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Let the Dog Decide

Survey Says……….

Effecting Change – Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

Admittedly, one of the first things I do in the morning is to sit down with my towel wrapped around my wet hair, cup of coffee on my desk, and play Words with Friends in between checking the morning Facebook activity.  It’s not all fun and games, though.  I am, as the illustrious Jean Donaldson has described me, a “warrior princess for force free training.”  Granted, that isn’t all I use Facebook for.  I like to catch up with far away friends, network a homeless dog or two, giggle a bit at the useless bits of fantasy, or participate in some of the “wall wars” as much as the next person.

Today, I happened upon a lovely blog post from Maureen Backman, of Dog Connect, called Fear: When Nothing Else Matters.  I was struck, as I always am, with the difference between how people like me, and Maureen, view dogs, versus the way other people, whose agenda is much more geared toward compliance than learning, view dogs.  But, even more than that, the thought occurred to me that there are people whose general bent toward dogs is kindness, yet they opt for training tools that are unkind because they think they have to.  The odd thing is that many of us used to be like them until we discovered that we didn’t have to.  Doing that takes a willingness to literally jump out of your comfort zone, not easy to do if you are already making a living at training dogs by means which you think work perfectly well (why fix what isn’t broken), or if you are already training dogs for a very important task, such as assistance dog work, that has a human safety component very different from the one a pet dog has to observe.

Why, after all this time, are so many people dragging their feet and clutching their prong and shock collars as if they were the veritable keys to Heaven, I thought.  Just as with Earl, Maureen’s newly acquired dog with separation anxiety, perhaps fear is a component.  Change is hard, and scary, for many people.  And, sometimes, people who resist change aren’t really as opposed to the change itself as they are to the background conversations they hear in their own heads about it.  They may fear being inept – I imagine that competitive results-driven force trainers whose dogs go out and score 98 in obedience would be humiliated, while learning a new method, to have dogs that don’t rise to that level quickly enough to avoid embarrassing them.  Somehow, they don’t seem to see that if you know operant conditioning, you can use any of the quadrants successfully.  They prefer the familiar, instead of testing the waters of the unfamiliar.  They perceive positive trainers as “soft” and yet many positive trainers used to use those traditional methods, but had the courage to try the newer paradigm when it first became apparent to them that there might be some truth in the science, or at least some better ethics about how we were treating the animals we trained.  I view traditional trainers rather like the aging board members who still insist that the executive director’s secretary call them to inform them of meetings when everyone else on the board has long since adopted email as the accepted mode of communication.  Laggards exist wherever there is discomfort with change, even when the change is good and makes things easier, or more comfortable in the end.

There are many theories on how to go about convincing them, but when people are clutching their prong and shock collars as if they were the keys to Heaven, not to mention that they are profiting from their use in competition or in business, it’s unlikely that simple ethics are going to convince them.  Just as with dogs, we may need a more powerful motivator.  If the Cheerios don’t work, try a meatball, right?

What if, instead of just complaining on Facebook, we took financial action?  What if we refused to purchase any product that puts profit into the pocket of the manufacturers of choke, prong or shock collars.  What if we didn’t take that cheaper puppy class at the big box store that sells those devices?  What if we didn’t donate to the shelter or rescue that is using such devices on dogs and directed our donations to the ones that use kinder methods?  If enough people did that, change could be effected much more quickly.  Just as it became socially unacceptable to drink and drive, or to smoke when you’re pregnant, maybe we could make it socially unacceptable to choke or shock a dog into compliance when there are kinder methods that are every bit as effective (Shapiro, Bloomsmith & Laule, 2003, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science).

I no longer recommend any products by PetSafe (Premier) for this reason.  I avoid the big box stores and patronize my local pet supply stores, even if the prices are slightly higher.  I don’t donate to assistance dog organizations that use prong collars.  I try to avoid rescues and shelters that use or recommend such equipment or who refer pet owners to trainers who use them.  Political change is not easy – and maybe my efforts don’t parallel the courage of the people who walked over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in the 60’s, but I am willing to take the hit if people think my view is unpopular, or my goal unreachable, because my conscience is clear.   I’m not always successful, sometimes I spend and find out later I should not have, but at least I have tried to spend ethically – just the way I try to train dogs.  Those who use positive methods are rewarded with my patronage or donations.  Simple operant conditioning.   Stop reinforcing behavior you don’t like, and reinforce behavior that you do like.


My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated….Really????????

I wish I had a nickel for all the times I’ve heard the phrase “my dog isn’t food motivated” as an excuse for why someone can’t get their dog to sit, fetch, come, or whatever behavior they are trying to teach.  Such owners often simultaneously cite their dogs’ stubbornness, breed, drive, or other characteristics as proof that they cannot learn what other dogs can.  So, how much truth is there to those assertions?

Well, in the case of food motivation, no truth whatsoever.  Any organism that rejects nourishment dies.  So, if you think your dog is truly and totally unmotivated by food, you should check his pulse right away!

I find it endlessly amusing that the owners of independent breeds seem largely unaware that the Internet is filled with just as many assertions about their particular breed being food motivated as it is by their particular breed being unmotivated.  When training, it’s best to just look at the one dog before you, assess the situation unemotionally, and proceed according to the science and good training mechanics.  But, a caveat.  If you go around thinking that your dog is different, special, and no one understands, you are making excuses, not proceeding according to science.  If behaviorists can make gorillas push their butts into a needle to get an injection, then certainly the same principles by which they do that can help you train your dog to come – if you use them and use them correctly.

