RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Pet Professional Guild

Organization for force free pet professionals who do NOT use shock , choke, or prong collars.

Let the Dog Decide

The Unreachables – A Message to Positive Trainers

It happens to every positive trainer.   You do the best you can at explaining why you train without force.  You tell your clients about the fallout of coercion that can affect their dog’s behavior and their relationship with the dog.  You explain how food is used as a motivator, and why it’s important to use something the dog wants as a reinforcement.   You try to save their dogs from the pain and confusion from which so many dogs are never saved.  You tell them there’s never a reason to shock a dog to train it.

Unfortunately, you are sometimes met head on with the myths that your client has heard for years from friends, television personalities, even other trainers (ones that are still mired in myth, and unwilling to even open the door a crack to learning how to use modern training methods effectively).  Myths such as: your dog will get fat if you use food, you’re “bribing” your dog, you need to tell the dog who’s boss, you have to be the leader of the pack, it’s not a shock, it’s a “tap,” etc.

We can spot them a mile away.  They glare at us as you encourage them to be more jolly while calling their dog.  Their dog does great in class, then they go home and ruin any progress by listening to Uncle Joe or their neighbor down the street who has “had dogs for years” (Do they think we haven’t???  Did they not remember signing a check to actually pay us for our knowledge?)    They listen as we tell them to bring some great treats to class, then they still bring the store bought version of doggy junk food the next week.  They complain that their dog is now “begging at the table” because we told them to train with “people food” and now they can’t get the dog away from them.  (Heck, I call that a huge improvement in relationship!)  Even after calmly telling them how to resolve the begging issue so that they can train with food effectively, a certain percentage of them will still look at us like we’re crazy, go home and repeat whatever it is they do each day, despite our coaching, and return more disgusted the next week, and the week after, then perennially thereafter blame their failure on that nasty positive training.

All of this is very disconcerting to trainers for whom the best of all possible worlds would be one in which all dogs were free of the confusing, sometimes hostile, often painful, interactions with their owners that break down what should be the most wondrous relationship between members of two incredibly fascinating species.  It’s why, believe it or not, we continue to seek ways to reach the unreachable client – the client who ignores our entreaties, badmouths us after they fail with a dog because of non-compliance with the training plan, or worse, goes on to train with someone who will force the dog into compliance by means of a choke, prong, or shock collar, when we know that they had a brilliantly smart dog that was fully capable of learning the way all mammals do, through operant and classical conditioning which we can employ using no pain or physical coercion whatsoever.

This week, there was an interesting and somewhat hopeful interview conducted by Victoria Stilwell with Jennifer Arnold of Canine Assistants on the topic of positive versus punitive training, which I wish people would watch in its entirety.  Ms. Arnold trains service dogs to do all manner of tasks for their disabled owners, including taking laundry out of clothes dryers and placing it in a basket, all without the use of force.   How can anyone, who realizes the complexity of service dog training,  think force is necessary to get a dog to do simple things like sit, down, or walk on a leash?

A second point of interest this week was the publishing of a new book, The Human Half of Dog Training, by Rise VanFleet, Ph.D., RPT-S.   Rise is a co-founder of the International Collaborative on Play Therapy and a Past President/Board Chair of the Association for Play Therapy.  She is also involved in the research and use of animals in play therapy, and uses one of her dogs as a play therapy dog.  Trainers everywhere should take advantage of any assistance with the human half of the client/dog relationship, especially delivered by such a learned woman in both fields!

Trainers, many of whom spend years learning about dog behavior, aren’t as facile at the human part of the equation.   We are dog-centric, dog nerds if you will.  Most of us really care about working more effectively with the people at the other end of the leash, but some trainers dismiss them as bad if they aren’t compliant, or don’t see things our way.  For others, myself included, while I sometimes have to “save the trainer” by letting go or walking away, I’m fascinated enough by behavior in general, as exhibited by all species, to care if I can have an impact on the clients who come to me.  Because it REALLY matters to their dogs if I cannot reach them!!!  So, I’m inspired by the work that my fellow trainers are doing.  Victoria is constantly working to dispel myths.  Rise is helping bridge the gap for trainers between helping the dog and helping the human to help the dog.

I guess my message to all the positive trainers out there is, “Don’t give up.”  The tide will turn, and more dogs will live without pain or fear.  A stellar example of how this will happen was the incredibly solid performance last week at the Dutch Shepherd Nationals by positive trainer Shade Whitesel and her dog, Reiki.  They placed second (with a score of 98 in protection) in a sport that is highly populated by traditional force training.  As more positive trainers convince those “unreachable” clients, and as more positive trainers begin to compete and win at the highest levels of dog sports, we’ll make progress.

Every positive trainer who spends the time and energy to learn his or her craft well (mediocrity breeds contempt, and rightfully so), every trainer who continues to seek new and better ways to convince an unreachable client, and every competitor who avoids compulsion in their training, brings us closer to a world in which dogs will truly be our partners in the highest sense of the word.

