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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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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Dog training and decision fatigue

Dog training and decision fatigue

We train dogs for a variety of reasons: to reduce unwanted behaviour, increase desired behaviour, for their welfare, to improve public safety and of course for pure, unadulterated fun. Owners who are training for fun without clear goals might be slow to reach them (or even -gasp- never reach them!), but this is no big deal if aversive stimuli are not in play.

Professional dog trainers, however, have a greater responsibility to train in ways that are both non-damaging to the dog and also efficient. Clients pay us to achieve outcomes. Gross inefficiencies in training can drive clients to punitive trainers who will get some kind of a job done. It is therefore wise, humane, and business-savvy to focus on efficiency. This blog, the first in a series on efficiency, deals with the important topic of decision-making.

Dog training is a profession which draws rather intensely on the brain’s resources - the trainer’s brain, that is! Trainers must navigate awkward social situations while side-stepping their client’s mythologies and bizarre internet-borne training advice. We must prioritize behavioural issues in a way that answers to the client’s needs, maintains or increases the dog’s welfare, and protects the public. We must categorize problems into a few columns on the page: train? manage? ignore? We must figure out how much of the training should be delegated to the client.

Finally, and in no small feat, we must identify a “terminal behaviour” for all training. To change a dog’s behaviour, a trainer writes a plan, which is a series of criteria steps that lead to a final, or “terminal”, behaviour. (If classical counterconditioning or operant counterconditioning/DRI is the appropriate technique, the “terminal” will be or include a positive emotional state.) Every trainer needs to move from early, achievable-right-now criteria steps to the more difficult - and often real-life - steps. Moving between steps takes decisions on the part of the trainer: when to make it harder, when to stay at the current level, and when a backwards step is needed.

Decision fatigue refers to “the notion that making choices can be effortful and can therefore deplete [mental] resources.”1 Some interesting research has found that our ability to make good decisions (or even just any decision) declines if we have to make a lot of choices in a short time. A rest and a snack allow for our decision-making prowess to rebound, indicating a physiological basis.

With the prioritizing, categorizing, figuring, and identifying that are standard parts of our work, our brains are already shouldering a heavy load: choices, choices, choices. By the time we start to actually work on a dog, we are at elevated risk of decision fatigue. We might push a few steps ahead when the dog isn’t ready, and feel flustered when we have to drop back multiple times. We assume our instincts serve us well, when they likely don’t - how many of our clients have motivated, drivey, herding breeds, after all? We might stay on a step for an inordinate amount of time when the dog is ready for something harder. These training errors have a cost: they’re inefficient. The job just ain’t getting done.

All is not lost, however. The best training methods have a fantastic over-ride: they simply punt decision-making to empirical rules. They automate. It’s a sub-routine, not a conscious consideration of alternatives. They make moving through a training plan a habit, freeing mental resources for other things... like chatting with your client about enrichment. Gabbing about anti-pull gear. Driving home safely.

At the Academy, our practitioners are trained to count correct and incorrect responses in a set. If the dog gets enough right - usually at least four correct responses out of a set of five - the trainer moves smoothly on to the next step. If the dog misses enough, the trainer simply drops back. And if the dog is in-between, there’s an answer for that too: another set, counted out of habit, of the same step.

Our human and canine clients deserve the speediest resolution we can offer. Automation of criteria change decisions is a boon to efficiency and can help a trainer meet, and exceed, their client’s expectations. It reduces human fatigue and by basing the choice of when to change criteria on an objective sampling of the responses in a set, it helps a training session stay fun, challenging, and engaging for the dogs, too.

Take your training to the next level. Avoid taxing decisions like “is my client’s dog proficient enough to move to the next step?” Let the dog’s performance tell you - it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

 


 

1. Vos et al. 2005. Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources - But So Does Accommodating to Unchosen Alternatives. Unpublished manuscript.

Cover photo: © Monkey Business 2/Shotshop.com

Second photo: © DGLimages/istockphoto.com

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The Post-Factual World

Dog Trainer Life November 2016 Edition

 

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