The key to early learning and to retention is that you MUST use a reinforcement that the dog wants and use it at a high rate at first, then at an intermittent rate later.  So, what are those reinforcements and how can we insure that our dogs get reinforced sufficiently to facilitate learning?

The reinforcement that most dogs prefer is food.  There are some legitimate reasons why a dog might not take food in a given circumstance, however.  One of the most common is anxiety.  A dog’s system is designed to travel light when they feel they may need to fight or flee.  Another is taste aversion.  If a dog eats something that makes him queasy, even days later he can decide not to eat that particular food again.  A third reason is satiety.  If the dog just had dinner, he may not be very interested in continuing to eat, just because you want to work on “sit.”   Some dogs refuse food in the presence of another, some won’t eat without the presence of another.

Trainers who want to use food as a reinforcement have some options on how to make it more appealing to a dog that doesn’t seem interested at the moment (we’ll talk about other reinforcements beside food in a bit).  Firstly, the trainer can remove the dog from any anxiety-producing environment to a safer place to begin the training sessions.  See if the dog will take a delectable “freebie” such as beef, chicken, lamb lung, tripe, etc.  If he will, begin training.  If not, lower your expectations and begin in an environment where he can take the treat, which indicates less anxiety.

Many dogs who won’t work for a store bought treat in the presence of distractions will work for something of higher value.  It can pay off to do a “hierarchy of treats” test with your dog.  What does the dog like better if you offer chicken and beef simultaneously, for example?

Dogs that are fed very high quality food, or fed raw, for example, might not have a very far jump to make in terms of raising the desirability of the food treat in terms of scent or taste.  So, what do we do for those dogs?  A couple of things.  We might “close the economy” on food.  That means that the dog must work for each morsel, or not get fed.  There will be dogs for which you can partially close the economy, and dogs for which you can completely close it.  Here’s where the force trainers usually jump in with their rants on how cruel it is to only feed a dog for working.  Well, if the behavior you want to teach is a life-saving one, such as “Come!” then you need to decide if closing the economy on food is better than shocking the dog with a remote collar to enforce your will.  Personally, I, and I assume my dogs, would prefer closing the economy on food, which leads to positive reinforcement for behavior (come, get fed), rather than being shocked, which leads to positive punishment (the shock) followed by negative reinforcement (the shock stays on until the dog complies, then it is removed).

It is doubtful that any dog, despite a temporary lapse in appetite, or a temporary removal of free food will deliberately starve itself.  If you have any doubt as to whether it would be harmful to close the economy on food with your particular dog, then seek advice from a veterinarian behaviorist who is familiar with such protocols.  Most failures of closing the economy on food are caused by nervous owners, some of whom even feed raw diets to their dogs as an “ancestral diet.”   I guess I often wonder why they don’t seem to understand that, for the ancestral dogs, the rabbit didn’t run by every evening at five o’clock just begging to be consumed for dinner, as a mentor of mine once put it.  Dogs didn’t always catch what they hunted, so they went for a while without a meal fairly often sometimes.

Notwithstanding all of the above, it is true that some dogs prefer other reinforcements to food.  Dogs with a lot of drive or work ethic often respond well to tug games or frisbee/ball tosses as reinforcement, and it’s fine to use those.  But, in my opinion, it’s silly to reject food that a dog likes in favor of a tug that you have to work to get him to like.  Conversely, if you have to work to get your dog to respond to treats, and he is perfectly willing to work for a tug game, use the tug game.

In all my years training dogs, I have met exactly one dog who prefers praise to all else.  That’s how rare it is, folks.

Some dogs like a good chase, and are blase about food or toys.  If I had one of those, I’d figure out how to set up a lure in my yard and use it as a reinforcement!

Claiming that your dog doesn’t like food or toys, then just shrugging and putting a shock collar on him is a trainer failure, not a dog failure.

I regard it as part of my job as a trainer to make some form of positive reinforcement salient to the dog.   It enables me to reject “Do it or I will hurt you” in favor of  “Do it and I will pay you for your work.”  I’d rather close the economy on food, and seem temporarily mean to my detractors, than to put a shock collar on a dog and prove that expediency trumps kindness.  It never should.  And it doesn’t have to.

Couldn’t Have Said It Better

This really belongs in the “I Couldn’t Have Said it Better” category:

From Maria DeLeon, a very nice piece in response to a recently published blog from a so called “balanced” trainer who thinks that positive trainers “kill dogs” and other such nonsense.  In an unregulated industry, there is little, except a sense of personal responsibility, to force trainers to learn the science and the technical skill behind modifying dog behavior.  Maria has captured what a lot of very well educated trainers are thinking these days – we prefer to be as un- “balanced” as we can if balanced means rejecting science that is coupled with ethics, and if it means that we stick with modalities that have been disproven as helpful:

At Paws for Praise we try very hard to keep up with the latest science, and improve the technical skill with which training is done.  Timing, technique, and how to determine whether to use operant or respondent learning to address a given training goal are so important to success.  You cannot claim that a method doesn’t work, or has poor outcomes, if you don’t know how to apply the method properly, or when to use it!   It’s not enough, in dog training, or in any other professional field, to say that we do it because it works and we’ve always done it that way……..  Always seek to improve!!!  Thanks to Maria for the reminder that trainers who do that are on the right path, not only to more successful training outcomes, but to more successful businesses as consumers begin to realize that there’s something to this science stuff, and they really are having an easier time living with their dog!