every morning. But assaulting our over-easies doesn’t make us likely to pummel our coworkers or neighbors.

When dogs direct aggressive behavior at people, it is typically in one of these contexts: stranger fear, body handling discomfort, or resource guarding. In all three cases, the objective is to increase distance: “Stay away from me” or “stay away from my super important stuff.” In the case of predation, the goal is to get closer and to actually obtain the stimulus. Put simply, it’s just a biological imperative triggered by prey objects or objects resembling prey.

I recently saw a meme with a picture of a Boxer that read, “Squirrels are just tennis balls thrown by God.” While quite funny, it’s really the reverse. Tennis balls are just artificial squirrels thrown by man. It’s because they simulate prey fleeing that dogs chase them. Predation is the reason dogs grab, shake, and often “disembowel” stuffed toys. It’s why tug is so exciting and a preferred activity for many dogs: the tug toy simulates struggling prey. In fact, when played with a set of rules, it’s an excellent outlet for this activity and a fantastic impulse control exercise. If the drive to engage in predation for objects that resemble prey is so great, imagine how triggering a real live prey stimulus must be for our dogs!

Dogs also rehearse feeding behavior in play by chasing, along with all the other skills they need to function in the world, like fleeing (being chased), fighting (roughhousing), and fornicating (mounting). We see this rehearsal in play in early puppyhood and throughout their lives.

Some may ask why dogs feel compelled to hunt if we’re already feeding them plenty. While selection pressures are lifted for food acquisition in domesticated dogs, it hasn’t been very long since dogs were domesticated. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s just been a blink of an eye. Just because the pressure to get it right isn’t there, doesn’t mean it goes away entirely in such short order.

David Mech organized the predatory sequence of wolves as search, stalk, rush/chase, grab/bite, kill, dissect, and eat. It’s safe to assume that one-hundred percent of canids in the natural world that actually live to adulthood get this sequence right, because those that don’t will not live long enough to pass on their genetic flaw of poor hunting skills. In other words, there is a life-or-death pressure to get it right when no one is providing you kibble. 

Not so for domesticated dogs, which is why we see only partial versions of predation, or the software gets a bit buggy and is triggered by inanimate objects like squeaky toys. With the selection pressure lifted, they might not complete the entire predation sequence. They may chase, but not grab; chase and grab and shake, but not dissect or eat (like Quinn and Tuck); and so on. But predatory behaviors persist because they once had adaptive significance, and boy is survival ever significant!

Dogs that engage in predatory behavior are just behaving in a way that is normal for their species. For that matter, we humans are also just animals behaving in a way that is normal for our species. It’s normal for us to feel upset about a young bunny being killed, and it’s even normal for us to feel a bit frightened when we see our dogs use their sharp teeth in this way (there is an evolutionary reason for this, as well). As my primary and favorite mentor, Jean Donaldson, once said, “We are all just animals. Animal behaving.” And we behave in a way that is natural for our species.

So while I empathize with upset owners, I have great sympathy for the dogs that are often punished—even if by verbal berating (and sometimes by painful tools like shock)—merely for being normal dogs. They have no idea why their owners are suddenly so upset with them.

I hope it helps people to step back and view these events for what they really are and find some patience and understanding for their pet dogs. They are not morally deficient for chasing and sometimes killing the critters that happen across our lawns. They aren’t a species with moral capability. We simply chose to co-habitate with an animal that comes with some degree of hunting software. We can give ourselves a break for feeling bummed about it sometimes, but we do well to recognize our natural differences and give them a break, too.

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Socialisation et vaccination des chiots - Une question d’équilibre

Socialisation et vaccination des chiots - Une question d’équilibre

Vous venez d’aller chercher votre adorable petit chiot, tout frétillant et qui sent bon, et appréciez chacune des secondes passées en sa compagnie. Vous avez tout ce qu'il vous faut: des jouets à mâcher, un parfait petit collier, et bien sûr, son premier voyage chez le vétérinaire est déjà planifié.

Les premières visites du chiot chez le vétérinaire sont amusantes et bourrées d'informations! Dès le premier rendez-vous de 20-40min, votre vétérinaire abordera une plénitude de sujets, tel l'apprentissage de la propreté, l'alimentation, la croissance, le déparasitage, les vaccins, et plus encore. C’est beaucoup d'infos!

L'une des choses les plus importantes dont votre vétérinaire discutera est le calendrier des vaccinations et son interaction avec la période de socialisation de votre chiot. Cela peut être déroutant, et les recommandations peuvent avoir radicalement changé depuis la dernière fois que vous avez eu un chiot. Démêlons tout ça ...

À quoi servent les vaccins de base?

Le plus important des vaccins de base pour les jeunes chiots est pour la prévention des virus parvo et distemper. Ces deux virus sont inclus dans le vaccin DHPP (Distemper, Hépatite, Parainfluenza et Parvovirus).

Le distemper devient plutôt rare dans la plupart des États-Unis. Le virus provoque une maladie respiratoire, systémique, et parfois neurologique. C’est traitable, mais peut être fatal.

Le parvo est un virus malin et très contagieux qui attaque la muqueuse des intestins, provoquant des vomissements et de la diarrhée, souvent accompagné de sang. Cela peut conduire à une déshydratation sévère, faiblesse de l’animal, et parfois même à une septicémie ou une infection accablante. Le parvo se traite bien, mais peut être mortel chez les cas sévères. Le virus se loge dans les excréments, et est très stable, demeurant dans l'environnement pendant au moins 6 mois, ce qui le rend particulièrement risqué, car il peut - et le fait - traîner partout.

La rage est un vaccin distinct, et aux États-Unis c’est obligatoire pour tous les chiens dès l'âge de 4 mois. Il existe également d'autres vaccins tels que bordetella, leptospirose, lyme et grippe, qui peuvent être recommandés en fonction de l'endroit où vous vivez et du mode de vie de votre chiot. Demandez à votre vétérinaire de déterminer lesquels sont appropriés pour lui.

Immunité du chiot

Quand un chiot naît, son propre système immunitaire est faible, mais au fur et à mesure qu’il se nourrit de sa mère, il ingère des anticorps à travers le lait. Ces anticorps le protégeront contre les maladies pour lesquelles la mère a été vaccinée. Ces mêmes anticorps vont également interférer avec les vaccins donnés au chiot et c’est pourquoi il ne sert à rien de donner des vaccins à de très jeunes chiots.

Au fil du temps, les anticorps de la mère commencent à s'estomper, finissant par tomber en dessous du niveau requis pour le protéger et laissant ainsi le chiot vulnérable si exposé à la maladie. Cette période critique où les anticorps de maman ne sont pas assez élevés pour protéger, mais le sont assez pour interférer avec la vaccination s'appelle la « période-fenêtre ». C’est pendant cette période que les chiots sont le plus sensibles à contracter une maladie. Par la suite, les taux d'anticorps tombent suffisamment bas pour ne plus interférer avec les vaccins. Désormais, le propre système immunitaire du chiot peut répondre aux vaccins et le protéger contre les maladies pour lesquelles les vaccins sont destinés.

Il est impossible de prédire avec précision - pour chacun des chiots - à quel moment ces anticorps maternels s’estomperont suffisamment pour permettre aux vaccins de fonctionner, mais nous pouvons être sûrs que c’est le cas pour tous à 16 semaines. Les vaccins sont donc administrés à toutes les 3-4 semaines à partir de 8 semaines jusqu’à 16 semaines inclusivement. Le but est de débuter la vaccination dès que possible après la période-fenêtre, quand le corps du chiot peut répondre aux vaccins. À noter que si nous arrêtons de vacciner avant 16 semaines, il se peut que ce chiot ne soit toujours pas en mesure de répondre aux vaccins par lui-même. À l’inverse, si nous ne commençons pas les vaccins à 8 semaines, nous pouvons avoir une période de sensibilité prolongée lorsque le chiot n'a plus d'anticorps protecteurs provenant de la mère, mais n'a toujours pas reçu de vaccination pour stimuler sa propre immunité.

Période de socialisation

La période de socialisation est un stade de développement propre à tous les chiots qui dure de 3 semaines à environ 14 semaines, parfois un peu plus longtemps. C'est le moment de la vie du chiot pendant lequel il est le plus ouvert aux nouvelles expériences, explorant le monde et apprenant ce qui est sécuritaire et ce qui ne l'est pas. Si pendant cette période un chiot est exposé à toutes sortes de personnes, de chiens, de bruits, d'odeurs, de vues, de sons, de surfaces à marcher, etc., il est beaucoup plus susceptible de grandir heureux et confiant. Les chiots qui ne sont pas exposés à une grande variété de personnes et de lieux, qui sont séquestrés chez eux ou qui vivent de mauvaises premières expériences, auront très probablement peur au cours de leur vie lorsqu’ils se retrouveront dans de nouveaux contextes.  Malheureusement, cette peur peut non seulement être débilitante pour votre chiot, mais elle peut également conduire à des problèmes de comportement très sérieux, y compris l'agression. La période de socialisation est votre chance d'éviter des résultats potentiellement dévastateurs!

Une question d’équilibre

Maintenant que vous savez que votre chiot n'est pas entièrement protégé jusqu'à ses vaccins de 16 semaines, et qu'il y a un chevauchement inquiétant avec sa période critique de socialisation, la question est: Comment le socialiser sans le mettre inutilement en danger d’attraper une maladie? Avec prudence et créativité! Gardez à l'esprit qu'il n'y a aucun moyen d'être sûr à 100% que votre chiot n’attrapera pas le parvo - vous pourriez faire entrer le virus dans la maison après avoir marché sans le savoir sur une matière contaminée. Cependant, le risque d’attraper le parvo au cours d’une socialisation effectuée de façon prudente est beaucoup plus faible que le risque de développer des problèmes de comportement sérieux s’il n’y a pas de socialisation. Voici quelques directives générales pour s’assurer d’une socialisation sécuritaire:


Éviter à tout prix:

  • Parcs à chiens
  • Plages
  • Promenades sur la rue (même si en laisse)
  • Parcs de quartier (à moins de transporter le chiot dans les bras ou dans une poussette, voir ci-dessous)

Alternatives:

  • Porter ou utiliser une poussette pour se promener dans votre quartier ou votre ville.
  • Visiter les magasins permettant l’accès aux chiens. Essayez de porter ou de placer votre chiot dans un panier. Pensez aux magasins de rénovations, aux banques, aux magasins de vêtements, aux magasins de plein air ... quand vous entrez, demander à la caissière si c’est ok. Habituellement, les gens adorent être en présence de chiots!
  • Visiter des amis, avec ou sans chiens, tant que les chiens sont en bonne santé, vaccinés et aimables envers les chiots. Vérifiez également qu'il n'y a pas eu de chiots malades à la maison au cours de la dernière année.
  • Inviter des amis avec des chiens qui aiment les chiots pour une période de jeu à votre domicile!
  • Organiser des fêtes à votre domicile, invitant les gens à rencontrer votre chiot. Vous pouvez même organiser des soirées costumées avec des personnes portant des chapeaux, des lunettes de soleil, des perruques, etc., ou avec des béquilles, des marchettes ou des planches à roulettes. Essayez d'inviter des personnes de tous âges, des bébés aux enfants jusqu'aux aînés. Il est important pour les chiots d'apprendre que toutes les formes et tous les âges d’humains sont sans danger et amusants.
  • Prenez le chiot avec vous à l'école pour aller chercher / déposer les enfants. Gardez-le dans vos bras mais laissez les enfants lui donner plein de gâteries.
  • Demandez à votre vétérinaire la permission d’effectuer des « visites positives » entre les rendez-vous de vaccination afin que votre chiot apprenne à aimer le vétérinaire! Cela permettra à votre chiot d’avoir une meilleure vie et d’être en santé.
  • Si votre travail permet les chiens, pensez à amener votre chiot travailler avec vous ou à vous arrêter à l’heure du dîner ou lors de votre journée de congé pour rendre visite à vos collègues.
  • Dernier point mais non le moindre, les classes de maternelle et les groupes de jeu supervisés entre chiots font partie des meilleurs moyens (et les plus sécuritaires) pour socialiser un chiot. Des cours de chiots bien organisés vous aideront également avec ses pitreries normales - machouillage, propreté, etc. Une fois que votre chiot se fait des amis, vous pouvez également organiser des périodes de jeu entre les classes! Avertissement: soyez difficile sur le choix d’un entraineur pour votre chiot, incluant les cours de groupe. La formation de chien est une profession non réglementée et malheureusement, un mauvais conseil peut vraiment causer des dommages. Consultez cet article pour en savoir plus sur le choix d'un entraîneur, et recherchez un entraineur de l’Académie dans votre région ici.

