Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Author of The Secret History of Kindness
When critically acclaimed author Melissa Holbrook Pierson decided to write about the joys of clicker training, she didn’t realize that her journey would lead her, first, into the dark history of dog training and later, into the more affirming laboratories of B.F. Skinner. We spoke with Pierson about her extraordinary new book, The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn (Norton, April), covering such topics as why so many prominent trainers are “crossing over” to positive reinforcement methods, why and how we can be positively (or negatively) reinforced by our own training methods, and why and how science has proven that kindness is indeed the best approach—to dog training and to life.
B: I was encouraged to learn that the use of electric shock devices has been banned in Wales, and that other parts of the UK are considering similar legislation. Why are these devices ineffective, even dangerous?
MHP: Shock collars are imprecise and flawed tools for several reasons. Pain induces fear and anxiety, which have neurological effects that impede learning. Use of shock collars is correlated with increased aggression and anxiety. Finally, it is incredibly difficult to time the shock properly, which causes confusion and often, learned helplessness.
Another undesirable outcome is the unintended associations a dog may make between the pain and what’s in the environment at the time it’s experienced. For instance, a dog can’t know that when he was zapped, it wasn’t caused by the child who happened to be riding by on a bicycle at that precise moment. The next thing you know, your dog develops a fear of children on bicycles, and eventually, bites a child riding by on a bike. People say, “It was completely out of the blue.” Not to the dog.
B: You refer to a number of trainers who “crossed over” from using punitive/coercive methods to positive reinforcement. Could you tell us about that?
MHP: I cite a very well-known trainer who describes a seminal moment in her training career, in which her own dog—with whom she did competition obedience—actually ran and hid from her when it was time to begin a training session. In that moment, she asked herself, “Why is my dog hiding from me?” Then it hit her: her dog was afraid of her.
B: So this trainer realized that she herself was a stressor—a source of fear and pain—in her own dog’s life. As you point out, this is an unfortunate but common side effect of coercive training methods.
MHP: Yes, but before we get to that, I want to clarify that it’s not a matter of people being unkind, or not loving their dogs. These people love their dogs every bit as much as anyone. But living in a culture saturated by coercion, in which so many social institutions are structured to use threat or punishment to modify behavior, can blind us to what we’re actually doing. Coercing comes naturally to many of us because that’s what we’ve always known. We then visit the same sort of treatment on our own children—among whom many of us include our dogs.
For centuries, all sorts of punitive and abusive methods have been propounded as being the “right”—indeed, the necessary—way to raise our dependents. Twenty years ago, it was practically impossible to find a book on dog training that did not instruct you in the methodology of abuse.
That’s why I give the example in my book of my own childhood dog. She was truly the soul of sweetness, with no behavioral issues to speak of. But since we didn’t know how to properly housebreak her, we took the advice of a standard “How to Raise Your Puppy” book. Now, I can hardly bear to think about what we did to this dog, who was uncomprehending and completely at our mercy. We loved her. But did we know any better? No.
B: A lot of us can empathize with that guilt. But, as Maya Angelou said, “You do your best, and when you know better, you do better.” Now we do know better; science has proven—and you go into great detail about this in your book, from many angles—that positive reinforcement is the most effective training method. Can you elaborate?
MHP: It’s more effective because it’s true. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but in every case history can provide, things become easier and better when we work with fact rather than tradition, which, for lack of an alternative, often makes things extremely difficult. When you believe the Earth is flat, you are not aware that it might be easier to head west in order to gain the east. Teaching is so much more fluid, and kinder, to both student and teacher when it follows the laws of operant conditioning as well as other discoveries in natural science. We are in a great moment, one in which neurology continues to complement Skinner’s findings in illuminating how the brain works.
B: One thing I was startled to discover in your book is that the military uses positive reinforcement to train their marine animals. Does that mean that even they no longer cling to the outdated dominant, alpha-male, punitive model?
MHP: You’ve hit on one of the most interesting paradoxes in the whole thing. Critics of positive reinforcement call us “cookie pushers” and criticize us for being too kind, too lenient. But if we just look at what works, and strip away all the value-laced judgment on technique, the fact is that in almost all cases, positive reinforcement turns out to be the most efficient, most effective method. Believe me, if the navy could find a better way to train, it would; all it cares about is what works.
Several countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, are now reputed to use only positive reinforcement training in their military canine programs, and in the U.S., we are moving solidly in that direction. Reliability is the sole factor driving this movement. As I say in the book, it is not sentimental foible to train without coercion. There are data proving that it works best.
The topic of the crossover trainer is a seminal example in the whole revolution toward positive reinforcement. These are individuals who were at the height of their power and careers. They had no reason to change their methods because what they were doing was “working,” so far as they knew. But something cracked open in their hearts once what I can only call empathy opened their eyes to the way their dogs’ reactions told them something was wrong.
So I think the crossover is not fundamentally crossing from one technique to another, but rather, crossing from an egocentric point of view to an empathic one, where you actually look at what the dog is expressing, and realize: “I was blind, but now I see.”
B: Your book is full of wonderful “light-bulb moments.” Can you share some examples?
MHP: Almost everyone I know who tries clicker training experiences one moment when he or she sees the dog “get” it—an undeniable expression of happiness and eagerness. It’s the learning moment, when the doors of communication open wide. And you literally get high on it. When you see someone you love happy because of something you’ve done or given, that’s something you want to replicate. Seeing them happy makes you happy. That’s what happens with a clicker and a dog. You see this transformation and you become transformed, too.
It’s hallelujah, it’s eureka, it’s everything all at once. In a way, it’s the big bang. It’s the creation of a new universe, gaining a new language. Suddenly, you’ve discovered something. Using the language of learning results in such beautiful moments.
B: Can one experience similarly joyful moments using punitive training methods? In other words, do punitive training methods employ this language of learning?
MHP: The effect on the learner, both in the moment and later, is dramatically different. First, the nature of punishment is such that it only stops a behavior; it does not give instruction on what is desired. Then, there’s its effect on the brain. Pain (or the threat thereof) triggers a response from the reactive part, the amygdala. In moments of imminent crisis, it’s where we quickly decide what to do: fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones are released to get us to act. In moments of fear or pain, the reasoning and rational parts of the brain shut down to conserve resources. We can’t learn; we need to save ourselves. The brain of a dog cowering or feeling pain is caught in a neurochemical stress cycle. Not a condition conducive to figuring things out.
On the other hand, a dog who anticipates a reward, who tries to figure out how to get the good stuff, is fully able to engage the thinking part of his brain. All this thinking and learning makes him happy. If you remember times when learning excited you, you know the feeling. It’s the moment when you can almost feel your mind stretching to get more of that sensation of wonderment.