Yes, there will still be clients who walk away and from whom we must walk away.  But, for every one of those, there are a few more for whom the light comes on and stays brightly lit.   Every one that we reach is one more who can never go back down the path of unkindness.   Avoiding burnout is one way that positive trainers can be there to light the light for the most people and thereby save the most dogs from harm.

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.

Breed Specific Legislation Doesn’t Work – Ask Lennox

Today, the Belfast City Council in Northern Ireland snuffed out the life of Lennox because he looked like a Pit Bull.  His owners, the Barnes family, fought for two years to save him, and all the while the dog was kept in what appeared to be a concrete block kennel with some pine shavings spread around on the floor.  The Council said that they were only upholding a law that deems all Pit Bulls as dangerous, and the dog warden’s decision, based on some cranial and skeletal measurements, that Lennox was a Pit Bull type dog.  The Barnes family had registered him legally as an American Bulldog mix.  The United Kennel Club Breed Standard for the American Pit Bull Terrier says, “The length of the front leg (measured from point of elbow to the ground) is approximately equal to one-half of the dog’s height at the withers. The head is of medium length, with a broad, flat skull, and a wide, deep muzzle.”  Would you want to sentence a dog to death on that vague a set of criteria???

Despite the dog warden’s contention that Lennox was an unpredictable and dangerous dog, news reports state that no complaint had ever been lodged against him, nor had the dog ever bitten anyone.  

One Council member, in an interview, stated that the people who cared for the dog at the kennel said he was unpredictable – placid one moment and charged at people from behind a gate the next.  Of course, they were seeing a dog who had already been ripped from his family, and placed in a barren kennel which may not have had much enrichment for his benefit.  

Shelter and rescue workers here in the United States are familiar with the term “kennel crazy” and it often applies to dogs that have a high energy level but then are confined in kennels, perhaps with lots of distressed barking from other similarly incarcerated dogs, and some dogs deteriorate mentally very quickly without proper interventions.  

The BCC contends that it couldn’t possibly allow a dangerous dog to be allowed out into society, however, Victoria Stilwell had offered to place the dog in a sanctuary in the United States if necessary, so that he would not be killed and could live out his days in a safe environment.  Two qualified behaviorists, David Ryan and Sarah Fisher (click for Sarah’s statement about her evaluation of Lennox), had already examined the dog and found him not dangerous, yet the BCC accepted the word of a dog warden who was a former police dog handler, but had no credentials in animal behavior.  (Incidentally, David Ryan has also been a police dog handler.)

This sad case is why breed specific legislation does not work and is just plain wrong.  When  dog can be ripped from the arms of its owner, with no history of ANY problems, and taken away to be killed because it LOOKS like a Pit Bull, without any requirement for evaluation by a veterinarian or Ph.D. level professional if the family desires to save their dog, is absolutely the most ludicrous situation any dog owner could find themselves in.

To that end, because ALL of our dogs are Lennox until all dogs are safe from BSL, I’ve started a Facebook group called In Memory of Lennox – the Worldwide Anti-BSL Page.  The group was just started this morning and has over 700 members this evening.  What I hope is that we can be the landing spot for people who want to organize campaigns to overturn BSL where it exists, to give every dog the opportunity for a professional evaluation by a qualified behaviorist before any euthanasia decision is ever made, and that no dog can be deemed dangerous because of its breed or appearance, only by its actions.  We need to uphold current laws – and we need to educate the public on how to keep their dogs, no matter what breed they are, from becoming a public nuisance or a statistic.  

Please, never forget Lennox.  He was a well loved dog, didn’t deserve to die when an alternative was available, and he certainly shouldn’t die in vain.  Let’s return logic to our dangerous dog laws worldwide, and base our decisions on sound professional advice, and not on how wide a dog’s head looks.  Can you find the Pit Bull?  Incidentally, this little test was brought to an anti-BSL hearing that I attended once at the Massachusetts State House.  Animal Control Officers from Boston were asked to find the Pit and they refused to try.  That tells me that even they realize how impossible it sometimes is to determine a dog’s breed by appearance.  Pick the Pit.  

Until Breed Specific Laws are gone, law abiding people and their dogs must continue to live in fear.  Miscreants and dog fighters don’t care about that.  What society needs to do is hold the latter accountable for their disgusting actions, and allow decent pet owners to enjoy their dogs without fear that someone will come and haul them off someday for no other reason than that they resemble a particular breed.

As a trainer, I know that the best way to insure that a dog does not become dangerous is to socialize it while it is still a puppy, and train it early using non-coercive training methods.  The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the Pet Professional Guild have good position statements and resources about that for pet owners.  If a dog does develop issues, consulting a qualified behaviorist and the use safe management practices is imperative.  