Il n'y a rien de plus adorable qu'un chiot qui se tortille en se promenant dans votre salon. Profitez-en! Mais n'oubliez pas d’établir un plan - et de le suivre - pour garder votre chiot à l'abri de la maladie et des problèmes de comportement lors de sa croissance. Une bonne socialisation contrôlée est vraiment, vraiment importante. C'est l'un des meilleurs cadeaux que vous pouvez offrir à votre futur chien adulte: le cadeau de la confiance et de la joie.

 

Traduit par Claudine Prud'homme.

This article is also available in English. Cover photo credit: Groomee from iStock.

 

La traduction française de ce blog a été effectuée via "French Connection". L'Académie est heureuse d’annoncer "French Connection"!

Un bon nombre de nos étudiants proviennent de régions francophones, et nous sommes fiers de pouvoir désormais leur offrir un support en français afin de les accompagner dans la réalisation de leurs objectifs d'apprentissage.

Avec French Connection, nous offrirons également des traductions de certaines de nos publications existantes, et à compter d’aujourd’hui, nos nouveaux graphiques éducatifs seront disponibles en français et en anglais !

Si vous maîtrisez l'anglais, mais que le français est votre langue maternelle et que vous souhaitez en savoir plus sur la façon dont ce programme pourrait vous aider, prière de communiquer avec nous à This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. pour plus d'informations.

 

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Puppy Socialization and Vaccination – A Balancing Act

Puppy Socialization and Vaccination – A Balancing Act

You've just picked up your beautiful, wriggling, sweet-smelling little puppy, and you are loving every second of it. You've got everything ready: chew toys, that perfect tiny collar, and of course, your pup's first ever trip to the vet scheduled.

First puppy visits to the veterinarian are fun and packed with information! Your vet will go over so many things in that 20-40 min appointment – potty training, diet, growth, deworming, vaccines, and more. It's a lot of info!

One of the most important things your vet will discuss is the vaccine schedule and how that interacts with your puppy's socialization period. This can be confusing, and the recommendations may have changed dramatically since the last time you had a puppy. Let's hash this out...

What are puppy vaccines for?

The most important of the core vaccines for young puppies are for the prevention of parvo and distemper viruses. These are both included in the DHPP vaccine (Distemper, Hepatitis, Parainfluenza, and Parvovirus).

Distemper is becoming rare in most parts of the US. The virus causes respiratory, systemic, and sometimes neurologic disease. It is treatable, but can be fatal.

Parvo is a nasty, highly contagious virus that attacks the lining of the intestines, causing vomiting and diarrhea, often with blood. This leads to severe dehydration, weakness, and sometimes sepsis or overwhelming infection. Parvo is very treatable, but can be fatal in severe cases. Parvo is shed in the feces, and is very stable, remaining in the environment for at least 6 months. This makes it particularly risky, since it can – and does - hang out anywhere.

Rabies is a separate vaccine, and is required for all dogs in the US at 4 months of age. In addition, there are other vaccines such as bordetella, leptospirosis, lyme, and influenza, which may be recommended depending on where you live and your puppy's lifestyle. Ask your veterinarian to determine which are appropriate for your pup.


Puppy Immunity

When a puppy is born, his own immune system is weak, but as he nurses from his mom he ingests antibodies through the milk. These antibodies will protect him against diseases that mom has been vaccinated for. At the same time, the antibodies will interfere with any vaccines given to the puppy, so there's no point giving vaccines to very young pups.

Over time, the antibodies from mom start to fade, eventually falling below the level needed for protection and leaving puppy susceptible to disease if he is exposed. This critical period where mom's antibodies aren't high enough to protect, but are enough to interfere with vaccination is called the Window Period. During this time, puppies are most susceptible to disease. A little bit later, antibody levels will fall low enough that they will no longer interfere with vaccines. Now the puppy's own immune system can respond to the vaccines and protect him against the diseases the vaccines are for.

In an individual puppy it is impossible to predict exactly when those maternal antibodies will fade enough to allow the vaccines to work, but by 16 weeks we can be sure they have. This is why we vaccinate every 3-4 weeks starting at 8 weeks all the way through 16 weeks. We are trying to catch the puppy as soon as possible after that critical window of susceptibility, when his body can respond to the vaccines. If we stop vaccinating before 16 weeks, that puppy may still not be able to respond to the vaccines on his own. If we don't start vaccines at 8 weeks, we may have an extended period of susceptibility when the puppy doesn't have protective antibodies from mom anymore, but still hasn't received a vaccine to stimulate his own immunity.

Socialization period

The socialization period is a developmental stage of all puppies that lasts from 3 weeks through approximately 14 weeks, sometimes a little longer. This is the time in the pup's life when he is most open to new experiences, exploring the world, and learning what is safe and what is not. If a puppy is exposed to all manner of people, dogs, noises, smells, sights, sounds, surfaces to walk on, and so on during this period, he is much more likely to be happy and confident as he matures. Puppies that are not exposed to a wide variety of people and places, are sequestered at home, or have bad experiences early on, are very likely to be fearful in new contexts as they mature. Unfortunately this fear can not only be debilitating for your sweet pup, but it can also lead to very serious behavior problems, including aggression. The socialization period is your chance to prevent potentially devastating outcomes!

The Balancing Act

So now you know that your puppy is not fully protected until his 16 week vaccines, and that there is some worrisome overlap with his critical socialization period. How do you get him socialized without putting him at unnecessary risk of illness? With caution and creativity! Keep in mind that there is no way to be 100% sure your puppy will not get parvo – you could bring it into the house on your feet. However, the risk of parvo with careful socialization is much lower than the risk of serious behavior problems with no socialization. Here are some general guidelines to safe socialization:


Absolute don'ts:

  • Dog parks
  • Beaches
  • Walking down the street on a leash
  • Neighborhood parks (unless carried or in a stroller, see below)

Alternatives:

  • Carrying or using a stroller to take a walk through your neighborhood or city.
  • Visiting stores that allow dogs. Try to carry or place your pup in a cart. Think home improvement stores, banks, clothing stores, outdoor stores... ask the cashier as you come in if it's ok. Usually people love seeing puppies!
  • Going to friends' houses, with or without dogs, as long as the dogs are healthy, vaccinated, and puppy-friendly. Also check that there have been no sick puppies at the house in the past year.
  • Invite friends with puppy-friendly dogs over to your home for play dates!
  • Throw puppy parties at your home, inviting folks over to meet your new addition. You can even throw costume parties with people wearing hats, sunglasses, wigs, etc., or using crutches, walkers, or skateboards. Try to invite people of all ages from babies and kids on up to seniors. It is important for puppies to learn that all shapes and ages of humans are safe and fun.
  • Take the puppy with you to school to pick up/drop off the kids. Keep him up in your arms but let the kids shower him with treats.
  • Ask your veterinarian about doing “happy visits” in between vaccine appointments so your puppy learns to love the vet! This will set your puppy up for a lifetime of health and wellness.
  • If your work is dog-friendly, consider bringing your puppy to work with you, or stopping by at lunch or on your day off to visit with your coworkers.
  • Last but certainly not least, puppy class and chaperoned puppy playgroups are one of the best (and safest) ways to get your puppy socialization. Well-run puppy classes will also help you with normal puppy antics – chewing, potty training, etc. Once your puppy makes friends, you can arrange play dates between classes, too! A word of caution: be choosy about who your puppy trainer will be. Dog training is an unregulated profession and unfortunately the wrong advice can really cause damage. Check out this article on choosing a trainer, and look for an Academy Trainer in your area here.

There is nothing more lovable than a beautiful squirming puppy toddling around your living room. So enjoy! But don’t forget make a plan—and follow it—to keep your puppy safe from both disease and behavioral issues as they grow. Safe socialization really, really matters. It is one of the best gifts you can give your future adult dog: the gift of confidence and joy.

 

Cet article est également disponible en français - cliquez ici. Cover photo credit: Groomee from iStock.

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Our Responsibility To Dogs: Fear, Self-Knowledge, and Puffs of Air

Our Responsibility To Dogs: Fear, Self-Knowledge, and Puffs of Air

Have you ever had that test at the eye doctor, the one where they puff air against your eye? If not, just imagine it. Air in a puff right into your eye. “Don’t blink”, the doctor may tell you. Because typically, if a puff of air hits you in the eye, you blink. It’s a reflex, so you do it automatically. (Bear with me if you will, as we go down this path just a bit. We’ll get to dogs soon enough and it’s worth the journey.)

Imagine you feel a bit of a breeze in your home one day. Just a tiny movement of the air. You pinpoint the crack in the plaster where it’s coming from and crouch down, only to get a puff of air in your eye.

And you blink.

“Well hold right on, that’s not right” you say. You’ve lived in this windy city for years; your eyes are hardened against gale force winds. You’ve competed professionally in staring contests. You’ve worn contact lenses far past the time they feel like sandpaper dipped in jalapeño juice. Ain’t no way a puff of air is going to make you blink. Other people, sure, they’d blink at anything. But not you.

So what’s going on with the blink, then? Something must be really wrong, you decide. Maybe it’s a chemical leak. You take an axe to your wall and start to dismantle it. It’s obviously unsafe for anyone to live in this house, this house with a blink-worthy air leak through a crack in the wall. Something’s there, puffing away, just waiting to kill you and your family. Or worse.

This probably sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? You are likely whispering “why don’t I just admit that blinking is a reflex? Why the tortuous logic and wall dismantling?” And you’re right to whisper that. You really are.

We all, to a one, blink when a puff of air hits our eyes.

Blinking protects our eyes from damage. Our eyes are important to our survival, as you can well imagine. So evolution has bestowed upon us this gift, this automatic behaviour. Blink! In fact, evolution has gifted us with a lot of reflexes and behaviours, gained somewhat painfully through our long primate history as delicious-looking and (until tool-making proliferated, at least) poorly-armed mammals sprinting across the savannah. One of these gifts is the ability—the wondrous ability—to quickly identify threats and get the heck away from them. Sitting in an office with a dog snoozing beside me on the couch, it’s hard to imagine the frequency and severity of threats that my great-great-great-to-the-power-of-twelve-grandmother would have faced. I worry about the diseases of old age as my eventual demise, the majority of my primate ancestors worried about something a bit more immediate: being eaten. Pass the floss; this one’s a bit stringy.

Since being eaten was our relatives’ numero uno cause of death for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we evolved some special ways to avoid it, just like all our meals-on-legs mammalian compatriots. I mean we have those wonderful blinking eyes, of course. But even more fundamental, even more foundational, we have fear. We naturally find certain things scary, or we’re born ready to quickly acquire fears. Fear, as all dog trainers know, causes flight. Or fight. And the things we find scary are the things that killed us in great numbers, of course. Those random great-great-great-grand-siblings of ours that didn’t find giant predatory birds or giant predatory hyenas or giant predatory crocodilians to be scary didn’t live long enough to reproduce, if you know what I mean. Hand over the floss; that one was a bit stringy. You see? Fear matters. Fear kept us safe.

We are all, to a one, scared of dogs.

As a dog training professional, you might be saying “hold on a second here. I’m not scared of dogs. I love dogs. I’ve dedicated my life to dogs!” And yes, all of that is true, too. One doesn’t replace the other. Or more, you may be saying “um, actually, I’m so un-scared of dogs that I have worrisome level of fearlessness.” But that’s not true, either. That’s not true unless you come from another planet or have some very peculiar brain damage. Humans find certain things scary, and that’s perfectly fine. We’re all human, after all. And take heart: admitting our fear of dogs, as dog professionals, doesn’t make us worse at our jobs. Quite the opposite, in fact. Admitting that dogs are, on some occasions, close enough to our Pleistocene predators to evoke some deep-level fears is actually ethical, helpful, and freeing. Pretending we’re not scared is when issues crop up.

Imagine this scenario. You have a client with two 80lb mastiff crosses. The dogs have been arguing over bones. They have argued at least 20 times in the last few years and never done any real harm to each other. The owner decides that she’d like to train the dogs to stop arguing because her new condo association finds the noise to be too much. Usually with a client with infrequent and non-injurious dog-dog resource guarding, you don’t recommend training—it’s just normal dog stuff, after all. However, you have a great plan to work on it anyways, so you head on over to start working with Chomper and Bruiser. All is well in the consult until the moment that Chomper decides that the time is neigh to chomp, and Bruiser returns the favour with a bit of bruising. They start to brawl. 160 pounds of brawl. A tiny ear nick produces a spray of blood in the way ear nicks do.

And you blink.

Your heart rate spikes as your sympathetic nervous system ramps up, although you and the owner manage to separate the dogs without fuss. As per usual with these two dogs, no injuries resulted from the fight other than the tiny nick.

But wait. Something’s different than the time you worked with the squabbling Labradoodles or the arguing Pugs. This time, you’re upset.

“Well hold right on, that’s not right” you say. You’ve trained scrapping dogs for years; your heart is hardened against the fury of fights. You’ve competed in agility and flyball with working-line border collies, for goodness’ sake. Ain’t no way a dog fight is going to make you upset. You’re fearless.

So what’s going on with the pounding heart, then? Something must be really wrong, you decide. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. You take an axe to your beautifully laid out plans and start to dismantle them. It’s obviously unsafe for these dogs to live together in this house, these dogs with their violent brawling that made your heart beat like a castanet. Something’s wrong with these dogs. They’re just waiting to kill each other or harm your client. Or worse.

Remember what you thought after reading about the blink? Well, this should sound just as ridiculous. You should be whispering “why don’t I just admit that being scared of large dogs fighting is a normal human emotion? Why the tortuous logic and plan dismantling?” And you’d be right to whisper that. Recommending crate-and-rotate, re-homing, or euthanasia for non-injurious dog fights is as silly as chopping down a wall to prevent a blink response. And this is the rub.

If we tell ourselves we’re fearless, then when we do actually feel scared, the only conclusion we can come to is that the dog in question must actually be scary. There is no other way out of the cognitive box we’ve jumped into.

But that’s just not a box that dog trainers can afford to get comfy in. The welfare of our dogs, and our clients’ dogs, is at stake. If we use our own heartrate as a barometer of a dog’s threat, rather than established methods focussing on real risk and acquired bite inhibition, then we’re simply doing all dogs a disservice. This fear usually shows up with certain breeds (this is personal, but there are trends which you can guess), certain sizes of dogs (the bigger the better, unsurprisingly), or certain behaviours (aggression of all sorts, no matter how ritualized, but in combination with breed and size even unruliness can work). Preventing a playful, social dog from having the joy of dog play after non-injurious scrapping is the typical outcome here, although other, sadder outcomes are also possible.

So the next time you feel your heartrate start to skip, be thankful. It’s the gift that kept your ancestors alive, so that xx years later, you could catch a lift on this mortal coil. And it’s kind of interesting, to feel your pupils blow and your nostrils flare and the sound of your heart in your ears…but don’t be fooled by it. You’re scared because you’re human. In most cases it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog in front of you.

We are all, to a one, scared of dogs. We’re scared because we’re human. In most cases it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog in front of us.

 

 

Cover photo credit: Utopia_88 by iStock.

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Preparing Our Dogs to be Comfortable at the Vet’s Office: the Academy’s Husbandry Project

Preparing Our Dogs to be Comfortable at the Vet’s Office: the Academy’s Husbandry Project

We used to accept it as a given that dogs just didn’t like going to the vet, and that there wasn’t much to be done about it. However, things are really changing in today’s more patient-centric veterinary care models. No longer is it considered acceptable to frighten or traumatize dogs in order to do routine veterinary care. From vaccinations to ear exams, the old way of cornering and manhandling wide-eyed and trembling dogs has been replaced with the idea of co-operative care with dogs who are comfortable enough to participate willingly. Vets and their staff are learning how to approach, move, and treat dogs without causing alarm, and are becoming much more aware of the use of anxiety-reducing medications to help those dogs who are suffering despite a careful approach. The physical and emotional health of animals is at the forefront of modern veterinary care, especially with the growing Fear Free movement and certification.

The Academy for Dog Trainers resoundingly supports this movement in the veterinary community. The Academy’s program and graduates in good standing adhere to a strict code of conduct that clearly outlines our position against the use of techniques and practices that hurt or scare dogs. We are thankful and relieved that veterinarians are leading the charge to make dogs comfortable with vet visits, from the very moment the dog enters through their office door.

However, the Academy acknowledges that for many dogs, and for many veterinary situations, changes within the clinic cannot be the whole answer. To reduce or eliminate fear of veterinary care, many dogs first need carefully-crafted, incremental training outside of the veterinary office, and then within the veterinary office but with no scary procedures happening, before they can be comfortable with real-life vet care. And that’s where the Academy’s ongoing Husbandry Project steps up to the plate.

The Academy has been working with our students and graduates for several years now on the Husbandry Project, which is our own contribution to the modern veterinary approach of pain-free and fear-free veterinary care. The Husbandry Project’s goals are to create, test, refine, and publish training plans to help all dogs feel comfortable and happy at the vet’s office, and with the common veterinary procedures carried out on conscious dogs. These training plans will be accompanied by all the information a dog owner needs to carry out the training: step-by-step instructional videos, troubleshooting information, work plans, and so on.

Why training plans?

Training plans are simply a series of steps needed to get a dog from untrained to trained. The steps need to be something which most dogs can achieve, and the end product of the plan, the so-called “terminal behaviour”, must be clearly laid out. For the Academy’s Husbandry Project, our terminal behaviours include “dog will do a stay in lateral recumbency for a range-of-motion test on the exam table”. Training without a plan (for example, picking up a clicker and just starting to free-shape, or trying to get a dog to do anything without first strategizing how you’ll elicit the behaviour and then fade any prompts) can be fun to do at home when there are no stakes. But it’s inefficient when we need results. And to prevent or treat fearfulness at the veterinary office, we do indeed need results.

What are we going to train?

The Academy chose to tackle a number of specific behaviours and veterinary procedures in consultation with a steering committee of veterinarians. These veterinarians are either in our program currently or are graduates. They identified both common fear-inducing triggers for dogs at the vet’s office, and common procedures needed. With this information in hand, and with decades working with fearful dogs of all shapes and sizes, the Academy’s director Jean Donaldson drafted around 20 separate plans. These plans range from a sit-stay for a jugular blood draw to a plan to get fearful dogs comfortable on the exam table to a plan to have a dog stay standing relatively still for a vaccination or ear exam. These plans include two main types: Pavlovian (or classical) conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable with veterinary implements, staff, and offices, and operant conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable holding the positions they’ll need to hold for various procedures.

Classical conditioning plans

Classical or Pavlovian conditioning changes a dog’s underlying emotional state. A well-drafted plan carried out by a knowledgeable trainer or well-coached dog owner is a powerful tool in the prevention of fears, but also to change an already-fearful dog’s emotional response to an item or situation. The Husbandry Project’s classical conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs enjoy muzzles, tooth-brushing, veterinary implements, and also the vet waiting room and exam room, and veterinary staff.

Operant conditioning plans

Since manhandling dogs and forcing them to endure vaccinations, manipulations, or exams is no longer an acceptable standard of veterinary care, dogs must be taught to assume a variety of positions on cue. The Husbandry Project operant conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs are trained to assume relevant positions such as standing still or lying on their sides (lateral recumbency) and to remain in these positions for the usual types of veterinary procedures. Since all training will be done using positive reinforcement, the dogs will also learn to enjoy assuming these positions. 

Why data collection?

Although Academy staff have created thousands of successful training plans, drafting a training plan and simply offering it up for public use is inappropriate and can sometimes even have dangerous consequences. Untested plans can go wrong in a few different ways. Training plans that are too vague or too hard can cause dog owners to give up and return to old (possibly fear-inducing) habits. And this is to say nothing of the owners who throw their hands up in despair if the plan doesn’t work, and end up going to trainers comfortable with aversives to get things done. Dog owners, and dogs, deserve well-vetted training protocols and plans which allow for the majority of dogs to move through their training with the minimum of fuss. “Every dog is an individual” is a great marketing message but is simply not true when it comes to training. Most dogs will progress through well-vetted training plans in a similar way. In fact, a firm adherence to the ‘every dog is an individual’ credo seems to lead technically unskilled trainers towards aversive stimuli for dogs who would do just fine with a proficient R+ trainer and good plan.