This is almost visible in clicker-trained dogs. They start to play, to try novel behaviors. They manifest an eagerness to learn more. This is the opposite of what happens in a moment of terror, or even milder forms of distress. Fear forecloses options. Imagine asking people to do crossword puzzles as they’re fleeing a burning building. In stressful situations, we cannot access the part of our brain that is capable of such work, and neither can dogs.
B: This leads into the notion of “learned helplessness,” which we see in dogs trained using force.
MHP: Exactly. Learned helplessness occurs when you don’t understand when or why the punishment—the literal or figurative electric shock—is coming, because it seems to be random. The safest course of action is simply to offer no behavior at all, to stand pat. This kind of freezing is sometimes mistaken for “calm submission” in dogs who have been forced to submit. But they haven’t truly learned to be calm. Rather, they’ve learned to avoid an arbitrary unpleasantness by doing nothing.
You also see this in students engaged in traditional pedagogy, which often relies on threat of punishment for misbehavior instead of reinforcement for desired behavior. Kids learn to toe the line, but they don’t do much else. I personally think it’s sad; by choosing a coercive methodology, we deprive our students of the great possibilities of exploring their brain’s farther reaches.
B: Your book reminded me how much fun positive-reinforcement training can be, both for the trainer and the trainee. And conversely, how unpleasant it can be to use punishing, coercive methods. For many of us, using punitive training methods makes us feel terrible.
MHP: That’s because, from a behaviorist perspective, reinforcers act both on the subject and the teacher. Punishment, as I learned to my astonishment, can act as a reinforcer to the person who practices it: that is one of its dangers. You can end up practicing it because it is reinforcing to you. It certainly has immediate effect, which can feel good. And as Skinner taught, what feels good ends up being repeated.
But then you see its effect in your subject. Deciding which path to take brings us to the subject of empathy. Is your goal to understand how your dog understands? The revolution in kindness will continue to grow, I think, if people simply stop and ask themselves, Would I like this done to me? I dare say very few people, projecting themselves into their dog’s mind, would actively choose to have their windpipe constricted every three minutes over learning how to walk on a loose leash. Especially if being walked on a loose leash involved treats or being released to go sniff an interesting smell.
B: How does positive reinforcement reinforce the trainer?
MHP: A great bonus of positive reinforcement is that you first have to watch and learn: your dog is called upon to tell you what she finds reinforcing. It causes us to open and embrace, rather than close down and demand. It’s a gift to both parties.
B: What are the most important things you’ve learned from clicker training and/or operant conditioning?
MHP: The most important things that clicker training can teach, finally, are about life. First, maybe, is the importance of self-control. The more I can do that, the better teacher I am, also the better human being I am. In a philosophical as well as literal way, it’s about orienting to “yes” instead of “no.” Yes is a bigger place, full of potential, full of joy. It’s a little like focusing on gratitude, on what you have as opposed to what you lack.
Clicker training leaks into all aspects of life. I can be a better friend, a better listener. It teaches compassion. It teaches the importance of recognizing that so many of the things we believe are essential are really rather arbitrary. For one, language. We realize that our language is not universal at all.
The importance of understanding the language that our beloveds speak is a crucial aspect of positive reinforcement. An ancillary gift is that it causes us to consider someone else’s desires as equal to our own. Why should my desire that my dog do this or that take precedence over her desires? In order to use this methodology successfully, you have to ask your subject: What do you want? Then stop and look and listen to find out.
I think it’s a huge privilege to have this glimpse into another species’ world. With other training methods, you don’t really get that privilege.
B: Can you share one useful training tip for those readers who might be new to the joys of clicker training?
MHP: One of the most powerful tools I found actually comes from classical, not operant, conditioning: associate your dog’s name, spoken with a specific intonation, with the receipt of something good. This simple act has allowed me to give my dog some of the freedom she craves because I’ve greatly increased the chances that she will come back to me. She understands that coming when she hears this particular sound is going to result in a pleasant outcome.
I can let my dog off leash (only, of course, in areas that I know to be as safe from man-made hazards as I can humanly determine), and it all started in the kitchen. I would say her name and give her a treat; my particular dog has informed me of the paramount value of edibles, while to another dog, a tug toy might be preferred. I could see fireworks exploding in her brain. I could practically hear her think: You mean, all I do is go to her when I hear that sound and I get a reward? Then I can go away again and have more fun? Oh boy!
This to me is the best and simplest tip. Once you’ve successfully associated the dog’s name with something good, be careful in the future to avoid pairing it with something negative or undesirable. Otherwise you get what is called a “poisoned” cue.
B: This makes me think of your wonderful statement: “It all comes down to: do you want to train with yes or with no?”
If I had to boil down the whole book to one word, it would be “yes.” Isn’t it what we all want to hear, more than anything else?
Dog's Life: Humane
Beyond being famous for her film work—which has earned her two Academy Awards—Hilary Swank has also made a name for herself as a leading advocate for animals. On Thanksgiving night (Fox, 8 to 10 p.m.), she’ll bring her talents and humane passion to a special program celebrating rescue dogs: Fox’s Cause for Paws: An All-Star Dog Special. She is co-producing this groundbreaking show with Michael Levitt, producer of special programming and a leader in dog rescue. Jane Lynch will be the co-host. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Swank about her animal advocacy and this extraordinary television show.
Claudia Kawczynska: What drew you to rescue/shelter dogs?
Hilary Swank: Every year, nearly 8 million animals end up in shelters, of which approximately 4 million never make it out. We want to do the work [on this program] to make people aware of the extent of the problem, because I don’t believe that anyone’s life should be cut short. Up to 25 percent of homeless animals are purebred, if people are looking for a purebred. There are puppies; young, already trained dogs; and senior dogs. If people are made aware, they will know that their four-legged family member is waiting for them at a shelter or rescue organization. So many people want a dog but are either misinformed or simply unaware of these facts. Rescuing a dog shouldn’t be arduous or difficult, and this program will bring to light just how simple the process truly is if they have the right tools.
CK: How important is training to the success of an adoption?
HS: Sometimes people are disappointed when their dogs don’t behave, and yet they haven’t given the dog the skills to know how to behave. Dogs want to make you happy and want to know what you expect from them. For this reason, I believe in positive reinforcement training. It’s been such a joy to train my dogs and help them realize they have a place they belong.
CK: How did you become such a great advocate for dogs?
HS: I’ve always had a special place in my heart for all animals, but dogs especially; I just love them. As early as I can remember, I wanted a dog—they just look at us and see us for who we really are, when we sometimes feel that no one is able to do that. I feel there’s a connection between dogs and humans that is super profound. That is something I experienced when I moved out of the house at 18 and rescued my first dog, a black Lab/Shepherd mix I named Lucky. Besides the dogs I’ve rescued and shared my home with [Lucky, Karoo, Rumi and Kai], I’ve also found forever homes for thousands of dogs.
I have worked with humane societies in New York and LA and places in between, going in shelters during my days off [from filming], volunteering and connecting dogs with people who were ready to rescue. With the passing of Karoo, who touched my soul profoundly, I decided to start the Hilaroo Foundation.
CK: Tell us about the Hilaroo Foundation.
HS: Hilaroo is my name and Karoo’s name put together. The goal of the foundation is to bring together youth who have been given up on and animals who have been abandoned, to help heal one another through Rescue, Rehabilitation, Animal Adoption and Responsibility Training. Every soul needs someone who cares and believes in us, and this will be the goal and mission of the Hilaroo Foundation.
We will rescue animals who have been abandoned and rehabilitate them, both physically and emotionally. Youth who, whether by choice or circumstance, have been given up on by society will be paired with animals to help in that rehabilitation endeavor. The two souls will set out on a journey together to find healing.
When the animals are ready, we will adopt them into forever homes. Through their time at the foundation, youth will be given responsibility training so that they can go out into this world to make it a better place for themselves. Simply stated, the mission of the Hilaroo Foundation is to “change the path of a soul.”
CK: Tell us more about Fox’s Cause for Paws: An All-Star Dog Special. How did it come about? How long have you been working on and planning this program?
HS: Michael Levitt brought it to me about a year ago, and the Fox television network loved the idea and gave us the opportunity, for the first time in history, to make a two-hour special that celebrates dogs and the dog-human connection. This is going to be an entertaining, joyful family show with a lot of fun and lots of dogs; prizes will be given for best tricks, best howlers, celebrity lookalikes and best viral dog video, and we’ll celebrate the people who have done good work to help dogs and organizations that are doing good things. We’ll be sharing all those stories. The program will also be an education effort, informing people about the importance of rescue/adoption and spay/neuter, among other things. Knowledge is power, and we are so excited to see what lives will be changed by this program.
CK: You’ve gathered quite a cast of celebrities. Tell us about them.
HS: So many people are stepping up to help by lending their time, their name and their talent: Jane Lynch (co-host), Channing Tatum, Miley Cyrus, Amber Riley, Kristen Bell, Betty White, Kristin Chenoweth, Carrie Ann Inaba, LeAnn Rime, Masterchef, Jr. Contestants: Mitchell, Natalie and Sean, David Arquette, Max Greenfield, Emmy Rossum, Olivia Munn, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Paula Abdul, Jerry O’Connell, Randy Jackson, Josh Duhamel, Rebecca Romijn, Julianne Hough, Sharon Osbourne, Kathy Griffin, Wayne Brady, Kelly Osbourne, Wendie Malick. There are so many dog lovers out there, and it’s been such a blessing to see them coming together—for that, I am so thankful.
CK: Since this program will be pre-taped, how will the adoption process be handled?
HS: We’ll be working with many wonderful, experienced dog rescuers who have been vetted by our own “canine unit” to make sure that everyone is doing their due diligence. All the dogs on the show (who will also be highlighted on our website) will come from approved 501(c)(3) rescue groups that have agreed to an established code of conduct. Our website will also introduce people to the dogs on the program and others in their geographic area who are looking for homes.
For those who cannot adopt, we’ll give them the opportunity to foster as well as donate time and/or money; everyone will be able to help in many ways. Potential adopters or fosterers will be thoroughly vetted and asked to fill out a pre-adoption application that will include reference checks, site visits and, very importantly, follow-up visits (that is a big thing—helping people with that transition is super important). All of the dogs will come from the ranks of grassroots rescuers.
The donations will be handled through a well-established charitable foundation, which, in turn, will dispense the funds to the individual groups through a granting process. So people will be able to call in or text and give to organizations that are doing extraordinary things for animals.
It is a really great opportunity all around, and I’m really proud to be part of it, and to help shepherd it. It is our hope that this coming-together with viewers will be such a great success that we’ll be able to do it every year. There is no better day than Thanksgiving to air this program, because of all the thanks we have for our four-legged friends, who bring us such unconditional love.
Q&A with Veterinarian, writer, reader and advocate Nick Trout
Unless you lived in or near Boston, Mass., and had a reason to visit the Angell Animal Medical Center (AAMC), you were unlikely to have heard of veterinarian Nick Trout. That is, until his first book, Tell Me Where It Hurts, came out in 2008. Since then, his visibility has risen exponentially, as has his literary output. Born and raised in England, he is a graduate of the venerable University of Cambridge, a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons and an AAMC staff surgeon. In addition to his work and his writing, Trout is an avid reader and a passionate advocate for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Bark: Are there differences between vet education in the UK and the U.S.?
Nick Trout: Probably the biggest single difference is the age at which students go to school. In the U.S., training to become a veterinarian is a post-graduate pursuit. In the UK, most British students go straight from high school to vet school, meaning you can be a fully qualified veterinarian by the age of 23. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the American approach because I believe it selects for candidates who are potentially more driven and have enough maturity to embrace a lifelong career more clearly. In a recent Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Survey (2010), only 52.5 percent of respondents said they would still choose to become a veterinarian if they had to do it over. I’m betting that percentage would be a whole lot higher in the U.S., thanks to a career choice made later in life.
B: How about vet practices?
NT: They’re similar in terms of technology and services offered, but roughly 40 percent of UK pet owners have pet insurance, compared to less than 3 percent in the U.S. My sense is that pet insurance can offset much of the financial awkwardness on both sides of the examination table and free pet owners to pursue optimal care. However, it should not become managed care; vets cannot have financial ties to insurers, and we have to prevent third parties making payments with few to no restrictions on skyrocketing costs.
B: How did you choose your specialty (orthopedic and soft-tissue surgery)?
NT: There’s the physicality of using your hands to fix a problem. There’s the potential for instant gratification (yes, totally self-serving, but no less rewarding) when viewing the postoperative X-ray of a shattered bone you’ve somehow managed to pin, screw, plate and wire back together. There’s the responsibility of knowing you might be a dog’s last hope. For me, the most important message I will ever convey to a dog owner, the only thing I will guarantee, is my unwavering, unequivocal determination to do my best.
B: How do you build communication skills with patients and their people?
NT: I don’t wear a white coat during consultations; for many dogs, a visit to the veterinarian is a stressful business, so why wear a uniform associated with rectal thermometers, needles and rubber gloves? Whether the patient is a Great Dane or a Chihuahua, I almost always get down on the floor with them, down on their level, to socialize and better interact prior to the physical examination. The best advice I can offer new veterinarians on the art of good communication is to simply listen. You need to appreciate the intensity of the bond you are attempting to sustain. When communication works, everyone’s on the same page, formulating a plan, weighing the options, considering the budget and fighting for a common cause.
B: Do you do time in AAMC’s ER? Any takeaway lessons for dog owners?
NT: I only get to cover emergency cases one day a week, but I love the unpredictable, chaotic potential of that day. From spinal surgery on paralyzed Dachshunds to the bizarre objects ingested by orally fixated Labradors, anything can happen. The only consistency is the dog owners’ shock, stress and fear. By definition, emergencies require owners to make quick and oftentimes costly financial and medical decisions when they are at their most vulnerable. My advice is to, while your dog is healthy, mull over what you would do during a variety of emergency situations. Consider how far you would go, how much money you would be prepared to spend. That way, if the unthinkable happens, you’ve already got a plan.
B: Are you getting more questions from your clients—do they have more interest in being heard and having their thoughts considered than they did, say, 20 years ago?
NT: With the advent of the Internet and ready access to Google, there was a time when pretty much every dog owner came into an appointment carrying a hefty wad of printed pages telling me what I should already know. Over the last five years, I’ve seen a decline in this physical show of information. It feels like there has been a transition from wanting to catch out the vet to wanting to enhance what can be done together for the animal. Personally, I much prefer it when an owner comes in having done their homework. Decision-making can be tough, and the options are seemingly endless. Anything a dog owner can do to be better prepared to discuss their animal’s health is fine by me.
B: What made you decide to write, first memoirs and then fiction?
NT: Few professions provide better material for a wannabe writer than veterinary medicine. Think about it: my working days are filled with mysteries, drama, conflict and extreme emotional highs and lows. Most veterinarians accumulate a wealth of heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories during their careers, but no one ever has, or ever will, capture the essence of my vocation better than James Herriot. However, we’ve come a long way from England’s Yorkshire Dales of the 1930s. Companion animals are now essential and central members of the American family.
In the spirit of “write what you know,” I have tried to capture the joy, emotional impact and enduring legacy of sharing our lives with animals. My “voice,” for better and for worse, is not the product of creative writing classes; my formal education in English ended when I was 16. I’m lucky to have a job that necessitates strong powers of observation and people skills, a job that strives to restore and maintain a deep relationship between a human and an animal. The switch to writing fiction was originally based on the chance to cherry-pick some of my more quirky and amusing cases and bend them in a direction I wanted them to go. Writing fiction is as liberating as it is difficult!
B: Are there more books on the horizon?
NT: I’m working on a totally new piece of fiction about a boy with a severe illness who discovers that the decline in his health comes with a unique and paradoxical gift—an ability to interpret the pure, unwavering and positive emotions of his dog. For fans of Dr. Cyrus Mills and Bedside Manor, I have a plot outline for a third book in the series.
B: If you weren’t a vet, what would you be?
NT: If I weren’t a veterinarian, I’d like to be a pediatrician. I see significant overlap between the professions, especially with infants, who, like dogs, cannot “tell me where it hurts.” I’m also drawn to human health issues because my daughter, Emily, has Cystic Fibrosis (CF), an incurable chronic lung disease that relentlessly threatens to steal her breath. Over the years, there have been times when I’ve wondered whether I should become a human doctor and help try to find a cure for CF, only to realize that such a radical career change would take me further away from what Emily needs the most—a father who is there for her.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs Help Us Understand Ourselves
In an engrossing new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, science historian Laurel Braitman investigates the symptoms, causes and recoveries associated with behavioral disturbances in a wide variety of social animals. Starting with her own dog, Oliver, who suffered from debilitating separation anxiety, she discovered that mental illness in animals looks a lot like it does in people. In a recent conversation on a sunny afternoon in Berkeley, she shared some of her insights with us.
Claudia Kawczynska: In the book, you talk about the use of psychopharmaceuticals, pointing out that not only is one in five Americans on them, but also, increasing numbers of dogs are being given them as well. But there seems to be a divide in the veterinary field on their use. After looking into this subject, how do you feel about it?
Laurel Braitman: Sometimes our dogs need them, or the drugs are used as a band-aid to correct for stressors in a dog’s life that could be changed. Sometimes the drugs don’t work. They don’t always work for people either actually, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them in the right situation. E’Lise Christensen, a veterinary behaviorist, said that if the dogs she sees were humans, most of them would be committed to in-patient facilities. That is why she thinks drugs are useful in really extreme situations—to keep dogs from hurting themselves while giving behavior therapy time to work.
It’s really hard to generalize, though; so much depends on the individual dog. A certain dosage of, let’s say, Xanax, may make some dogs so blissed out that they don’t want a treat or whatever is being offered as an incentive. Other dogs might do really well on the same dosage. And different dogs will react differently to different drugs.
A lot of the behaviorists I spoke with are seeing dogs on dosages that would have calmed most canines, but are in the behaviorists’ waiting rooms because the drug didn’t work for them. There are also cases where a drug causes other issues—such as reducing inhibitions so that a previously-friendly dog becomes more aggressive.
CK: How similar are certain human and canine disorders?
LB: Panic disorders in humans are really similar to canine separation anxiety; when we’re flooded with panic, our first instinct is to escape. The same feeling drives the behaviors seen in many dogs anxious at being left alone; in my own dog’s case, he fled by jumping out of a window.
With humans, we assume that the roots of the disorder have to be dealt with in therapy over time—that we need to understand the triggers for someone’s panic. The approach for nonhumans should be the same.
Drugs are helpful when a dog is so upset, so distressed or suffering so much that the behavioral things that experts such as Ian Dunbar suggest just aren’t possible. Pharmaceuticals act like panic buttons; they can help the animal tap into the physical and emotional resources they need to be able to learn.
CK: It seems like there are at least two approaches to calming an anxious dog. Some veterinarians (such as the late Mel Richardson) believe that soothing an anxious dog isn’t the best approach—that petting only rewards the panicked behavior. But others, including Patricia McConnell, make a compelling case for the opposite approach. This is an important difference.
LB: McConnell is right! Dogs are complex thinkers and will not automatically equate you petting them with positive reinforcement. If they did, dog training would be a hell of a lot simpler! The example that Mel gave, and I included in the book, is different, however. A patient of his came in with a dog who acted scared in her living room, ever since a plate dropped off a wall during a fight the woman had with her boyfriend. The woman may have been rewarding her dog for hugging the sides of the room, not necessarily comforting him for something that was stressful. We do at times unwittingly positively reinforce our animals for behaviors we then find undesirable; but soothing your dog during thunderstorms or fireworks displays makes a lot of sense.
I always comforted Oliver during thunderstorms, I didn’t ignore him, and clearly if that worked he wouldn’t have had a thunderstorm phobia. I think we approach these problems with an almost patriarchal kind of “tough-it-up” attitude. It doesn’t work with children and it doesn’t work with dogs. It doesn’t account for the fluidity and complexity of the human or other animal mind. Dogs know we are reading their distress and they read ours. No other creature on the planet—including other people in my opinion—is better at reading our emotions than dogs. They’ve spent at least 15,000 years at it.
CK: Oliver was a purebred Bernese Mountain Dog. In your research, did you find that abnormal behaviors were more, or less, likely to be found in purebreds?
LB: I wish there were a good answer to that. Every behaviorist I spoke with, and many trainers, were familiar with breed-specific manifestations of mental illness. Tail-chasing, shadow-chasing, OCD. Oliver suffered from an extreme case of separation anxiety, but I didn’t find that was something frequently seen in Berners.
(By the way, I’m not saying that shelter dogs won’t have issues; they could have the same or different problems related to abandonment, phobias, or lack of socialization.) We should really have honest talks with breeders about the mental health of their dogs, but we rarely do. Every breeder will say that they breed “family” dogs. But I have to wonder if—once they’ve spent a fortune on breeding pairs, and the pups are potentially quite valuable—they will really take one out of the mix if he or she develops mental problems.
CK: It was interesting to read that Nicole Cottam, who was at Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, thought that jealousy was the leading cause of canine aggression.
LB: Jealousy is an issue for many more creatures than dogs. It came up a lot in regards to other social animals too, like elephants and the other great apes. Why would we, or our dogs, be the only ones to experience it? Our pack, our families, our troops are everything and it can be threatening if we perceive, rightly or wrongly, that we may lose someone’s attention.
In the context of elephants, it’s a matter of public safety. Almost everyone I talked to in Thailand believed that most elephant-on-elephant and elephant-on-human violence comes from jealousy. If a young man who works with elephants visits a girlfriend, they say, he has to shower many times before he interacts with his elephant again and, sometimes even that’s not enough. He’ll need to bring a truckload of pineapples or bananas to win back the trust of his elephant.
Elephants can also be extremely dangerous if one of their elephant friends becomes closer to another elephant and ignores them. Or if a person is feeding elephants and doesn’t feed them at exactly the same time—that can be dangerous as well.
Dogs, of course, can be aggressive and protective around food. But perhaps it may also be that the dog is jealous—that he or she feels another dog is getting more of your attention because the other dog is being fed first.
CK: How can we know that dogs experience jealousy?
LB: Jealousy is actually the darker side of a positive emotion. That is, if we build our lives around those near to us and have close relationships with them, and then suddenly those relationships are taken away, we are going to feel bad. Everything in us wants to connect—we are social beings. Most of us are also our dogs’ primary “other” animal.
Clearly, that is what happened in my dog’s case. He went from being the center of his first family’s world to its fringes because there was a new baby in the house. [Ed. note: Oliver’s previous owners moved him to the garage, among other things, when he started to act out.] I have nothing but empathy for the family. They didn’t mean to hurt him; they just didn’t know what else to do.
CK: How do we know that dogs have these complex emotional experiences?
LB: There are many things we can’t test for specifically (even if we’re doing things like putting dogs inside MRI machines), but since we have been living with dogs for thousands of years, we owe them the benefit of the doubt. Actually, talking to friends at the dog park can teach us a lot. That’s how Darwin did it; he collected stories, then amalgamated the stories into a theory. His stories about his dogs are wonderful and clearly anecdotal—really the equivalent of talking to dog park people.
CK: Modern life can be difficult for dogs; most have far too little to do, and few opportunities to express their true “doggishness” or funktionslust (a great German word you use—taking pleasure in what one does best). For many dogs, that would be running, sniffing, chasing and so forth. How can we give our dogs more of what they need?
LB: Most dog owners have the best of intentions, but realistically, can’t pack up their urban lives and move to the country, or get a second dog to provide their dog with a companion.
But going to a dog park and spending most of our time engaged with our phones—emailing, tweeting, posting to Facebook—and then going home and sitting in front of the TV (even if our dog’s sitting with us) isn’t good for either of us. Most of the things that will make our dog feel better are things that will help us feel better, too. Neither humans nor dogs are prepared for many aspects of contemporary life. We spend too much time indoors, seated, by ourselves. . How all of this has affected our canine companions, we still don’t know, but it can’t help but contribute to some of the issues we are seeing in dogs.
CK: Our own dogs are almost always with us; they come to the office, they get long hikes in the local parks and so forth. But when we take them up to the country, they seem to come alive; they’re different beings. It is amazing to see how they behave when they have free access to the outside. They rarely nap during the day, they’re always alert—they just seem more fulfilled.
LB: It’s the stimulation, and we all need that. Dogs who are not as motivated or curious about their environment may need less stimulation, but they still need some.
CK: Behaviorally, there are similarities in canine and human cognitive decline, you point out that in dogs, as in us, it can perhaps be offset by mental stimulation and a diet rich in antioxidants. (As a devoted crossword puzzler and blueberry lover, I was heartened to read this.) Any more thoughts on this?
LB: Avoiding the problems of an aging brain, or at least slowing the process, is really at the forefront of human medicine now, and we ought to be looking into that for other creatures. Adding a miniscule amount of blueberries to dog treats isn’t going to do it, however—that’s crazy. But if we need another reason to stimulate our dog’s minds, this is it.
Puzzles we can solve together are fun. I played hide-and-seek games with my dog—that was a great brainteaser. Talk about memory! He would always look first in the last place I hid. Clearly, he thought, She was behind the fridge the last time so she’s probably there this time, too.
CK: We do this with our three all the time, and what I find interesting is that they never seem to use their noses to find us.
LB: I wonder if they may be “playing fair” with us, giving us a fighting chance. They might realize we’re so bad at this game, and know that if they use all their abilities, they would win all the time. End of game! No fun!
CK: People don’t seem to like complicated solutions, especially when it comes to dog training and behavior. We want to know the answer now. How do we accommodate that?
LB: I think it’s human nature to want answers, especially when we have an animal who is upset. It feels like life and death, and sometimes, it is; the stakes with this stuff are high. If a dog’s emotional problems manifest in aggression or make life too difficult and we can’t fix them, the dog can wind up at a shelter. People’s sense of urgency though can lead them to absolutes that don’t help them or their dogs.
I am hoping that this book helps people understand why helping dogs can be a little complicated and a lot rewarding. A dog’s social and emotional world isn’t as fixed as most people think it is, and on the positive side, a dog’s resiliency can work in our favor. Even though many dogs have every reason to not believe in the goodness of humans, they often do anyway, giving us chance after chance to help them. That is a magical, heartening thing.
For more insights, see the book review for Animal Madness.
Dog's Life: Humane
Prison inmates train dogs behind bars.
Freedom Tails is a joint program with the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Wash., and the animal rescue group North Beach PAWS. It partners rescued dogs with SCCC inmates who train and care for the dogs to prepare them for life in their adoptive homes. We feature Freedom Tails in the April/May 2011 issue of The Bark, along with two leather collars made by the SCCC K9 Club to support Freedom Tails (see “Kit’s Corner”).
We spoke with SCCC Corrections Unit Supervisor Dennis Cherry, who heads up the program on the corrections end, as well as Program Assistant Karen Diehm, who writes the program’s monthly newsletters, and Carl Corcoran and Robert Wrinkle, two of the inmate trainers. They explain how the program got started and how it has dramatically changed life inside the prison.
Bark: What made you specifically want to try a dog program at SCCC?
Cherry: We heard how successful it was for bringing violence down in the units and how it was helping the offenders cope with being in prison and helping them when they get out. It gives them a self worth, like they’re helping the community. And it helps them to progress in their lives once they get out. It gives them some responsibility while they’re in here. They have to take care of a dog and they’re totally responsible for it. And it seems to be working pretty well.
Bark: Trainer Corcoran, what made you decide to participate in the program?
Corcoran: It gives me something to look forward to every day. I have something to care for, and it gives me a self-worth. I feel like I’m doing something good for the community and a dog.
Bark: The dogs you’ve been training, are they dogs that have been surrendered and have been in shelters?
Corcoran: My first dog that I had was a Terrier. Her name was Cookie. I came in just a couple weeks prior to her graduating, and that was the dog that I learned on. Maverick was the first dog that I trained on my own. He was a black Lab. He was an owner surrender. The owner didn’t have time for him, so they just gave him up. Now I have Skeeter.
Diehm: Skeeter’s a special project this time around. His owner has a disability, so we’re training him to help her when he gets back home.
Corcoran: Right now I’m training him to ring a bell. I have started training him to bring me a bag, which is going to have medicine in it. He’s picked that up real well. And he wears a special harness. It’s kind of like he’ll be used for a cane, or if she falls down, she can use him to get back up.
Wrinkle: I trained the first [assistance] dog. We trained her last session, and she was trained for a 17-year-old who has Down syndrome, and she was the first special needs dog we did. That was kind of difficult, because we had to train her to be very gentle with her mouth, no jumping. Everything that a person with Down syndrome needs. And we teach ourselves in some sense on how to train dogs in that way.
Bark: Do you feel like doing this has prepared you for leaving the correctional system?
Wrinkle: It’s helped me. You see, when we first started this, I was kind of a wreck. Not really that much of a sense of responsibility, although I’d been through some college. And it’s like having a two-year-old kid on your shoulder all the time, so you’ve really got to pay attention. You’ve got to feed him, exercise him. You’ve got to bathe him. Everything in your daily life, you have to do with a two-year-old kid more or less. As far as responsibility, I mean we’ve got to give the dog meds, everything to do with this dog we live with him day in and day out for the next eight to 12 weeks. So it’s taught me more responsibility in the 14 or 15 months that I’ve been in the dog program than I’ve learned since I’ve been down. Plus, it’s also taught me that people do care. We get to interact with the community in this program in ways that we never have before.
Bark: When you say “interact with the community,” do you mean specifically with the outside trainers?
Wrinkle: With the trainers and, at graduation, they bring in all of the families that are adopting the dogs, and we go through a dog show, sort of just like on TV. And everybody sits there and watches, and when we’re done, we interact with the public at large. Some of the phrases and some of the comments we get are stuff that we—that I—haven’t seen in over 20 years. I’m just living in an enclosed bubble in here and we don’t get to see a lot of stuff. It kind of brings to light some of the positive aspects of everything we’re doing.
Bark: What are the dogs like when they arrive at SCCC? Do they mostly need to be resocialized?
Corcoran: Well, some dogs, when they come in, have been chained up in a backyard their whole lives without much contact with humans or animals. So when they get here, some of them don’t know how to react to all these people or another dog. So it takes a lot of time and patience on our part to just adjust this dog slowly, get him to be around more humans and other dogs. Some of these dogs come in not knowing how to be a dog.
Wrinkle: Plus, our lead trainer has actually saved dogs that are on the way to be put down. We had one dog that they found under a boat, named Angel; she was so near death they did not think she was going to make it. We’ve had other dogs come in that are so underweight that they’re about 50% of their actual weight. We’ve had other dogs come in that we’ve actually had to do a hair care session with them because they’re so patched and bald that you would never think that they’d come out of this program the way that they do. It’s just really amazing.
Bark: Do you see parallels between your life in prison and the lives of all these surrendered dogs?
Wrinkle: Yeah, I do. It’s actually put life back into my life. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s given me back a lot of stuff that I’ve lost over the years. And it’s not just for me, but for my family. It’s helped me re-interact with my family as far as how they’re feeling. That’s a topic of conversation every single time I talk with my family. They want to know what’s going on with training, just about everything about it.
Bark: Is it that you have something in common to talk about, or is there more?
Wrinkle: That’s a big part of it, that it’s something to talk about. But there’s more to it—like almost every single member of my family wants me to train their dog now.
Bark: What has surprised you most about Freedom Tails?
Wrinkle: The calm in the unit. When the first dog walked into this unit... Within a week, it was like the tension level dropped to about 50%. And the stress level. It was almost as if everybody had new conversation. I don’t know how else to say it. It just was a drastic change. You can even see when there’s no dogs in the unit, in the two-week span when we don’t have dogs sometimes, you can actually see the difference between the stress level and attitudes and everything.
Bark: Having dogs around gives you a common connection.
Wrinkle: Yes, definitely.
Cherry: Yeah, you can see it in their faces. Guys who aren’t involved in the program, when they can pet the dogs when they see a green or yellow collar. And when they’re petting the dogs, you can see the smiles on their faces instead of frowns. It’s pretty amazing, really.
Bark: Do you see other correctional facilities interested in starting dog training programs as a result of Freedom Tails?
Cherry: We have. From our program, there’s probably four others that have started in our prisons across Washington. Walla Walla has one now, Munroe has one, Cedar Creek has one, Olympic Corrections Center has one. They modeled it off our program, pretty much.
Bark: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the program?
Wrinkle: The only thing I can really say is this has made a drastic change in my life and everything in it has been for the better. I know it’s going to help me when I release.
Cherry: I’d like to make one point, that the whole purpose of our program was to save dogs that might not have a life. If a dog ends up in a kennel, he’s facing death sometimes. And we’re actually taking these dogs and we’re re-training them and adopting them to good families, so we’re saving these dogs in the community. Some guys even relate it to their situation. Some guys are never getting out of prison. They see that and they think, “That’s cool. They’re out there giving that dog a second chance. You know, I wish someone would give me a second chance.” Maybe it gives them some hope. Maybe it doesn’t. But at least it gives them some appreciation of what we’re doing.
Corcoran: Yeah instead of doing something negative for the community, we’re doing actually something positive. And it feels good.
To learn more about Freedom Tails, visit North Beach PAWS. The SCCC K9 Club makes leather collars, leashes and keychains that are available for sale. All proceeds are collected by North Beach PAWS and go to support Freedom Tails.
We had the chance to talk with Matthew Gilbert, TV critic for the Boston Globe and author of one of our 2014 “Best Reads” about his first book, Off the Leash: Year at the Dog Park and his conversion to being a dog lover. His is a rather unique perspective because not long ago he was definitely on the other end of dog-loving spectrum.
You seem to be in a rather unique position being rather new to the dog world, you can see both sides, can’t you? So from the “other” side, the non-dog-loving side of things, can you recall your reasons for not liking dogs, and are they any that perhaps make you cringe today when you remember those feelings?
The first thing I think of is the way my hand would buzz after I touched a dog, until I got to a sink to wash it. I did not like to have physical contact with dogs, or with anything they’d touched!
Good lord. Now, I pet my dog Toby 100 times a day, scratching under his chin and around his ears until he starts swooning with pleasure. I kiss his snout, I sniff and kiss his paws, I rub the boogers off his eyes in the morning. I love the tactile sense of him.
I think back on my distaste and cringe ten times over. I was missing one of the great joys of life…. Wow. I was living in a bubble, and I felt that dogs were just too spontaneous and reckless for me. I depended far too heavily on a sense of order and control, and dogs were the opposite of that.
Also, my mother was terrified of dogs, and that filtered down to me. She would not be able to relax if there was a dog in sight. Nowadays, when I see little kids at the park, I enjoy introducing them to Toby, trying to make them smile at the big lug of a goose who’ll sit and give me his paw for a treat. It’s very healing, unless the parent is too nervous.
What advice would you give to people who don’t much like dogs but perhaps, for the sake of the children or their spouse, might be considering getting one?
It took me years to fall in love with dogs. I fell in love with a dog person, and that was the start of the change. To use a popular term, I evolved… So I don’t think there’s a magical solution to the dislike of dogs.
My advice would be to open up your heart as much as possible, watch the pleasure the dog brings to the other members of the family, try to appreciate that. Don’t shut yourself out of the experience because you were pushed into it. Who knows, you may evolve, too, in a lovely way.
In your book you do a very good job about what that immersion was like, but tell us what your biggest surprises were about discovering that you are really a dog lover? Any surprises about being thrust into the middle of the dog park community? What did you think it would be, and what was it really like?
I continue to feel surprised by the change, some 10-12 years into it, and I have friends from the old days who still tease me about how I once did not like dogs. When I’m with dogs now, I feel happy in a way that’s hard to define, but that still feels new. It’s like the presence of dogs changes everything for the better, and I relearn that over and over again.
The surprises at the park were fantastic. I thought it would be a catty (!) environment with lots of breed snobbery and competition. I thought conversations would be painfully superficial. I thought watching dogs play would be boring. But within a few months, I understood that those fears were mostly unfounded, that the relationships we form daily at the dog park can be profound, that watching dogs play is one of the best pleasures in life, that we meet great people at the park we might never have met otherwise.
I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong.
Are there things about the dog park community now that make you wonder if you are truly a part of it? I realize there are all sorts of factions within any societal group, but like the bulldog meet up group who “spoiled” it for others at that one park, what are you views of that? And what, if you were able to warn enthusiastic dog people about, what would that be?
Some days, I feel like an outsider. Either there’s no one to talk to, or there are people but they’re in what seem like closed groupings. But I’ve learned to let that go, and it has been a great shedding of baggage. No friends at the park today? Wait until tomorrow.
Dogs are my role models in many ways, not least of all because they are experts in resilience and letting go.
I’m not a fan of breed “meet-ups,” just because they can be exclusive. They also draw people from far away who may not much care about treating the park with respect. Still… who am I to judge any kind of celebratory gathering of dogs? Meet-ups are not for me, but any dog joy is good.
My biggest warning to a dog-park newcomer is: Don’t assume all owners are responsible. We want to think the best of anyone who loves dogs, but some owners have aggressive dogs and subject other dogs to that. It’s so awful. I recount an attack on Toby in my book, and I still shudder when I think of the sounds my little goose made while a whippet started snapping at him.
No one wants to be in the position of keeping a dog on leash at the park, but if your dog has been proven to have issues, you need to protect others. If you show that you want to be fair, that you are responsible, people will inevitably try to help you out. If you keep letting your dog go after other dogs, you will probably face a hard road with a lot of angry people moving away from you.
I do think that a lot of the “opposition” to dogs results from some of us being rather clueless when it concerns others and how they perceive us and our dogs. What do you think and do you want to give any examples?
Some dog lovers don’t understand just how terrified of dogs people can be. But, as someone who has been on the other side, I am fully aware of it. It’s not an act. A person who is afraid of dogs doesn’t understand anything about breed temperament or size; all they know is they are scared. So I think dog owners need to find some patience and respect for the fearful.
We kind of need to be ambassadors of the dog world when we are among those who don’t understand it. I’m not saying we don’t have rights; I’m just saying a little bit of sensitivity and friendliness goes a long way. Rather than put a non-dog person on the defensive, try to cultivate them.
One other thing: Dog owners need to pick up their dog’s poop, always. Poops on sidewalks and park grass are the dog-haters’ best ammunition against us. Plus, no one – not even dog owners – wants to step in it.
Are there any things about raising the pup Toby that you would do differently?