If we continue to stand together against breed profiling, we can implement laws that make sense, not laws that exact capital punishment on innocent dogs.  There is no reason why a dog that was evaluated by two behaviorists and offered a home at an animal sanctuary should now be dead instead.

At Paws for Praise, we offer Yappy Hour play to our clients where they learn about socialization requirements, and dog body language.  We do not shrink from telling our clients about breed predispositions in terms of both health and behavior, but we also focus heavily on how they can use training and social activity to help their dogs be good canine citizens.

How’s Your Relationship?

One of the saddest things I see as a trainer is a dog that has no relationship with the human at the other end of the leash.  When I see such a lack of camaraderie between dog and owner, I am struck by the similarities among almost all of these “couples.”  The first thing I notice, oftentimes, is how quiet and uncommunicative the person is with the dog, how quickly the person is inclined to correct the dog or feel that it needs correction, and how reluctant the owner is to use food in training or to use a sufficient rate of reinforcement when the dog is first learning.

Perhaps some owners feel that because dogs don’t talk that we need not talk to them.  But, a dog that hears its name spoken cheerily by a loving owner, who follows up with a “yes!” as soon as their dog looks at them, and then tosses a nice bit of cheese or meat, usually has a dog that knows its name.  If nothing interesting ever happens when the dog does try looking at his owner, why would he continue to try to engage?

If you can get a dog to turn to you when you say its name, you can carry on an additional conversation with your smile, directional gestures, and activity, that the dog can respond to. It’s the first step toward getting the dog to want to come when called, and the dogs with the most stellar recalls are usually those that have been built solidly on relationship.  Sure, if rote obedience is your only desire, you could put a shock collar on a dog and force it to come, but the joyous, free, “I can’t wait to get to you” recalls are built on healthy relationships that benefit the dog as much as the human, and not on coercion.  I would never again coerce a dog when I know that I can have such pure joie de vivre reflected back at me by simply making every recall a happy affair that results in my dog benefiting as much as I do.  I have no problem showering my dogs with a smorgasbord of real meat, cheese, yogurt, tripe, and all manner of other enticements when they arrive at my feet until they think that I really am the god of all things dogs want.  And even for dogs that are more inclined to want to chase squirrels than eat, there is still no reason for punishing techniques (there ‘s something called Premack Principle that will come in to play for that).

Another problem with relationship that I see is that everything is filtered through the lens of what the dog does wrong.  “How do I stop my dog from (name the unwanted behavior),” they ask me.   What if people, instead of thinking only of the things they want to correct, began to reward the dog when he was good?  Dogs are practical – they repeat behavior that works.  And, dogs aren’t trying to take over the world, be “stubborn” or piss us off.  They are just being dogs.  All they need is a bit of education and they are more than willing to cooperate.  But how do you educate a dog that’s already out at the end of its leash trying to avoid you because the only feedback you’ve given is aversive?  I’ve never been able to quite understand how any logical person could think that their dog would want to be with them after they speak harshly, pin, scruff, shake, yank, or ignore the dog.  (Yes, I know, we ignore jumping up, but that isn’t the same as ignoring the dog on a two mile walk, save to yank him away from some cool scent once in a while.)

Correction has fallout with regard to relationship.  If you were on a leash and the only time you got your neck jerked on, or heard harsh commands, or were pushed away, was when you were on that leash (next to your human), you might wish to stay far away from the human once the leash comes off.   The saddest thing is to see 5-6 happy dogs, engaged with their owners and having a great time at class, and one poor dog that is being corrected at home, trying his darnedest to get to the other puppies and people, never once looking back at his own handler.

The truly hard part for me, as a trainer, is when I get someone ask me if they are in the right class, are doing something wrong, or have a stubborn or stupid dog.  There are few nice ways to be honest enough to tell someone that they may have done some things that messed up the relationship they have with their dog.  If the dog wags its tail upon the owner’s arrival home, the owner may tend not to believe that there could possibly be anything wrong.  But, indeed there sometimes is.  So, if you are struggling in class, or at home, please know that I don’t want to tell you that your relationship is suffering, but your dog is counting on me to tell you!  So, if I ask you to increase your rate of reinforcement, or use a high pitched voice to call your dog, or get cheerful, or catch your dog doing something right, or pay your dog a jackpot, all of that is designed to get you to be the most important thing in your dog’s life.  If that means a smorgasbord, and no more “no” then that’s what it means.  Please don’t shoot the messenger, but this blog post is my way of telling you, too.  Your dog will thank me if you listen, but you don’t have to – one more happy dog is more than enough thanks for me.

For information on why punishment doesn’t work:

For more information on the proper use of food in dog training:

Pam’s Dog Academy has some great videos on building attention and recall (and side effect of building relationship!)  You can start here:

Pet owners can now join the Pet Professional Guild.  Guild members, affiliates & sponsors understand Force-Free to mean, no shock, no pain, no fear, no physical force, no physical molding, no compulsion based methods are employed to train or care for a pet.
To learn more: