Solving Canine Behavior Problems …

Filling in the blanks…

Earlier today I placed a post on Facebook sharing my displeasure with the guidance one of my clients received from her veterinarian regarding her 11 month old intact male dog’s behavior.  The behavior in question is intermittent humping on her leg. The guidance provided by the veterinarian was to “light him up” or in more clear terminology, put a shock collar on him and shock him when ever he humps.

To be sure, placing that post on Facebook allowed me to vent a little bit in support of my client and several of my Facebook followers chimed in with support and suggestions as well.  I’ve since been thinking that I need to do more.  It’s not fair and is quite presumptuous of me to believe that the general population reading my Facebook page actually understand the reasoning behind my displeasure, except of course the knowledge that I take my professional oath of “first do no harm” and that I am very against the use of harsh tools, including shock collars. So I am writing now to clarify some of the reasoning behind my position and hopefully to provide food for thought for folks to share and discuss.

When talking about behavior, the first thing that must be understood is that behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  ALL behavior has a purpose, is intended to meet our needs and is influenced by how we perceive and act on our environment.  Dogs do not bark, jump, hump or fail to follow instructions “just because”.   Often times dogs are just being dogs.  Doing what comes naturally in their exploration of their environment, burning energy, staving off boredom or simply playing.  Frequently the dog has not been trained to fluency to offer a different behavior in the desired situation.  Sometimes the behavior of dogs is influenced more by their emotional or physical state; fear, anxiety, frustration, fatigue, hormones, pain or just not feeling well.

A barking dog may be demanding attention, may be alerting you to a visitor on your property, may be conveying that the dog is not comfortable with the presence of a stranger or may be just something to do when home alone and locked in the back yard.  Similarly, humping comes from a variety of places in a dog’s repertoire.  A dog who is humpy or mounts other dogs, people, pillows, toys, etc. is often times in a state of arousal from play or other interaction with a friend and his (or her) arousal comes out in humping …a biological response to an emotional state.  Likewise, a humpy dog may be anxious about something, uncertain expectations, stress from an uncomfortable interaction or environmental context.  Of course, mounting / humping happens as a function of reproduction and sometimes just for the enjoyment of the behavior.  While less common, social situations and competition for higher rank order placement in a social group may also be a motivator for humping other dogs.  Here in lies the problem…

Before you can resolve or change a behavior, any behavior, you MUST take the time to determine what the motivation for that behavior is and resolve the cause of the behavior.  Jumping to stop the behavior without first attempting to understand and resolve the underlying root cause is at best ineffective and at worst just plain harmful to the dog physically and emotionally.  Imagine having a normal biological response such as blinking, breathing, hiccoughs, sudden reaction to cheer for your team when they score a goal….something you do not plan and just happens, and getting shocked, poked, yelled at, choked, when you do.  Will being shocked stop the behavior?  Maybe for the brief period you are able to forcefully manage it but at some point you will have to blink , breath, etc. Now imagine the stress and anxiety you will experience trying to stop a behavior that is reflexive, something you have limited control over?  Oh, it gets worse.  Imagine now that you are not really sure exactly why you are being shocked (yelled at, hit, or otherwise corrected) or what alternate behavior will save you from the unpleasant and sometimes torturous correction?  Remember, shocking the dog does NOT teach him what to do instead so even if he does have control over the situation, he has no idea what more appropriate behavior to offer. He’s already offering normal dog behavior.

Now, I have another beef with the guidance to put a shock collar on a dog who is humping.  The trusted professional, who must know what he’s talking about because he is after all a veterinarian, did NOT explain to the client the possible side effects of using a shock collar to stop behavior.  He did not explain that the shock is not going to teach the dog what to do instead, so training a desired behavior is still necessary.  He did not explain that the humping behavior is a natural, normal response from the dog and that shocking him is not likely to solve the problem in the long run and he did NOT explain that even the most skilled trainers often lack the necessary timing and consistency to ensure that appropriate intensity (not too high or too low) happen EVERY TIME the behavior happens.  He did not explain that there are common and well documented side effects caused by the use of aversive training methods that include increased fear, anxiety, neurosis, aggression, emotional shut down and overall detrimental health impacts.

