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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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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Dog Trainer Life

 

 

Appeal to Nature

Red Herring Fallacy

 

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