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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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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Dog Trainer Life

 

 

Appeal to Nature

Red Herring Fallacy

 

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Talk Softly and Carry a Carrot, Not a Stick

This piece was originally published in a local newspaper in 2006.  I updated it and think it's relevant to re-run given that the state of New York is currently considering licensing dog trainers.  They'd be the first state to do so.


Dog training is a divided profession. We are not like plumbers, orthodontists or termite exterminators who, if you put six in a room, will pretty much agree on how to do their jobs. Dog training camps are more like Republicans and Democrats, all agreeing that the job needs to be done but wildly differing on how to do it.

The big watershed in dog training is whether or not to include pain and fear as means of motivation. In the last twenty years the pendulum swing has been toward methods that use minimal pain, fear or intimidation – or none at all.

The force-free movement has been partly driven by improved communication from the top. Applied behaviorists, those with advanced degrees in behavior, and veterinary behaviorists, veterinarians who have completed residencies specializing in behavior problems are in greater abundance than in previous decades, and there is much more collaboration between these fields and trainers on the front lines. These two professions are quite unified on the point that the use of physical punishment or confrontation is unnecessary, often detrimental and, importantly, unsafe.  And in 2015 the American Animal Hospital Association came out with detailed behavior management guidelines that unequivocally caution owners to employ only trainers that use force-free methods. 

On a more grassroots level, trainers have found more benign and sophisticated tools by boning up on applied behavior science themselves. But dog training is currently an unregulated profession in the US: there are no laws governing practices. Prosecutions under general anti-cruelty statutes are occasionally successful but greatly hampered by the absence of legal standards pertaining specifically to training practices. Provided it’s in the name of training, someone with no formal education or certification can strangle your dog quite literally to death and conceivably get off scot-free.  

It’s not a complete wilderness: There is now the Pet Professional Guild, which specifies its member trainers must employ modern, force-free methods.  The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Mission Statement, Delta Society and American Humane Association (AHA) trainer guidelines all state that less invasive (i.e. without pain or force) techniques must be competently tried and exhausted before more invasive techniques attempted. Such guidelines are not law, but they’re a start. 

The current professional climate is one laden with some remaining fierce debate. There’s an ever-expanding group of trainers that train force-free (ad literature will be some variation on the theme of “dog-friendly” or “pain-free”), trainers that still train primarily with force (ad literature: “no-nonsense” or “common sense”) and trainers that employ liberal use of both force and rewards (ad literature: “balanced” or “eclectic”). From a consumer’s standpoint, the choice in methods is wide. You can hire a professional to train your dog pretty much any way that suits your fancy and it’s all legal in the US.  (More and more European countries are cracking down on the most harmful force tools and methods.)

The force-free movement gains momentum every year and a sure sign of this is that many trainers in the other camps resort to murkier and murkier euphemisms to disguise their more violent practices and retain their market share. Stressed dogs aren’t “shut down,” they’re “calm.” It’s not strangling, it’s “leading.” As a committed devotee of the dog-friendly camp, I am therefore agog at the continued presence in pop culture of “The Dog Whisperer”. This is pretty ferocious stuff by anybody’s standards. The National Geographic Channel even runs a disclaimer banner at the bottom of the screen admonishing people to “not try this at home,” a warning notably absent on home improvement shows or “Nanny 911″. I like to think people don't get dogs so that they can hurt and scare them, so I'm left wondering whether the cloaking of corporal punishment and hazing in mystical language, promise of instant results, high octane telegenicity of Cesar Millan and lucky connections with Los Angeles celebrity clients are sufficient explanation for the Dog Whisperer phenomenon. I don't know.  We need psychologists deconstructing what drives people to elect scary, painful practices.

I am willing to bet that, in what’s been termed the “post-factual universe," we’ll be battling a while longer.

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An Interview with Joan Mayer

An Interview with Joan Mayer

Academy Grad Joan Mayer of The Inquisitive Canine has been hard at work for over a year designing and refining a new no-pull harness which is scheduled to hit the market soon. Seeing the development of a production through to fruition is a huge process, one with many hitches to be expected along the way, and Joan has made it through the development process with a harness that looks as comfortable as it does functional. We're very proud of Joan and really excited for the launch of the Transpaw Gear Harness

LN: You’ve got a new harness coming out soon called the Transpaw Gear Harness. Tell us a little bit about this.

JM: Lori, thanks for asking! I’m thrilled to tell everyone about it - it’s been a long time coming. The TransPaw Gear™ dog harness is a multi-functional, dog-friendly and user-friendly product for dogs-on-the-go! (TransPaw is a play on “Transpawtation”). The emphasis is on functional and comfortable.

LN: What makes this harness different?

JM: There are so many harnesses being offered nowadays! And, there are some great companies. My goal was to combine the better attributes of harnesses I liked, while minimizing those I found to be challenging. There are leash attachments in both the top back area, along with front of the chest. There are both shoulder and girth straps that are easily adjustable, with easy-release buckles. The fabric used for the body is soft, with a thin breathable padding. The outer material has enough structure to keep the girth straps back behind the front legs, to minimize irritation to sensitive areas. I also added a nifty lightweight utility handle between the shoulders to aid in sports -- you can also use it to help dogs get in and out of cars. (It’s not designed to withstand intense pulling like you’d need for lifting the dog in his or her entirety.)

LN: What inspired you to design your own harness?

JM: Funny you should ask that. I’m pretty sure most dog trainers have come up with harness ideas, and I’m no different. When we adopted our dog Poncho back in 2003, I never felt comfortable attaching the leash to his collar - so I wanted to look for an alternative. I found some great harnesses out there, but it seemed I needed to have three for the same outing: one for walking, one for driving, and one for sports. I’m all for having choices, but it got to be tiresome. I kept asking, “Why isn’t there one that has ___, ____, and ____?” The more dogs and pet parents I worked with over the years, and reading various discussion threads among trainers about still looking for good products, the more I came to realize there was still a need. So I said to myself, “Why don’t I design one!”

                                 

LN: How has the process been for you?

JM: Having developed other pet-related products, I’ve gained a lot of valuable experience over the years. So this time around, I’ve been using that knowledge, creating a process that has so far been smooth. As Jim Collins talks about in his book Good to Great, I’ve made sure the right people are on my bus (Collins, 2001) http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html.

It is taking longer than I had hoped, but I believe the “slow and steady” approach creates for a better chance of success - not just for me or the company, but for all stakeholders, especially the dogs.

LN: What went into the development process?

JM: Wow, so much! Where do I begin? The road from concept to creation has been quite an adventure. A methodical one though, planning all along the way. Having been a trainer for years, and dog mom, I’ve been able to gather a lot of data. So, going into the process I had a more definitive product goal. The beginning designs included using my own dog Poncho, a local seamstress, and materials gathered from a local used sporting goods store.

After a couple of sample prototypes, I decided to take it further, consulting first with a local soft goods designer, followed by a larger development company, clear across the country. I made this choice because I wanted to consult with experts who were more familiar with the engineering aspect of design, as the movements of a dog are unique in their own way. A pretty harness is one thing, but I wanted to ensure that the design met the goals of fit and functionality. Additionally, this particular company was dog-friendly, which meant easy access to fit models throughout the three phases of designing and testing.

Once the final prototype was established, it was time to move forward with production. I reached out to a friend of mine who works with a wonderful local company that has the capability to create a small run of the harness in a few sizes. We worked together, refining the design, while having me test it on multiple dogs. This was a great opportunity, as I was able to really hone in on the details, creating a product I am really proud of. While waiting for quotes from the manufacturers, I’m working on sizing, as it will be offered in a range of sizes to cover the wide variety of dog breeds, both pure and mixed.

 LN: How much refining did you have to do along the way?

JM: There were revisions with each group I worked with. From the beginning, working with the local seamstress, to the final product development company. I could continue to make changes, but I’ve learned you also need to stop at some point, otherwise you’ll never get anything to your customer. I’ll hold onto these other ideas for different products. In all honesty, I would say I have done my due diligence.

 LN: What types of dogs did you test it on?

JMBecause I had the one prototype, I was limited to the size of dog. However, it did fit a range, from 40 - 80 pounds! The fabulous test-dogs I worked with ranged from smaller long-haired Aussie mixes to mid-sized pittie mixes, and larger Labs. I also had poodles, retrievers, and a few other mixes between.

                                             

LN: What are the key components of this harness?

JM: The real benefits of the TransPaw Gear™ dog harness is that it’s made of sturdy fabric that is soft, flexible with movement, and comfortable for dogs. This is evidenced by the way the dogs responded while wearing it. It’s easy for handlers to fit to their dog, put on and take off, and provides options for training, sports, and play. As I like to say, at TransPaw Gear™, we put the FUN in FUNctional!

LN: What are the next steps for you?

JM: While waiting to hear quotes for the initial run from various manufactures, I’m working with the local team creating prototypes in a wider range of sizes. Additionally, a provisional patent has been filed. Depending on what we hear from the PTO, we will file the permanent one within the allotted time frame. I’m also working on PR and marketing campaigns, including having a booth at a local annual fundraising pet adoption event this October.

                               

LN: When should we expect to see it available on the market?

JM: The final prototype is in the hands of two different manufacturers, awaiting bids for production. Once an agreement is reached, I hope to get it to market within a couple of months. So, my goal is Fall of 2016.

LN: Where will we be able to purchase it?

JM: Initial sales will be offered  through my website, and locally in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas. I’ll offer both business to business wholesale and retail direct to consumer. I will have a booth at the upcoming fundraising pet adoption event Wags ‘n’ Whiskers here in Santa Barbara, October 1, 2016.

For more information on the Transpaw Gear Harness, email Joan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit the Transpaw Gear page on Facebook.

 

 

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