In this trainer’s mind, the dog’s owner was not provided the information needed to make an informed decision about how to resolve the unwanted behavior of her dog and she was set up for potentially devastating results.  When professionals are in a position of influencing how people act, we have a responsibility to ensure we are not inadvertently leading folks down a slippery slope.  Thankfully, even though she is a first time dog owner, she has resisted much coaching and guidance from well meaning but misinformed individuals.  Her dog is a lucky dog to have her as his mom.

Side note: I have tremendous respect for and work very closely with many members of the veterinary community.  This blog is in no way intended to shed a bad light on veterinarians; they have a very challenging job and are the everything in our dog’s overall health management.  The intention here is to point out that as dog owners, we need to ask questions, not believe blindly, do research, not on Google but in scientific journals and with professionally educated and skilled behavior professionals.  Ask about side effects and potential dangers of advice given.  Ask the person giving advice what specifically their education in animal behavior is.  Follow your gut…if it feels shady or uncomfortable, it probably is something you want to avoid.  

 

 

 

 

A Day in the Life….

Funny thing today.  I met with a new personal doctor.  In our meet and greet conversation we talked about such things as my work schedule, my sleep, or lack of sleep schedule, the things that cause me stress, etc.  As I was trying to explain to him the reasons I don’t do a better job of taking care of my personal needs, I could see by the look on his face that he wasn’t buying it.  What is so hard about drawing lines, making priorities and following through.  Well….nothing really, I just don’t do it.

So, my doctor asked me to describe a typical day in my life.  I’m sure it’s no different than many of my colleagues and probably easier than some.  As I was going over it, it dawned on me that I have failed miserably at setting up a livable schedule, it’s no wonder my dog looks at me like she does some times and is probably the main reason I sometimes drop balls or disappoint my clients.  For purposes of providing a glimpse into my world, here is what I told him:

Average Day:

  • 6:00 am – Waking up, head to coffee maker. 
  • 6:30 -10am – Hit the computer, typically in jammies with coffee in hand to begin the process of returning email messages, posting training plans for those who need them via remote access, preparing training plans for the days private and group class clients and field phone calls and return messages and facilitate SKYPE sessions with remote clients.  Feed my own dog and if she’s lucky go on a short walk.
  • 10-10:30 am – Hit the showers, get dressed, gather training materials and bait bag, gather training supplies needed and out the door.
  • 10:30 – 4:00 pm Hit the road, travel to first private client (approx 45 min drive) train dogs (11:30-12:30, 1:00-2:00, 2:30-3:30) and then head back toward the training studio in Paradise or our training location in Chico to set up for group classes
  • 4:00-7:00 pm Travel to, Set up for and run group classes (Tue, Wed, Thur sometimes Sat) 
  • 8:00 pm arrive home.  Greeted by a very, very patient dog who is looking for some attention and her dinner.  Some nights (no class nights) we actually make it to play date where she gets to run and play with her friends for an hour.        
  • 8:30-9:00 pm Dinner and off to the office for an hour or two.
  • 9:00 – 11:00 pm  Type and file training notes from the day, send out promised literature, check on critical training clients online notes and begin the decompress process.  Pick up the house, play with the dog (training games or toy play at this hour), etc.
  • 11:30 or 12:00 (sometimes later) it’s hit the hay time.

As you can see,  I have some real work to do on my scheduling and boundary setting skills. It’s not feasible to reduce my client load (fiances you see) but I know there are more effective and creative ways to balance the work load and personal needs.   After this discussion, while waiting for my class clients to arrive, it dawned on me that this has been a recent topic of discussion, again, in many dog training forums I belong to. Dog trainers tell each other and hear from coaches and mentors that in order to prevent burnout, stay healthy and stay motivated, it’s critical to set boundaries and clearly identify what you will do, when you will do it and when you are not available to your clients.  So, if we are setting boundaries and expectations with our clients, why are we still working way past our stated work hours?  It’s because we don’t stick to our guns. We answer text messages, email and phone calls at times clearly past our stated available time.  We, in effect, condition our clients to contact us because it works for them.  Each one we answer off hours sends the message to the clients that there really are no times of day or days of the week when their trainer is not available and thank heavens they can get help when they want it.  Funny how we teach our client’s that “Dogs do what works” and then we trainers are flabbergasted when a client continues to call, text or expect immediate email responses from us after hours…duh!

So, what is the message here?  Dog trainers, and I’m speaking about this one for sure, must learn how to more effectively balance their work and their personal lives, making time for the latter.  We love our clients and we know they love and depend on us. In order for us to continue doing what we do so well, we need to be at our best.  We need to sleep well so we can think clearly and stay safe with the growly crowd (I mean dogs but humans too if it fits:).  We need to eat healthy food at regular times, take days off and we absolutely must be fair to our clients and let them know what our policies are and stick to them…strictly and professionally.  We must take care of our own houses before we can help others….like putting oxygen on first on a plane.  Remember too, a burned out dog trainer who quits the profession or one who suffers physically and emotionally from lack of good health is not available to the very clients we work so hard to to help!

Why did I put this in a public blog post?  It has taken me a while to convince my own mom that I do have a “real” job, that it is not all puppy play and fun and games, it is often difficult, frequently emotionally challenging and usually very, very rewarding.  I think anything we can do to bridge better communication and set clear expectations with our clients is a win-win.

Have A Good Dog Day!

Why Hire a Professional Dog Trainer?

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I was recently asked by somebody why she should hire a professional dog trainer.  This person was of a mature age and she told me that she has owned dogs all of her life and has never hired a dog trainer before; she didn’t see how paying somebody else to train her dog was a wise financial decision.  The funny thing was, this nice lady stopped to talk to me because she was having a problem with barking that she has been unable to resolve, and she was hoping for a few tidbits of information to help her out.  Hmm,  I guess having dogs all of your life doesn’t really teach you how to effectively resolve behavior problems.

As our conversation progressed, I learned that she got her now 2 year old dog as a puppy from a breeder and the dog has always been inquisitive, an investigator and is quite the couch cuddler.  I also learned the dog lives on 20 acres and runs free and has a wonderful time all day, he is just very dominant when friends or family come to visit; he barks continuously at them and refuses to go lay down when told.  I also learned that other than going to the vet, the dog rarely leaves the property unless it’s for a quick ride to the grocery store where he waits in the truck for his owner to shop and come out.

So now I’m getting an idea about why the dog might be barking at strangers.  We talk about Puppy Socialization and the critical role it plays in the development of a dogs confidence with the world around him, learning that things in the human world are either safe or dangerous from the dog’s point of view.  This person was looking for help, a good thing, but what she was expecting was for me to validate that her dog was a dud and needed to be corrected.  She was not buying into my suggestion that maybe the reason her dog was barking at strangers is he is not comfortable in their presence and not the over confident dominant Labrador Retriever she thought he was AND maybe the “stimulation” collar she was using to solve the barking problem was making it worse and why?

So, in thinking about how to answer this lady’s question, I came up with a couple of examples to talk to her about.  I like pulling human examples out of my hat, even if they sometimes only almost apply, because most of us humans can at least understand and put ourselves in the position of experiencing the example.  So I asked her how she felt about rattle snakes, was she particularly fond of them?  She looked at me quizzically and said no, she hates them.  Further, she said she gets the shivers even thinking about them.  Ah, I said.  So if a snake were to be in the parking lot over there, you would be a bit uncomfortable?  Yes! she said.  So I followed up, if that snake were to start moving in our direction, you might get nervous?  Maybe look for a stick or weapon or maybe want to run away?  Most definitely!  So then I asked why?  Have you ever been bitten by a snake?  So few people ever are, why are you so afraid.  I just am!  That my friend is how your dog feels about the strangers.  He didn’t get to meet a variety of different people during his critical development period, he may even have had a bad experience in his perspective with a stranger and so he hates them, he just wants them to leave…to go away.  To your dog, strangers ARE snakes; Bark!,  Bark!,  Bark!

The good news?  Because I am a Professional Dog Trainer with education in behavior and learning theory and experience working with this type of problem, I can help you:)

I often tell folks that I have been driving cars for a long time but if mine breaks down, I call a mechanic.  If I get a toothache I go to the dentist.  If I have a plumbing leak, I don’t ask the grocery store clerk, my sister or the mailman how to fix it.

If you have a dog behavior or training question…call a Professional Dog Trainer who has experience with your type of problem and who has had education in behavior and learning theory and can help you train your dog or resolve a behavior problem using modern, scientific, proven methods.

To Bark or “No Bark”

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Barking is one of the most common reasons people call a dog trainer.  Often times, people have endured their dogs barking hoping it would stop, they’ve tried various training methods and they’ve even told the dog “No Bark”!  Is it any wonder people are up to their eye balls in frustration when the dog continues to bark anyway?  

Let’s break down barking and talk about why telling the dog “No Bark” really does not work.  To us humans, most dog barking all sounds the same and as soon as it starts, we want it to end.  But the reality is that dogs bark for many reasons.  

The happy barker.  This is the dog who barks when he is playing and having a good time.  My own dog fits into this category.  She is really not much of a barker unless she is trying to get a dog to play with her and then she can be really persistent and to some dogs (and me) annoying.  So long as the dogs she is barking at don’t seem to mind, I let her be herself.  If she is annoying her dog friends or she gets on my nerves then we interrupt her to do something else…walking around, playing or sometimes it’s just time to leave.  This is not the usual type of barking that bothers most folks. 

The demand barker.  This is the dog who barks at his people to get attention or stuff.  They are usually looking at the person and barking in short spurts and usually stop when they get what it is they wanted.  Whether they want to be petted or have the ball thrown this type of barking is something that we humans usually teach to our dogs unwittingly when we first get them. We often initially find the happy faced barker cute and so we give them attention, talk to them or play when they ask us to…until that is they won’t stop when we are done with the interaction.  Ignoring this barker completely (no eye contact, no verbal instructions, turn and leave if you must, put the toys away) and when the dog is quiet, praise him and give him the attention or interaction he is seeking. By showing the dog that the barking behavior does NOT work, he will try something else to get your attention. Catching quiet behavior or any other behavior that you want instead and rewarding that will stop the barking. It’s hard to bark with a ball in your mouth:) 

The Alert barker.  This is the dog who is usually well socialized and happy to see people, other dogs, things in the environment and is keen to tell us when somebody has arrived on our property. This type of barking is not usually caused by negative emotions like fear or anxiety but is more often just that, an alert.  Once the visitor arrives the dog calms down and is comfortable in the presence of the visitor…usually especially so if his family is home.  When his family is away, he may be more willing to stay on alert and prevent access to the family space.  In any case, this type of barking is also not usually the reason people call a trainer to resolve barking, at least not beyond getting help to settle the dog faster or have the dog wait for permission to greet.  

The Alarm barker.  This is the dog who is usually not well socialized, at least to the things he barks at.  This is an emotionally charged barker who is uncertain, anxious, fearful or angry at the subject of his barking.  This barking is usually persistent and comes with other body language that is meant to tell the intruder to please stay away (in fact usually GO AWAY!!! is the intention).  Some dogs are great with people but bark at dogs.  Some dogs bark at skateboards, cars, motorcycles, garbage trucks, landscapers, mail carriers or other specific triggers and others bark at pretty much anything or anybody that they don’t live with (sometimes unfortunately even people they do live with).  This is the type of barking that is most often the cause for a call to a dog trainer.  To fix this type of barking, we first have to deal with the dogs emotions.  Once we can help the dog to no longer fear, be anxious about or angry at the subject of his barking then he no longer has a reason to bark…in fact the barking just goes away.  

Why is my dog afraid or anxious?   

I’ve been asked “Why does my dog continue to bark at the mail lady every day when she has never done anything to him; there is no reason to fear the mail lady”?   My answers are often something like: Why are humans afraid of snakes when most of us have never been bitten by one?  Or I can’t tell you why my mother is absolutely terrified of heights when she has never fallen from a cliff or a ladder.  

Fear, anxiety, uncertainty and anger toward things can be cause by many individual situations or by a combination of things.  Genetic make up is one cause; a pup can be fearful or anxious if he has a parent that is also anxious.  Learning experiences can cause a dog to have fear or anxiety (or anger) toward things or in given situations.  A single scary event can be enough to leave a dog permanently afraid of something.  Lack of positive socialization is often a prime reason for fear and anxiety toward new things.  Dogs have a limited time in their lives when they are open to gaining positive experiences to new / novel things.  By the time a puppy is 16 weeks old this window closes.  This time is fixed and is not open to modification by humans.  During the first 16 weeks (5-9 weeks is prime time) puppies need to have lots of positive exposures to people, places, objects, noises, textures and even other dogs to have the best chance at being a well adjusted adult in our human world.    After the age of 16 weeks dogs will naturally be more fearful of the things they were not socialized to and to reverse their associations requires a whole different set of training activities best guided by a qualified positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist. 

Solutions to Barking: 

Why “NO BARK!” doesn’t work: 

One of the things I often hear people say when their dog barks at something is “No Bark!”.  I am pretty sure I missed the movie, show or book that explains this particular phrase but I hear it all the time so it’s out there some where.  

Why “No Bark!” doesn’t work.  First off, if the dog is barking when you say this phrase and dogs learn by association (and they don’t actually speak English, German or any other human language) then what they learn is their barking and the term NO BARK go together.  So when you say “NO BARK!” they not only do not stop barking but they continue to bark because that in effect is what you are telling them to do.  If the dog does momentarily stop barking when he hears this phrase, it is more likely a reaction to threatening tone of voice or body language by the human than an understanding of the words.  Counter intuitive to how we humans think I know but remember…we speak the language and have reasoning skills beyond that of our dogs. 

Prevent the Behavior:

Keep your dog from looking out the front of the house and barking all day at the people who come and go.  He rehearses the behavior and learns that when he barks, people go away so barking works!  We know they were leaving anyway but the dog does not! 

Increasing the distance between your dog and what he is barking at will alleviate his discomfort and the barking will stop if you get far enough away for him to feel safe.  Putting him in a different room of the house when visitors come, Turn and go the other direction on walks,  Do not allow the scary thing to approach your dog and never try to bribe a dog to like somebody by having them offer a treat; often times this will cause the dog to get closer for the food but then be too close and he may feel the need to defend himself. Remember too that soothing talk and a calm demeanor will help but by itself will not help your dog to feel safe in the presence of scary things. 

Make great / awesome things happen when your dog is exposed to the things he is upset about at the distance he is comfortable with. The best way to help your dog change his emotional response to scary things is to hire a Positive Reinforcement Trainer who is experienced working with fearful, anxious or aggressive dogs.  Common tools used might be Desensitization and Counter Conditioning, BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training), Teaching alternative behaviors, etc.  Avoid any type of aversive training methods, especially when working with a dog who is already upset.  Your veterinarian may have a local referral for you.  

Trainer Resources: 

Association of Professional Dog Trainers

Karen Pryor Academy 

Academy for Dog Trainers

Association of Animal Behavior Professionals

 

 

 

  

 

The Problem With Science

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Today I was reminded about problems we face when it comes to relying on “Science” to help educate people on the best known methods for training dogs and resolving behavior problems. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate of science and do my best to share the latest in scientific information with my clients. 

 

The problem with science is there are far too many informal and very flawed “studies” that people rely on.  These studies usually come in the form of personal experiences, what friends, family and sometimes even people who advertise themselves as content experts say.  Never mind that none of these experts people listen to have any formal training; sometimes they have not even reviewed a single study or document presented by behavior professionals.  

What makes these informal studies (really tribal knowledge and hearsay) so powerful that otherwise very intelligent and caring people believe them?  They “seem” to work.  People see behavior or lack of behavior in a dog and that is enough to sell them on the method.  Sometimes there are no real lasting artifacts of aversive training methods…but sometimes there are real and often dangerous results.  When things go bad…it’s the dogs fault.  It can’t be the methods.  

Case in point: On our walk today, Dakota and I ran into a client and her dog.  This is an absolutely awesome, with a capital “A”, 2 year old Black Labrador.  Awesome in every sense other than he had “suddenly” began to show serious resource guarding aggression toward his mom and dad when he found a valuable item, usually a bone or chew, and they tried to take it away.  After working with this dog and his mom for several weeks we had gotten to a point where the dog had learned “drop it”, “give” and “scoot – back up” cues and was trading extremely valuable chew items with enthusiasm and no longer showing any signs of tension when approached.  We had him to a place where he would take his item into his crate (where he tended to guard ferociously) and I would stand outside of his crate and ask him to “give” and he would happily bring his chew bone to me.  In every conceivable situation he was showing nothing but enthusiasm for making trades. He has been working wonderfully with his mom and they have been on a practice / maintenance schedule for a while.   Here is the problem.  Where mom internalized and had bought fully into the science of desensitization and counter conditioning and using positive rewards for desired behavior to avoid fear, anxiety and aggression.  Dad has not.  He had dogs growing up that were “good dogs” trained using punishment methods and his brother has a “good dog” who is reprimanded and not allowed to get away with undesired behavior so the methods do work.  Apparently except when you show the dog something he chewed up, bend over close to his face, look him in the eye and say “you see this?” in a low growly voice.  When you do this to a dog who finds this type of reprimand scary and threatening, because he has been punished in the past, you get a dog who lowers his head and growls at you.  As a dog trainer, I understand that was a warning where the dog said “don’t do that, I am not comfortable” but what dad heard was “Don’t boss me around or I’m gonna show you”.  What do you think happened?  Yep, the dog growled and then dog got yelled at, pushed off the back porch and left outside.  Later in the evening the dog tried to show appeasement behavior toward dad by climbing up on the couch to snuggle and you know what dad said?  See, he knows he was wrong and is saying he’s sorry.  Never mind dad doesn’t realize the dog is trying to say please don’t be so scary, I’m not a threat to you.  Dad believes even more strongly now that his ways are showing the dog who is boss and will lead to better behavior.  Mom and I will work with dad in this example and hopefully it is before a bite occurs.  Thank heavens this dog has mom as his advocate! 

The problem with science is that most people don’t get their data from a reputable “scientific” source and the hearsay versions are so readily available and offered freely by the people in our inner circles.  The other problem is that even when diligent dog owners go looking for the good data, it’s not necessarily easy to find.  How do people who are not trained in animal behavior know who to listen to?  Their breeder?  Their Veterinarian?  Their Groomer?  Their Trainer?  Unfortunately these are sources who are in fact often listened to and so many, probably the majority yet today have no behavior education.  The problem with Science is the challenge it provides us to make it known. The challenge of dog behavior professionals everywhere is to help make the good information easier to find and more available in mainstream channels so more people can learn the good stuff.  

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