For these reasons, the Academy has committed to not only drafting plans, but to drafting plans and having a good number of dogs and trainers work through them to work out the kinks, before offering them to the public. We’ve gathered a crew of our students and grads who have agreed to help us out, and sent the plans around. They’re all training every plan and taking careful notes: where are the plans inefficient? Where are they too pushy? We’re compiling the data and will use them to create a set of revised plans. These plans will be much closer to print-ready, but the Academy will do one final round of plan testing to be sure (read on below for how you can help us) before releasing them to the public.

We completed Phase One in 2017, which included all the classical conditioning plans and the baseline positions such as stand and lateral recumbency. Phase Two will be finished in the summer of 2018, and includes veterinary procedures such as range-of-motion tests and “vaccinations”.

Although the dogs in training aren’t technically “vet ready” until the end of Phase 2, they’re all living creatures who need regular vet care, so many of our tester dogs have already been to the vet. We have heard reports of many successful veterinary visits (including for dogs who were previously profoundly fearful), which is an indication of more good things to come. Please read on for some examples, below.

Interested in helping out?

If you’re interested in helping out with our next round of testing, we would love to have you. You must commit to train about 15 things with your dog. Depending on your dog, this might mean around 15 minutes at a time, a few times a week, for a few months. You must also be able to do some training at a veterinary office. This will require getting permission, although we will help with that by providing a letter template. Please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to be put on the notification list.

Successful veterinary visits

Although we are just partway through our project, many of our participants have had to jump the gun a bit, and take their partly-trained dogs in for veterinary care. We are delighted with the results and would like to share a few of them, to tempt any dog owners into participating in our next round of plan vetting.

Luke and Tovah

Luke is standing on a scale and putting his nose into Tovah’s outstretched hand.

Luke is standing on a scale and putting his nose into Tovah’s outstretched hand.

Academy graduate Tovah Riester (Facebook) and her dog Luke have been hard at work training the Academy’s plans, including a stand stay on the scale. Tovah said “My Luke was taught the stationing on the vet’s scale and has used it three times since then! He had dental surgery so lots of visits back to back and they weigh him every time”. Scales can be quite scary for some dogs.

The most important thing we have made use of from our participation in this project is the positive conditioned emotional response Luke has to his vet office. [A recent]  tooth extraction was very painful for him. His recovery time took much longer than other surgeries he's had at other vet clinics. However, the next visit to the vet, Luke was clearly very happy to be back there despite the painful visit.

Christian, Bree, and Safi

Caption: Bree and Safi on the exam table, ready for treatment (and treats)

Academy graduate Christian Williams (website) is training her two Border Collies to enjoy vet care.

Bree and Safi live in South East London with older brother Rusty and little big sister Pod. I adopted Rusty, Bree and Safi as a family through Valgrays Border Collie Rescue in 2012.

As a very sociable dog, Bree (Blue Merle) has always enjoyed vet visits. Shy and sound sensitive Safi (Black and White) used to spend most of the time at the surgery trying to get out the door.

Road testing the Academy’s Husbandry Project Training Plans has boosted Safi’s confidence and turned vet visits from “get me outta here” to “let’s have fun –this is where the venison sausage treats flow!”. How did we get from scary place to good place? We practiced at home and built lifting onto a table into the most fabulous thing. We developed olfactory CER’s to the “smell of the Veterinary Surgery” and we visited the surgery for practice visits. Last visit, instead of pulling on her lead to get back to the car, Safi sniffed excitedly all around the waiting room, she had never done this before. Then she whizzed right into the exam room and danced around on her hind legs – peeping at the top of the exam table. “Wow, you’re keen Saf” I thought as I lifted her up. And up she went & those tasty sausage treats appeared as if by magic.

Does this stuff work? It does! Two weeks ago, Safi had a minor eye infection, off to the vets we went. We had some fun in the waiting room doing our stationing game. Then into the exam room and yes, you’ve guessed it – straight up on that exam table.

Eva and Bjorn

Bjorn holds a lateral recumbency position while having hot and cold compresses applied.

Eva Kifri worked through the Husbandry Project plans with her agility champ Malamutes, which came in handy when one of her dogs needed hot and cold compresses after a surgery. "Having just completed recovery from that surgery, Bjorn then lacerated his ear and required further treatment...and one day after returning to regular activity, he broke a toe and spent four weeks in a cast. The flounder position [lateral recumbency] helped him to get through his treatments; giving him a lot of control over the pace."

Having been trained into a useful position is a huge step forward in reduced stress and difficulty with an exam/treatment, even for a  dog who is reasonably relaxed/non fearful and good about body handling. It's not just a nice bonus. It’s also not particularly difficult to do in advance—cooperative care really should be part of basic pet training/knowledge… The reduction in stress to the dog –in having the  treatments and exam procedures be familiar and active things that they do cannot really be overstated.

Melanie and Wyatt

Trainer Melanie Cerone (website, Facebook) was working through the husbandry plans with her dog Wyatt when he developed some hot spots that needed veterinary care.

Wyatt had developed some “hot spots” on his hind quarters near his tail from incessant chewing, possibly due to allergies. I took him to the vet on Friday and the vet and vet tech needed to comb through the hair on his back-end and tail to see the sore spots. I used the muzzle station [the Husbandry Project’s stand-stay] throughout the exam and he did beautifully! He held the station for the entire exam with me reinforcing every five seconds or so since this was the first time we had used the station for a real exam. Both the vet and the tech were impressed and commented on how well he did throughout the exam. 

Then, we decided to clip some hair around one of the largest sores where I needed to apply an antibiotic spray daily. Wyatt’s never been clipped and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The vet initially suggested that the tech take Wyatt to another room and have a second tech assist her with the clipping, but then she said that Wyatt did so well during the exam the tech could just shave the spot in the exam room with me there (and no second tech). The tech got the electric clippers and just turned them on while I had Wyatt station. He did not react to the sound of the clippers and stationed beautifully. She then clipped the spot while he continued to station. I have to say I was pretty blown away, and so was the tech. 

It was about as stress-free a vet visit as we’ve ever had. The vet and the tech commented repeatedly how grateful they were to have such an “easy” patient.

Megan and Atrus

Megan and Atrus practiced the stationing behaviours in the Husbandry Project plans before they were needed.

Trainer Megan O’Hara (website, Facebook) was part way through the training plans when her dog Atrus needed to visit the vet for full glands. Megan reported that “Atrus was able to hold a chin station the whole time. It was a proud momma moment, for sure.”

 

Cover photo Credit:vadimguzhva via istock.

 

 

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Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

As a veterinarian and dog trainer, I often get asked, “How can I stop my dog from snarling at me when he's eating? It is so disrespectful. No matter how much I yell at him or take his food away when he does it, he still seems to forget that I'm the one who feeds him.” Luckily, disrespect isn't part of the equation, even though it really looks and feels like it is. I can usually make a quick diagnosis: Resource Guarding. Thankfully, it's a problem that is usually straightforward to address.

What is it?

Resource guarding is when dogs exhibit behaviors designed to prevent other animals (dogs, humans, cats, etc.) from obtaining something that is in their possession. They've got a thing they want to keep (the resource), so they do stuff (guarding) to make sure the other animals in the area don't try to take it. Dogs most commonly will guard food, treats, toys, and locations. Sometimes they will also guard certain humans. Guarding is usually directed at other dogs (dog-dog), or humans (dog-human).

What does it look like?

Some guarding is quite obvious: growling, snarling, snapping, biting, lunging/chasing, or even taking an item away to hide. Some is more subtle: tense muscles/freezing, “hard eye” (staring), or eating food or treats faster than normal.

Why do dogs do it?

Because they evolved to want stuff!

It's very important to understand that resource guarding can be a very normal behavior for dogs. The warnings that dogs give—growls, snarls, stares, freezing—are the dog trying to communicate politely, in dog language, that they would like you to back off. If you or the other dog listen to his request and back off, this is likely where the situation will end. It's perfectly reasonable for a dog to say, “I'd rather keep this delicious snack to myself, thank you.”

 

If I had a $1000 bill in my hand, you would not fault me one bit for pulling it away from you as you reached towards it. I might even say, “Sorry, you can't have that!” as I put it back in my pocket. Of course I want to keep my money. I need to pay my mortgage and feed my kids! A dog freezing, staring, growling, eating faster, or even snarling, is doing the same thing. He's saying, “Hey, that's mine! Please don't take it!”

 

What should we do about it?

As with many behavior problems, there are three main ways to go on this one: acceptance, management, and training. In this case, the training would consist of desensitization and counter-conditioning.

            Acceptance—or doing nothing—is appropriate when the guarding is mild, does not inconvenience or scare anyone, and NEVER involves injuries. For example, dog-dog guarding in which the dogs are “talking” but never injuring each other can usually be left alone. It's like Animal Planet in your living room—just sit back and enjoy watching two animals talk in the language of their species!

            Management alone is appropriate when there is minimal risk to humans or animals, and when the type of guarding allows for changing the environment to accommodate the guarder. For example, a dog who growls and practically inhales his food when other dogs are nearby can easily just be fed in another room with the door closed. He will most likely appreciate being able to eat in peace! A dog who growls at the owner when he approaches while the dog is working on a dental chewy can be put in his crate at chewy time and left alone until he is done. Management may also be used in more serious cases either while training is taking place, or if training is not feasible. 

            Training is appropriate when the guarding is more severe, results in injuries, or if it is inconvenient enough to the owner to make the time investment worthwhile. Training can also be done preventatively if the owner wishes (this is highly recommended for puppies!). Rather than focusing directly on changing the behavior (growling, biting, etc.), this training focuses on changing the dog's emotional reaction to having his “stuff” taken from him. Instead of, “Oh crap! Here they come to take my food!” we want, “Oh boy! Here they come to take my food! Yayayayayay!!”

What should we NOT do?

Unfortunately it's all too easy to make resource guarding worse. Punishing the warnings dogs give us, taking items away repeatedly with no reward, smacking or “alpha-rolling” dogs for guarding all actually make the guarding more serious. Dogs that are punished for guarding may stop giving the warning signs, but they still don't want you to take their stuff. And if pushed too far, they are more likely to bite.

 

You see that I have $1000, and you ask me for it. I say ,“No way, that's mine!” You grab it out of my hand and leave. Next payday, you ask for my money again. I yell at you, “NO! IT'S MINE AND YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!” You get right up in my face and yell, “DON'T YOU DARE YELL AT ME!” and then take my money and leave. Two weeks later, you walk up to me when I have my paycheck in my pocket. I don't even wait for you to say anything, I just deliver a knock-out punch right to your nose. Whoops.

 The second scenario is even worse. You take my money, then smack me or yell at me for protesting politely. I tend to be a pretty timid person, so the next 5 times you take my money, I'm silent. You think, “oh good, she learned to respect me,” but inside I'm getting more and more upset. The final time you take my money, I blow up, break your nose, and give you a concussion. Dogs can easily do the same thing when punished for objecting to their things being taken. They learn that they aren't allowed to TELL you they are upset, but it doesn't change the fact that they ARE upset, and they may eventually be pushed too far and end up biting you or someone else with no warning. 

 

How does this desensitization and counter-conditioning stuff work?

Desensitization and counter-conditioning is all about starting where the dog is comfortable (a toy or object he really couldn't care less about), and gradually teaching him to LOVE having his stuff taken by giving him even better stuff than whatever it was we took away. As he learns to love having his stuff taken, we very slowly increase the difficulty towards the stuff he really doesn't want to give up.


Remember my $1000? What if, instead of you taking my whole $1000, you started out just taking a dollar, and then handing me $2 in return. The next time you see me, you take $5, and immediately hand me $10. You gradually take more and more, but each time you give me back twice as much. As I figure out the pattern, I start getting pretty happy when I see you approach. I might even try to get you to take my money.

That's what we want with dogs. We want them to want us to take their stuff. And we get there by paying them handsomely for giving their stuff to us. It may take a while, especially if there's a history of you taking my money with no reward. But if we work on it carefully and slowly enough, we can get there.

 

Hire a qualified trainer!

When working on sensitive issues like resource guarding, the devil is in the details. I highly recommend working with a qualified trainer for this problem. You'll make progress much faster, and you'll be less likely to get stuck or start going in the wrong direction. When hiring a trainer, be sure to ask about their methods and training education. You want someone who will train without pain, fear, or force, and ideally someone with a lot of high-quality education and experience. There is an excellent blog on finding a good trainer here, and you can search for an Academy for Dog Trainers graduate in your area here.

 

Cover photo credit: Jeannie Hutchins Photography

Second photo: iStock Credit Tepepa79

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The Annual Academy Awards

The Annual Academy Awards

Each year, the Academy hosts our own version of The Academy Awards. These awards serve as an outlet for fun, and to help us counteract the hard work of fighting the war on aversives and to celebrate the contributions of Academy members to the force-free community and the industry.

In the past, we've celebrated smiles, like Valentino's below. We've celebrated interspecies and conspecific friendships, we've celebrated great tricks and pictures of dogs snoozing in funny positions, and we've celebrated meaningful contributions from our members and beyond, like hard-hitting, popular blogs and fantastic campaigns designed to educate and improve welfare for dogs.

                               

We are fortunate to have among our members writers like Zazie Todd of Companion Animal Psychology and Lisa Skavienski of Your Pit Bull and You, both of whom have won in the Best Blog category and whose contributions to the field are immeasurable. There's no shortage of ideas within the Academy, and projects such as Harness the Love have been honored for their contribution to the larger community.

                                

The Academy is a strong proponent for science-based literacy, and we presented Eileen Anderson with a special award that we call The Academy Applauds for her contributions to the field through her blog and her book. Bob Bailey was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2016 for his body of work, which has changed and expanded the definitions of "Think, Plan, Do" for so many of us. 

Dog training can be an isolating endeavor and within the Academy, we have members all over the world, from Singapore to rural America, from Hong Kong to Sydney. Living in the digital era has allowed us all to connect in ways that we simply were not able to in the past. Since its inception in 2011, the Academy has helped build friendships between dog trainers who would likely never have had the chance to meet, otherwise. Fostering these relationships and helping students grow are the cornerstone of our ethos.

The Academy has created a culture of collaboration, mutual respect and personal and professional growth. Bonds have been created, minds engaged and careers started. We are proud of our students and their commitment to force-free training and the Academy Awards is a way for all of us to show off some more of our personalities and get to know each other....and everyone's dogs a little bit better! 

This year's winners included Tracy Krulik and I Speak Dog for Idea of the Year, Casey McGee of Upward Hound for Best Blog for her piece entitled "Tell Me What You Want" and we presented the Kim Monteith and Emilia Gordon with The Academy Applauds award for their incredible work at the BC SPCA.

We're incredibly proud of our students and their commitment to learning and raising the standard in the dog training industry. We're also proud of their spirit of competition and fun, because no one gets into dogs to add more drudgery to their lives!

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Intensity Isn't Bad

I am one of a small army of applied dog behavior people that fights against stuff every day.  Mainstays like the use of aversive stimuli (positive punishment and negative reinforcement) in dog training.  The absence of competence standards in dog training.  Breed-specific legislation.  Leadership leadership leadership.  And transient alarming trends such as don’t socialize puppies so much…socialization makes them outgoing, which is inconvenient.  And this one:  the idea that excitement is bad.  If dogs get amped up (buzzword: “aroused”), we should be alarmed.  And work to restore them to calm.  Which is good.  

This last one is even coming from some pros.  My best guess is it’s emotion first, then rationalization, i.e. “dogs moving fast or getting excited upsets me, and I’m an expert, therefore it must be bad.”  The reasons then put forward seem to shake out into three buckets:

  1. Excitement = intensity = aggression or crazy animal trampling people or traumatizing some person or dog, which would be bad.
  2. Allowing excitement opens a Pandora’s box of excitement that will never end, which is bad.
  3. Excitement = stress, which is bad.

Let’s unpack them each in turn.

Excitement = aggression or trampling or emotional trauma

The bad things that can happen because of a dog’s presence are finite: a person is bitten, a person is otherwise injured (e.g. a large, fractious dog knocks a kid to the pavement and they hit their head), a dog is physically injured, a person or dog is traumatized and made fearful.  The error is the conflating of excitement with aggression or unruly behavior.  In other words, plenty of calm-looking dogs bite people, and plenty of dogs in mid-joyous abandon don’t.  And, assuming competence in the trainer (I know, a tenuous assumption still), dogs can be taught to not jump up, not pull on leash and not body-slam people, all while leaving any excited-type emotions in place.  In fact, those are the very contexts we most need manners and so are dedicated parameters in our training plans.  Behavior – jumping on people, biting people, attacking dogs – is the problem, not excitement.  So we use smart bombs (training and behavior modification) to target the problem behaviors, replace them with likable behaviors.  And we don’t shoot for nebulous terminal behaviors such as “relaxation.”

Some people feel that excitement during play is a harbinger of imminent aggression.  I can understand this.  Dogs are intense animals and most people Feel Better When They Are Calm.  Dogs play using their jaws.  And they slam, they wrestle, they mount, they run fast.  De-coupling intensity from aggression is an uphill battle, emotionally, but it’s worth the slog.  For play it goes like this.  Provided dogs are self-handicapping – attenuating the force of their play-bites and body-slams – and there are meta-signals and bi-lateral consent, all is well. 

Consent doesn’t have to be guessed at (do a consent test).  And meta-signals such as play-bows, play-face and inefficient, bouncy movements are either present or they’re not.  Play can heat up and fisticuffs ensue when these items break down.  But focusing on “arousal” is eye off the ball.  It pulls resources from the actual ball, which is those three items: self-handicapping, meta-signals and consent. 

Now, the hand-wringing is sometimes about the *stuff* of play, which is (supposed to be, and, behold, is), play versions of fight, flight, feeding and courtship.  This unpacks as play biting and wrestling, play chasing and fleeing, and play courting and mounting.  These may be performed laconically or with great gusto, and dogs have play styles (some are wrestle-heavy, some like to chase, some to be chased etc.).  People are not always comfortable with all items.  But obsessing about biting or mounting is eye off that ball again. 

 

Most often, though, it isn’t the stuff, it’s the manner: it’s the dogs moving fast and being amped up that makes owners feel like it’s out of control.  But that’s not a good enough reason to stop dogs from playing.  There are welfare implications to denying species-normal play on insufficient grounds.  And micro-managing with eye off the ball usually shakes out as denying.  This is beautifully described in this post by Kristi Benson.

Allowing excitement opens a Pandora’s box

This school of thought, if you let an animal rehearse something, you’ll get more and more of it, is bested on the ideas playing field by a hydraulic model when it comes to play and excitement.  Activities such as eating, drinking, play and sex, wax and wane in normal animals depending on how recently they were engaged in.  The refractory period after a huge Thanksgiving meal.  The puppy out cold in the car after attending a puppy social.  How thirsty you are after not sipping all day and sweating a lot.  This waxing and waning is actually exploitable in applied behavior.  We use establishing and abolishing operations to make sure our motivators will work and to modulate the intensity of distractions in training plans.  Some of the very same trainers who likely do this worry about keeping a lid on excitement.  I can see channeling excitement but bottling it up to get less of it?  That’s how you build motivation: that’s how you get more of it.

Excitement = stress

There was consternation a few months ago about a video of an off-course agility dog.  He was having a blast racing around taking random obstacles, but there was a sub-set of viewers who read the dog’s glee as stress.  Then I saw a post recently where someone was warned against prompting zoomies lest they stress a particular dog.  Thankfully, no less than Marc Bekoff has now addressed this.  And, unbelievably, I just heard about an applied behavior practitioner who really ought to know better, admonishing against both training (sit, down, etc.) and enrichment (stuffed Kongs, snuffle mats etc.) because Stress.    

While everybody applauds the impulse to reduce fear, anxiety and stress in dogs; excitement of the kids on Christmas morning variety, of the crazed laughing with friends variety, of the dogs racing around or unpacking a puzzle toy variety, is not bad.  It’s good.  It’s tortured logic to stuff intensity, because it makes a viewer uncomfortable, into the category “stress.”  It’s understandable that intensity in animals with pointy teeth pushes deep evolutionary buttons in us humans.  But if we are stressed, it doesn’t mean our dogs are stressed.

 

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Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

One of the most glorious times in a dog trainer’s life is that moment when we gently (if metaphorically) grasp our client’s hands and escort them and their dog into a play session. This is especially the case if the client is a bit wary or unsure—they believe in us, sure, but also trust their gut: my dog is a scary beast, isn't he? So their flat-out joy at seeing their dog play gleefully warms the cockles of our hearts.

Often this scenario comes up if our client’s dogs have had a scuffle with another dog at some point in the past. A cautious dog owner might, from that alarming moment on, sequester their dogs: leash walks only, no more play dates, or in multi-dog homes, they might even start a program of crate-and-rotate or otherwise keep dogs separated at all times. In some cases, owners find leash reactivity alone to be worrisome enough to decide that they can’t chance dog play—a sad scenario indeed, as many leash reactive dogs are frantically pro-social with other dogs and would in fact be improved by the chance to decrease their social motivation through dog play. 

To trainers familiar with normal and healthy dog play (which occasionally includes a minor squabble or some intense moments), it can feel a bit like we are spinning our wheels when we allow the minutes to tick by in a consult, normalizing what is really just normal dog behaviour. However, it is simply not time wasted: we must be thorough and caring to really help owners move past their feelings of alarm and fear, no matter what else is on the training to-do list. A non-injurious scuffle or one resulting in a few minor facial dings is not a walk in the park for a dog trainer but certainly doesn’t make us throw in the towel on all future dog interactions. For dog owners, though—who do not understand ritualization and acquired bite inhibition—this stuff is really scary. A few comforting words and a “get over it” attitude will do no one any favours.

In fact, spending time with our clients normalizing non-injurious interactions can pay real dividends. First, we are getting more dogs to play. Play with conspecifics is a great way to provide exercise and enrichment and a tremendous welfare boost for members of a social species like dogs. Second, our clients get access to an easy and enjoyable way to tire out their dogs. Play time is a quick energy burner for dogs and an enjoyable social occasion for humans, if orchestrated well. Clients with active dogs especially appreciate the big payoffs and small investment from having play available to them as an exercise option. And third, our businesses will grow with the ever-elusive word of mouth. Many people find watching dog play to be exquisitely enjoyable, and if we open the gate to dog play, it keeps them talking about our services.

If you have clients with dogs who are good candidates for dog play and who are pushing back due to wariness from an alarming (to them) but safe and normal encounter, consider the time you spend normalizing and myth-busting to be time well spent. On one hand, dog play may form a key component to a behaviour modification program. For certain diagnoses like leash reactivity in a friendly but barrier frustrated dog, dog-dog play can be used within your behaviour modification protocol for saturation (getting the dog bored of dogs), motivation (using play as a reinforcing consequence) and distraction (for training very solid alternate behaviours). On the other hand, even in cases where play won't be of direct use for your training plan, dog play is of value for the exercise and enrichment it provides. For example, owners who have experienced a minor scuffle might easily misinterpret the seriousness of it and end up preventing their young, active, and bored dog from playing. "He would have killed the other dog if I hadn't intervened" is a common theme, despite the strong likelihood that their dog has a species-normal and safe way of settling minor disagreements. It makes good sense to take the time to discuss acquired bite inhibition, which is the ability of dogs to bite with attenuated, non-maiming force in social interactions. Talk about how the dogs, if they had intended on hurting each other, could have done so immediately. And recognize that these owners are quite legitimately scared, so need a gentle approach. You may have to repeat the message often, and in many different ways, for the owner to get some clarity about their dog's behaviour and needs.

Getting previously-sequestered dogs set up with playmates is good for your client, good for your business, and good for the dog. And all that hand-holding has a delightful bit of reinforcement for you, too: a video card full of play between dogs who (without your intervention), simply wouldn't have the chance.

Joya, sequestered after a minor squabble, was able to shine as a dog-friendly dog after some work by Academy graduate Sabrina Mignacca of Ivy League Dogs. Anna, also sequestered after a squabble, took it upon herself to reintroduce play in her life after two years away from it. Anna's newfound sociability was fostered by Academy graduate Lisa Skavienski of Dog, Educated.

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On-Leash Etiquette, Management and Reactivity

On-Leash Etiquette, Management and Reactivity

It can be helpful to understand and appreciate the inherently frustrating situation we put our dogs in a lot of time. Dogs are highly social animals and when we put them on a leash they are set up for frustration by the sight of people and dogs they cannot access. If this happens repeatedly, the frustration becomes associated with these stimuli: barking and aggressive displays can result, eventually even out of the original context. Here are some management techniques to help mitigate these situations:

  • Keep on-leash interactions short & sweet - keep the leash loose - tight leashes amp dogs up. Let your dogs sniff each other for 3 seconds max, then happy talk and go on your way.
  • Avoid mixing on-leash and off-leash dogs - this is a volatile combination - and not by fault of any of the dogs concerned.
  • Change your gear to a no pull harness or if you have an exceptionally strong puller/lunger a head harness. This is the equipment of choice for this problem because you have control of the head and the jaws.
  • Maintain social skills with regular off-leash access to own species (provided your dog is not aggressive off leash), even if your dog is not a big player. Dogs can get rusty and hyper-motivated over time.
  • If your dog goes off - do a Turn & Go - Don’t just stand there!

What is a Turn & Go?

If you have a dog who is reactive on leash, whether it be to strangers, other dogs, cars, skateboarders, joggers, etc, knowing how to do an emergency turn & go is essential. This simple maneuver will help you manage your dogs reactivity by avoiding your dogs triggers, and having a habitual and effective way of quickly redirecting them if you have any incidents.

When out with your dog, constantly be scanning your environment, looking out for your dogs triggers. Get to know your particular dogs stress signals and early signs that they are starting
to get upset.

 If your dog starts to reacts do a Turn & Go:

  • Immediately just turn and walk in the opposite direction from the trigger.
  • Keep moving and Happy talk your dog until they calm down.
  • Don’t ask the dog anything, don’t try to bargain. 

 Why are Dogs Leash Reactive?

Frustration - Most dogs who react on-leash at the sight of other dogs (or strangers, joggers, skateboarders etc) are doing so out of frustration. They are motivated to investigate or chase something and are being thwarted by the leash. This is very similar to when you are running late for an appointment and get stuck in traffic, you are motivated to go somewhere and being thwarted by traffic is very frustrating. For many people this can lead to physical outbursts and over time can develop into genuine “Road Rage.”

Fear - Some dogs who react on-leash are doing so because they are genuinely afraid or uncomfortable around the trigger. They do not want to get closer to it, rather they want it to get farther away. What’s more, they know they are on-leash and therefore “trapped,” meaning they are unable to exercise a “flight” response and so for resort to “fight.”

How can you tell which is which?

Off-leash history - How are the dogs when they are off leash around the trigger of their reactivity? If they are pro-social, playful and relaxed then you are dealing with frustration. If they are asocial, uninterested or aggressive then you are dealing with fear.

 
What can we do about it?

Frustration - Positively Reinforce an Incompatible Behaviour

As soon as the dog notices the trigger, ask them to do a pre-trained incompatible behavior like sit or “watch” and reward with really yummy food treats until the trigger is out of view.

Fear - Change the Underlying Emotional Response to the trigger

As soon as the dog notices the trigger, happy talk (praise them) and give them really yummy food treats until the trigger goes out of view. Do not worry about asking for a behaviour.

In both cases always work at a “Safe” distance

IF the dog starts to react on leash they are over threshold and unable to learn. Do a “Turn and Go” to get them back to a distance they feel safe or less frustrated.

Avoid yelling or physical corrections to punish the reactive behaviour as this can lead to an association between the trigger and the punishment (rather than the behaviour) and make the reactivity worse.

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The Double Advantage of Reward-Based Training

The Double Advantage of Reward-Based Training

The science of dog training shows risks to canine welfare from aversive methods, and positive benefits from using rewards.

 Although an increasing number of dog trainers are force-free, there are currently no regulations on dog training  and still some on-going debate amongst trainers and dog owners about what is the best method to train a dog. But the science, which already pointed to risks in using aversive methods, has continued to develop.

Many dog trainers are concerned the use of punishment in dog training may have unwanted effects. They point to the position statement of the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior which warns of “potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increasing fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.”

These potential unwanted effects are put into sharp focus by a review by Gal Ziv PhD published earlier this year. The review covered 17 research papers, from large-scale questionnaires to observational studies, experiments, and veterinary case studies. It compared reward-based methods (positive reinforcement and negative punishment) to aversive methods (positive punishment and negative reinforcement). For example, use of a shock collar, hitting the dog, pinning the dog, using a choke or prong collar, bark collars, and sharp tugs on the leash (“leash corrections”) are all aversive techniques.

We’ll look at the results of this review and then consider potential reasons, as well as other important changes in how we think about animal welfare.

 Aversive methods are not more effective

Some people still hold to the view that aversive techniques are more effective. Not so, according to this review.

Some people say shock collars are better for teaching a dog to come when called (recall). Again, not so.

In a study that directly tested this, using a controlled experiment and with trainers suggested by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association, a shock collar was no more effective than using rewards (we’ll get to the welfare issues in a moment).

In fact 3 studies suggested reward-based methods to train dogs might work better.

Another study found dogs with a history of being trained more often with rewards learned a new task more quickly. Dogs with a history of being trained more often with aversive methods were less playful with their owner and interacted less with the researcher. The scientists explained it like this:

“a past history of rewards-based training increases a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.” 

 Aversive techniques have risks

The review showed an increase in fear and aggression associated with the use of aversive techniques. For example one study asked owners about the dog’s direct response to particular methods. Among the responses, 31% of owners reported an aggressive response when they did an “alpha roll”, 43% said their dog was aggressive when they hit or kicked it, 38% when they forced the dog to let go of something in its mouth, 20% said using a spray bottle got an aggressive response, and 15% who yelled “No!”.

Other studies also found an increased risk of fear and aggression in dogs that received punishment, or that were punished more often. An increase in other behaviour problems, such as attention-seeking, was also found in some research.

Aggression is obviously of concern because of the risk to people, who might receive a bite. Fear is also a concern because unfortunately it can take a lot of work and a long time to resolve it (if at all).

Signs of stress, such as lip licking and a lower body posture, were another risk. Over the long-term, chronic stress can be bad for a dog’s physical health, just like chronic stress is bad for humans too.

The studies of electronic collars (including the one mentioned above) found their use carries risks for animal welfare even when the trainer is experienced. Signs of stress included more time being tense, a low tail, lowered body posture, yawning, less interaction with the environment, and sometimes vocalizations. Unfortunately when scientists looked at electronic-collar-trained dogs outside of the training environment, some of these effects persisted beyond the training session.

 Why do we find these results?

There are a number of reasons why aversive techniques might have negative effects.

In causing stress, there is a risk the dog’s ability to learn will be affected. It is possible the dog will associate the stress with the owner (or trainer), rather than with the behaviour they were doing. It’s also possible the dog is not sure what to associate the stressful event with. This could lead to generalized anxiety and/or to the dog being fearful of the owner.

One study found that dogs taught with negative reinforcement (including tugging on the leash until the dog walks to heel) look less at their owner. This could impact learning because the owner does not have the dog’s attention. (We know from other research that in successful dog training sessions, the dog looks at the trainer a lot.

Another issue is that aversive dog training methods focus on teaching what not to do; they do not teach the dog what you would actually like them to do instead. This could be one reason why dogs trained with rewards are more likely to be considered obedient.

The use of rewards also directly addresses the dog’s motivation in a way that is likely to make the dog want to learn, and to enjoy future training sessions.

But that’s not the only thing…

 Positive Welfare

In the past, animal welfare guidelines were all about preventing harm, and this approach has made a huge difference to how we care for animals. More recently, and as we’ve learned more about animals and how they feel about and interact with their world, we now understand that good welfare includes positive experiences too:

“…the overall objective is to provide opportunities for animals to ‘thrive’, not simply ‘survive’” (Mellor, 2016).

Reward-based training is enjoyable for dogs. They like the rewards, which are usually tasty bits of food they don’t normally get in their diet (but could also be play or petting or other rewards when appropriate). Dogs also enjoy the process of earning those rewards.

Training with rewards is one way to provide positive experiences that will make your dog happy, and that in itself is good for animal welfare. When people train with aversive methods instead, dogs are missing out on these opportunities.

 Reward-Based Training: Fewer Risks, Good for Welfare

Although there are some issues with the scientific literature (e.g. most studies are correlational and do not prove causation, and difficulties with interpreting cortisol results), Ziv’s literature review concludes by saying it’s time for a new program of research into reward-based methods.

In fact, researchers are already looking at things like whether dogs prefer food as a reward, the timing and sequence of events (like rewards) in dog training and the quality of information in popular dog training books. These are exciting times for canine science, and force-free dog trainers can look forward to reaping the benefits of this research.

And we can take heart that reward-based methods are better for animal welfare in two ways: they avoid the risks of stress, fear, and aggression that are associated with aversive methods; and they give the dog positive experiences that contribute to good welfare.

It’s the double advantage of using rewards to train dogs.

 If you’d like to know more about the scientific research on dog training, I maintain a list of articles and places where you can read about them on my blog, Companion Animal Psychology. 

 

 

 

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Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

As dog trainers, we love management—that is, arranging the dog’s environment to prevent mess-ups.  It’s a godsend for a bunch of pesky behaviour issues. We use baby gates, dog-proof rooms, curtains, and crates to provide relief to our clients (and often, their dogs). Management can also protect shy or fearful dogs from experiences that they are not ready for, either as a permanent solution or temporarily during training.
 
But long-term management, no matter how alluring or easy it seems, nor how ‘humane’ it feels, is not always the answer.
 
In cases where a management-only solution impacts a dog’s quality of life, and where well-vetted, humane, and aversives-free behaviour modification options exist, we have a double duty as dog trainers. First, we must disclose to our clients that a training option exists, and that the training option will protect or even increase their dog’s quality of life. Second, if our clients then wish to train, we must be proficient at the techniques needed and offer them, or refer on to practitioners who are. Enrichment—an increasingly hot topic in both dog training circles and animal welfare more broadly—matters to us, our clients, and their dogs.
 

Example: Play issues

Dogs are, in general, social creatures who enjoy the company of other dogs. Play (or simple companionship) with the conspecifics of their own choosing is profoundly enriching and important. Trainers dealt a steady diet of dogs who are fearful and aggressive towards other dogs sometimes forget how deep the pool is of socially normal dogs. But salience, of course, does not mean prevalence.
 
Many dogs who enjoy play also, and separately, have play-related behaviour issues. They might target and bully some dogs, or their play might frequently tip over into squabbles. Dog trainers skilled at using a well-planned combination of positive reinforcement on the one hand, and reducing problem behaviours through removal from play on the other, can generally resolve these cases over a number of weeks. In other words, the dogs stop bullying and scrapping, but get to keep playing. Although using a differential reinforcement protocol (for example, recalls out of play) may work for some of these cases, for many dogs the problem behaviour itself seems to be exceptionally self-reinforcing, and simply re-directing the dog fails to produce the desired outcomes.
 
Removal from play is a time-out—in other words, “negative punishment”. This label sounds distasteful but simply means making a good thing disappear. We have to leave the play session at some point anyways, so having “play ends” contingent on problem behaviour simply harnesses this pain-free, fear-free learning opportunity for the benefit of the dog. The dog learns that bullying results in loss of play opportunities, and they modify their behaviour accordingly. And like all aversives-free training, using removal from play as a consequence can even be considered enriching. We can compare this protocol to the puzzle toys that we are so quick to recommend to our clients. A dog might try pawing, but finds that doesn’t work to open a compartment. They might then try chewing, but that doesn’t work either. Finally, they try moving a lever with their nose, and out comes the food. The dog learns to get more of what they like from doing one behaviour (just as the dog learns that acceptable play gets them more play), and to avoid doing another behaviour because it clearly terminates what they want (similarly, bullying means play will end).
 
The management-only solution for play issues (“no more dog park” or even “no more play”) radically decreases these dogs’ quality of life. These dogs enjoy play, and benefit tremendously from the opportunity to interact with other dogs. The very fact that these dogs will change their behaviour to avoid the consequence of removal from play is proof positive that they like play, and that they aren’t secretly trying to communicate a negative state like “over-stressed”. If they were over-stressed we could expect that bullying would increase with a time-out protocol, because the dog would be in a hurry to get away from the dog park and would learn that bullying brings relief. (And luckily for dogs, savvy trainers can usually pick up when a dog is stressed through their body language.)
 
A management-only solution may also cause new behaviour problems like barrier frustration (“reactivity”) on leash, due to deprivation. So if the play issue is left unaddressed, a social, enriched dog with a fixable problem can easily become a bored, destructive dog without playmates and without leash walks. We have all seen these dogs and felt for both the dogs and their owners too, who are very much at the end of their ropes. This is not an academic or theoretical outcome.
 
And it leads us to another, more serious, point. Dog owners may also find a management-only solution simply doesn’t meet their needs. They may themselves recognize the value of joyful dog play. If we do not offer them humane alternatives, they may (quite reasonably in their eyes) knock on the door of the local force trainer, who will certainly modify the dog’s behaviour. This trainer may do so with painful corrections and ‘negative reinforcement’, though, and will likely not disclose the well-documented side effects of training this way. Negative reinforcement may sound similar to negative punishment, but it is a whole world apart. It refers to making use of the relief an animal feels when something painful or scary ends. In dog training this typically means something truly awful like a long-duration electric shock.
 
There is a suite of behaviour problems that can seemingly be solved through management, but at great cost to the dog’s quality of life: play issues, aggressive guarding of chew items, and jumpy and mouthy dogs, to name a few. These solutions, which needlessly deny dogs things they enjoy due solely to practitioner preference, must eventually be taken off the table as an acceptable practice for dog trainers. We simply care too much about dogs’ quality of life to continue to prescribe needless emotional warehousing.
 

If you are ready to take your training to the next level and offer your clients a full complement of services, please consider applying to the Academy for Dog Trainers.

 

Cover photo iStock.com/mimadeo

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Spite or Confusion?

Conversations between dogs ...

 

 

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Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Dogs have extremely strong jaws and powerful bites. Even the smallest of dogs can deliver an injurious bite as an adult, and big dogs can inflict even greater damage. Despite this physical ability, most dog bites do not result in terrible injury. In fact, many leave only a small scratch or a few bruises.

Like wolves, with whom dogs share a recent ancestor, dogs use their jaws to both hunt for prey and settle social disputes. Because their jaws are dual-purpose, it is vitally important that dogs and wolves do not use the full (prey-killing) force of their bite during social interactions such as play and fighting. Instead, they use what ethologists call “ritualized aggression”. Ritualized aggression includes threats, body postures and inhibited bites.

Large predators... which live permanently in a society as wolves or lions do, must possess reliable and permanently effective inhibition mechanisms. These must be sufficiently self-reliant to be independent of the changing moods of the individual.

Lorenz, Konrad. On aggression. Psychology Press, 2002 (1966), p125.

Acquired bite inhibition (ABI) refers to the ability of a dog to bite with inhibited force. Dog trainers care deeply about a dog’s ABI because it has important prognostic implications. A dog who bites a neighborhood kid with an inhibited bite is the subject of a very different conversation than a dog who bites the neighborhood kid with maiming force. In the first case, the dog will likely undergo a standard behavior modification program. In the much rarer second case, the dog may well end up euthanized, depending on the severity of the bite and other factors. Luckily, most dogs have good—or at least good enough—ABI. However, dog trainers and veterinarians do occasionally get a call about a dog with poor ABI, and it is always heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, research on acquired bite inhibition is scant. Like all behavior, it seems reasonable to assume it has genetic and environmental determinants and influences. Many experts and practitioners believe that dogs learn, or refine, their ABI through play biting as puppies.

Puppies play by tumbling around and biting one another. Suddenly one of them gets a grip on another's ear. It bites hard and the poor brother or sister howls in pain. The other puppy succeeds in getting its teeth in the tender skin of its sibling's belly. Much whining and yelling follow. They stand still for a short while, then let go.

Next time they act slightly differently. One will grasp the other's ear only until the puppy begins making noise. It will react to the sibling's vocal distress, which works as a mechanism to inhibit or control aggressive behaviour. Previous experiences showed the puppy it is better to let go at the first signs of vocal distress, or its belly will hurt. This is learning by trial and error.

Abrantes, Roger. Dog Language. Dogwise Publishing, 1997, p23.

Many dog trainers offer puppy classes where puppies are allowed to play freely...with caveats. The most important caveat is that all canine parties consent. Playing puppies are regularly separated to allow them to re-enter play, or not, at their will. Puppies exhibiting inappropriate play are punished by their play-mates if their infractions are minor. If they are more serious, thoughtful practitioners will institute time-outs. Much of the time, trainers see inappropriate, scrappy puppies trend to become socially normal. This allows these reformed scrappers to continue to play as puppies, which in turn allows them to refine their ABI. (And this is completely aside from the potentially enormous benefits of the puppy being able to engage in dog play with the playmates of their own choosing, an activity that is so pleasurable, enriching, and basic to a social species that it is sometimes used as a shorthand welfare indicator.)

Many dog trainers also coach their puppy class students to allow their puppies to mouth them. At first, all mouthing is allowed, except for the very hardest of bites. As the puppy ages, progressively softer bites earn the puppy a time-out. This protocol allows puppies to gradually lessen the force of their bite through information feedback—and indeed, a gradual reduction of bite pressure is what puppy class instructors see, in thousands upon thousands of puppies. This protocol and its heavy helping of information feedback to the puppy is believed to have superior ABI-refining benefits over other protocols: those where every bite is punished from the get-go; those where every bite is redirected without consequence; or those where non-biting behavior is instead constantly reinforced. It does appear that once puppies are past the socialization window, ABI is not modifiable, based on the lack of any known successful attempt to modify ABI in adult dogs.

Although there is not a body of research about how ABI is gained or refined, several case studies of socialization-age puppies with known poor ABI being turned around with a time-out protocol are both compelling and typical.

The first case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Kristy Francis. Francis teaches Early Puppy Socialization classes at VCA Animal Wellness Center of Maple Grove in Minnesota.

“Maui was an 8 week-old female mixed breed (possibly Labrador retriever cross), who was found as a stray and brought to a shelter. Her poor ABI was discovered during her intake at the rescue organization. She bit 3 littermates and 3 volunteers, resulting in a puncture wound to a littermate and bloody scratches on the other 2 puppies and the volunteers. In the first few days of fostering her, she bit the palm of my hand hard enough to leave a 1 inch cut that was as deep as half of her tooth.

I used three training protocols on Maui. Everyone who had contact with her was instructed to follow these protocols. Firstly, I yelped and briefly moved away from her to end play when she delivered a hard play bite. In this case, the yelping and ending of play did not result in softer bites. On day two, I decided to increase the magnitude of the time-outs. The revised protocol was to place Maui in an automatic timeout for any hard bites. When she bit hard, a cue was issued and she was placed in timeout for 30 seconds to 1 minute. This did help improve the hard biting. It reduced the number of incidents and some gentle play biting began. I allowed, and even encouraged, the gentle biting. When she was 10 weeks old, she was still occasionally play biting too hard, and I changed the protocol once again. The magnitude of her timeouts increased, and she was placed in timeout for 30 minutes for any hard bites.

At the age of eight weeks, she was introduced to playful adult dogs that are known to be gentle with puppies. These dogs informed her when the biting was too hard in a gentle, non-scary manner. She was not introduced to other puppies until she was 4 months old, and even then, only to older puppies between the ages of 4 months and 6 months.

When she was 5 months old, she had a normal scuffle with a 6-month-old playmate. The play had become too rough and a fight broke out. I broke up the fight and examined the other dog and found zero injuries—in other words, she had a real-life test of her refined ABI, and it had changed from injurious to non-injurious.

Maui was adopted when she was 13 weeks old and was no longer play biting hard. She is currently one year old. She has since been introduced to puppies as young as 8 weeks. She has a very gentle play bite and has never made a puppy yelp due to her biting.”

 

The second case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Lisa Skavienski. Skavienski co-owns Dog Educated in Rochester, New York.

“A local farmer surrendered a litter of nine 6-week-old mixed breed puppies to a rescue after their mother died. These were timid little pups, exposed to very little prior to surrender, so they went to a seasoned puppy foster. She reached out to me shortly after their arrival, concerned about how hard they were mouthing. All were issuing painful bites, with three of them, in particular, drawing blood in every instance.

Recognizing that the socialization window would be starting to close in the next few weeks, I decided to address both the fearfulness and poor ABI immediately using our trained volunteers. A plea went out to the volunteers that evening, and an interactive schedule was made to ensure a steady flow of visitors on continuous rotation through the foster’s home. That’s the great thing about a rescue full of volunteers—strangers are a precious resource in cases like this, and this is the fun part for volunteers. People arrived in shifts, were greeted at the door with a container of freshly boiled chicken, and the puppies were treated to an abundant helping of gentle body handling paired with generous portions of chicken and ‘happy talk’ for the next four days.

All volunteers were given the ABI protocol ahead of time, and the foster coached them to use time-outs for all hard bites to humans (puppy bites hard—“too bad!”—placed in pen for 1 minute—let out of pen to try again). This protocol successfully modified all the puppies’ ABI, although it did take a few days and a large number of volunteers. We had roughly a dozen new people a day pitching in. By the third day, all puppies were mouthing softly and all were decidedly pro-social to strangers, wiggling and snuggling up to every new person who entered. Their ABI progress allowed us to bring in kids of different ages to extend their socialization even more. Once we had reached this point, we scaled it back a bit to a couple of people once a day with bigger socials on weekends; however, that intensive effort over those first few days was considered imperative.

The puppies progressed normally, and all were adopted into wonderful homes, some of them multi-dog homes. All exhibit normal, non-injurious play with their new siblings. One is a therapy dog who visits patients at a nursing home every week.”

Adult dogs who bite with maiming force are a danger to the public, their owners, and themselves, as society has very low tolerance of such dogs. For this reason, the Academy for Dog Trainers endorses puppy programs which include exercises to carefully train puppies to have good ABI when they are adult dogs even in the absence of good research. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Can’t hurt.

It may be that our ABI protocols are simply for naught. However, the two types of exercises in use to refine ABI—allowing a social species to have normal, appropriate play access to conspecifics as young animals, and using well-established, aversives-free, and humane protocols to gradually, rather than suddenly, decrease mouthing—are not problematic, so the drawbacks are minor: time wasted, and arms mouthed.

  1. Might help.

Some trainers recommend avoiding attempts to refine ABI or even avoiding structured puppy interactions altogether. However, it is a fallacy to claim that there are no risks to these approaches. Anything we can do to improve ABI may, without exaggeration, save life and limb. The likely case is that these exercises do function as we intend, as is suggested by the case studies above and many others. Practitioners who choose to prevent puppies from having an opportunity to improve ABI are proselytizing from a dangerous soapbox indeed.

 

Photos: Cover photo iStock.com/blanscape. Top three credit K. Francis. Lower two credit L. Skavienski.

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"Action!"

The Academy for Dog Trainers' video coaching process

Recently, a prospective Academy for Dog Trainers applicant asked “aren’t there in-person workshops? How will we learn to train dogs?” This was an excellent question about our online-only program, of course: dog training is a physical skill, like throwing a three-point basket, completing a tricky figure skating move, or baking a soufflé. Competent dog trainers must learn a suite of important skills, from luring to fading; paying to prompting; adding cues to adding distractions.

So it was a good question. But the answer might come as a bit of a surprise: the Academy has found that in-person sessions are simply not the best way to teach trainers to train.

With an eye to efficiency, the Academy has created, and refined, a video-coaching process that has consistently turned out graduates with excellent technique (“mechanics”, in trainer lingo). Students submit videos of themselves training a series of behaviours as assignments. For example, the program includes training some basic obedience behaviours to verbal stimulus control and a free-shaped retrieve, among others. Each time a student submits video, the Academy’s coaches review it and provide feedback. We look for and reinforce the proper execution of key mechanical skills (or approximations of key skills, in early assignments). Feedback is provided quickly and on a standardized form, which is a springboard for the student’s next submission. Each assignment was carefully selected to hone certain training skills and styles, and it generally takes a few repeat submissions of video to bring a student’s performance to Academy standards for any one assignment.

Video coaching allows the Academy’s coaches to assess a student’s mechanics thoroughly. Videos can be viewed by the coaches at slower speeds or multiple times, and can be compared against earlier submissions to gauge progress. Videos can be submitted for coaching without the expense of travel, and with dogs that are not otherwise suitable for workshops–a student’s own dog, dogs in the shelters they work for, or fosters. When our students graduate, their clients’ dogs will not always be social and low-key like those dogs most suitable for in-person workshops, so this trial-by-fire approach actually ends up being a boon.

I found the video coaching process tremendously beneficial, and you are not expected to submit video of professional quality:  no one minded my sending in tape wearing full early morning PJ and slippers attire. (Me, not my dog.)  The instructional feedback from instructors is very specific and targets exactly the areas requiring improvement, but always in a positively constructive and helpful tone.  And what you are doing well is always emphasized and highlighted, so even if there is an area in which you are struggling, you feel good about the feedback.
- Thea R., Academy student

Students are offered the golden opportunity to submit video as often as they need to become proficient trainers–coaching is included in the price of admission to the program. Our students are encouraged to use video to assess their own skills in a structured way as well, which helps to build the coaching skills they’ll need later with clients and in classes. And the Academy’s coaches model the teaching style we hope our graduates emulate: warm, thoughtful, generous, specific, and purposeful encouragement. In Academy lingo, we “scan and reinforce”. To the surprise of nary a dog trainer, reinforcement works to change behaviour.

I was nervous about submitting my first video–everyone seems to be. But it got much easier after that one and the feedback I received was invaluable. Getting clear, specific, kind, constructive reviews of videos I submitted was incredibly helpful, and knowing I can send in as many versions as necessary to get it right takes off some of the pressure.
-Tim S., Academy student

In fact, the Academy would encourage all trainers to do regular self-assessments by video. Take a keen eye to your performance: do you have a “quiet body”? Are you keeping track of your dog’s performance? Are your luring motions, and later hand signals, consistent between reps and sets? Is your rate of reinforcement between 8-12/minute for untrained dogs? If you’re using secondary reinforcement, is the reinforcement overshadowed or blocked by moving or another ‘tell’? To make the most of your practice time, take a page from the Academy’s playbook: record your performance, track your improvements, and of course, reinforce!

When the Academy first moved to being offered solely online, video coaching was seen as a necessary evil. After more than half a decade of producing consistently proficient trainers, though, the writing's on the wall: well-designed video coaching works, and it works really, really well.  

The video coaching has improved my technique a thousand fold!
-Sarah M., Academy student

I love being able to train at my own pace instead of needing to be at a specific time and place with a dog who might or might not be ready to work. I can work with any dog in any location and at any time while recording the session for feedback about what's working and where I should practice a bit more. 
-Tim S., Academy student

 

Header image: iStock by Getty Images Credit: walik

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The Importance of Enrichment

The Importance of Enrichment

As dog trainers, clients call us in to solve problems both big and small. Often, we need to triage, managing some behavior problems until we work through others of greater importance. We often suggest adding enrichment to a dog’s routine right off the bat, for good reason.

While enrichment can definitely help manage behavior problems, that’s not always the primary reason I suggest it. Enrichment is my favorite go-to because it allows dogs to be dogs and can help people see their dogs engaging in species-appropriate behaviors in a more positive light. (“Oh! She really does love to chew! She carries her new Nylabone everywhere with her! I thought she just really loved my shoes!”).

Let’s visualize dog trainers’ three main strategies as buckets:

Training—skilled trainers do everything from building basic behaviors to modifying behavior problems to changing emotional responses in fear and aggression cases.

Management—sometimes management allows us to prioritize (see triage, above), sometimes it's a behavior modification adjunct to protect progress, and sometimes it’s the whole solution.

Enrichment—providing legal and fun outlets for normal dog behaviors is crucial to the dog’s welfare.

For me, enrichment not only has its own bucket but it also helps fill the other two with good stuff.

Enrichment is an item in the training bucket because it provides mental and physical stimulation to dogs. Force-free training, in which behaviors are taught according to what the dog can do now, in incremental steps, can be especially enriching for dogs because the lack of coercion makes the dog a happy, willing participant.

Enrichment goes into the management bucket because through the use of puzzle toys, flirt poles, fetch games, etc., we can offset the boredom that leads to behavior problems. Which dog is more likely to bark at people and dogs walking past the window, the one who looks outside all day while lying on the couch or the one who is too busy kicking around a Snoop to care?

And enrichment has its own bucket because all dogs need something to do. When I worked at Women’s Humane Society, one of my favorite things was hanging out with an adoptable dog in my office. Because we couldn’t have dogs jumping on staff members, barking out windows or stealing papers from desks, I provided a wide variety of enrichment items. These included Nylabone-type chews, plush toys and work-to-eat toys.

                                    

It was always interesting to see what dogs chose, because dogs do have preferences. Knowing those preferences made it easier to keep dogs engaged and out of trouble. Some dogs seemed to enjoy dissecting stuffies more than they enjoyed bones or food toys. Some dogs got bored easily, so variety proved to be the spice of life. Enrichment also saved a great number of dogs from being banned from the office area, which allowed for some true rest.  Once a dog spends all of his energy playing, they're  not a nuisance in the office.  Rest is as important to shelter dogs as anything else.

I am often struck by how amazed people are at the effects of enrichment on a dog’s behavior. A demand-barking Aussie once spent an entire consult kicking around a Buster Cube instead of barking at us, which her owner was certain she would do. I showed up with a few work-to-eat toys, we auditioned them, and the Buster Cube was the big winner. We gave a pushy, fight-instigator French Bulldog a puzzle toy for meals (in a separate room), to pre-empt scuffles during mealtime. This gave her housemates a chance to eat in peace, and gave her the chance to get some mental stimulation and be less worried about what everyone else was doing and how much of their meals she could steal. A scent-obsessed Beagle (shocking, I know) with a tendency to wander was taught an out-of-sight sit-stay while her owner hid kibble throughout the house, so meals now give her the opportunity to use her high-powered nose. A seemingly spring-loaded hound mix was taught to enjoy a flirt pole, with rules for taking and dropping the toy on cue, to build impulse control, and now he can jump legally. A bright and busy pit bull went through all levels of manners training, earned his CGC, and delights his owner and her friends with what he learned in tricks class. The list goes on and on.

Enrichment changes lives for the better and that applies to humans as well as dogs. Many dog owners don’t realize that many of the things they see as behavior problems are actually normal behaviors which can be given permissible outlets. Part of our jobs as dog trainers is to normalize behavior. Enrichment gives us the perfect opportunity to do this and improve a dog’s quality of life. As far as I am concerned, that is no small accomplishment.

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