We’re lucky, because he’s turned out so happy and peaceful. I was very gung ho about training him early on, and in retrospect, as I detail in the book, I was being too controlling. So maybe I would be a little less aggressive about teaching him commands.
Although he still won’t “drop it,” dammit!
Everyone seems to love to talk about the “lessons” learned from their dogs, so tell us if there are any you would like to share with us?
That’s such a great question, and one I hope my book answers to some extent. The lessons include resilience, being in the moment, remembering to play, keeping joy in your daily life, not being afraid of the complications of socializing, becoming more trusting, and on and on…! I still learn new things from Toby and his friends every day.
You and your partner have a different style of dog-raising, has that resulted in any conflicts, how are they resolve? Has he ever taken to the dog park scene that you so successful have?
Tom is definitely not a dog park person. For a while, my friends at the park teased me about my phantom husband and whether I’d made him up.
He loves Toby in a more private way. He has a man-and-his-dog fantasy, and he lives it out by walking Toby around the city and on trails. Some couples come to the park together all the time, or alternate; not us.
There have been tense moments when I’ve had to remind him that Toby loves to be among dogs, and there have been moments when he has gotten tired of my dog park stories. But overall, we have adapted to our differing styles. We both love Toby so much; it always comes down to that.
Do you have a difficult time seeing Toby as a dog? Do you ever fear that you aren’t living up to his expectations?
Sometimes, yes. For one thing, I talk to him all the time, and I give him voice, too. I have conversations with him, while he sits looking at me with his big brown eyes like I’m such a strange creature. But ultimately, I love the fact that he is a dog, and not a human being. That’s one of the best things about dogs – that they aren’t human!
His expectations are steak every day, cookies in between, and a constant flow of the best, most squeakiest toys. So I know I’m not living up to his expectations! But seriously, I think he’s a happy dog, and I think he likes having some restrictions – say 10 cookies a day instead of 1000. I think he knows that we are madly in love with him, and that we would do anything for him. And I love that feeling. He trusts us, and that is everything.
Being a TV critic, what are the most memorable dog characters on TV now? If you were to write a TV show about your dog, what would that be?
It’s not for everyone, but I love “Wilfred” on FXX. We see the dog on the show as a man in a dog suit, which is kind of twisted but a lot of fun. The writers insert a lot of jokes that only dog owners will understand. I also enjoy Stella the French bulldog on “Modern Family,” mostly because of the love and humor she brings out in the humans.
My fantasy would be to see “Off the Leash” as “The Office” at the dog park, with a cast of lovable misfits and a mockumentary tone. I think that would be perfect.
Q&A with the hit television show’s “girl-next-door”
With its devoted cult following—including many devoted dog lovers—in tow, Wilfred will begin its final season on Wednesday, June 25 at 10 pm on its new home FXX. Exploring the surprising intersections of existentialism and dog culture, this dark comedy features Elijah Wood as Ryan, a miserable and apathetic ex-lawyer who maneuvers through life with the help of Wilfred (Jason Gann), a dog he sees as a brazen, cantankerous stoner in a grungy dog suit.
For the mutt’s owner Jenna, played wonderfully by Fiona Gubelmann, Wilfred is merely a playful canine. As the cheerful neighbor to Ryan, Gubelmann’s character has swung from sunny to dark over the first three seasons. In addition to focusing on Ryan’s mental panic, Wilfred also depicts Jenna grappling with her own difficulties. Fiona Gubelmann talked to The Bark about Jenna’s evolving storyline, her relationship with pets and her take on Wilfred’s philosophy.
The Bark: Do you have a dog, or did you have one growing up?
Fiona Gubelmann: My family sadly lost one of our dogs this year, but until recently we had two dogs. I personally don’t have a dog now at the moment, but I have three cats. I would love a dog and my husband wants to get foster dogs, but we aren’t home enough to do that now. I don’t have a neighbor to watch my dog!
Is your relationship with Wilfred much like the relationship a pet owner has with their pet?
Yes, definitely. When I first saw the script, I imagined Wilfred as my cat Dragon, a large Maine Coon. Dragon is gray, loving and yet quite moody—much like Wilfred. When I auditioned, I just thought, “How do I talk to Dragon?”
I imagine the set is a crazy one to work on with all the talent and wicked humor. Is it hard to keep a straight face?
Sometimes! We keep the tone of the show truthful and dark, so that helps us stay grounded. However, there are times when we have a couple of takes in the bag, and then they’ll say, “Jason, just be silly and go for it.” He’ll do just that, making it rather hard to keep a straight face. Jenna doesn’t see Wilfred as Ryan sees him, so I usually just wait until I watch the episode. Otherwise, I’d be laughing too much on set!
We’re fans of each character, but Jenna has especially evolved. Women are often written as comic foils for men, but Jenna is much more than that. Do you agree?
Jenna was initially an effervescent “girl next door.” A lot of shows may have kept her there, but we actually gave her a storyline that’s quite dark and almost tragic. We see her first as optimistic with everything going for her. But over the first three seasons, you see everything in her life fall apart. I get to have a range of emotions and explore different things. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.
Your work for Funny or Die is hilarious! Do you have any comedic heroes who you look up to?
For women, I definitely admire Sally Field, Goldie Hawn and Lucille Ball. They were always so committed to what they were doing. Soapdish is one of my favorite movies and I’ll never forget Goldie Hawn in Overboard — those performances are so funny and timeless. As for men, Bill Murray and Robin Williams have always been two of my favorites. I worked with Robin Williams in season two. That was one of my career high points.
Wilfred’s tone moves brilliantly between dark and light— how would you characterize the upcoming final season?
Although there is still humor in it, the last season has a more serious tone. They’re tying everything up and explaining why everything happened—who Wilfred is, delving into my relationship with Wilfred and answering all of the remaining questions.
Dog people are going to be your hardest critics, but we believe Wilfred has won them over. The show touches upon many corners of dog culture—agility, dog parks, phobias and other things only people who have dogs really know well. Have you noticed the world of dogs more since you started playing Jenna?
We call those dogisms—they’re fun for fans to relate to. I have many fans who are dog owners, who work in dog rescue or who are involved with dogs in some other capacity. They tweet me pictures of dogs and tell me dog-related stories. It’s so cool to see how they relate their relationships with their dogs to the show.
Wilfred has such strong views of the world that he constantly imparts to Ryan. How would you summarize Wilfred’s philosophy on life?
There’s one episode in which Wilfred says “Carne diem” instead of “Carpe diem.” He truly does want Ryan to live in the moment instead of living in fear. He’s pushing him to action. That would be Wilfred’s philosophy—to seize the day.
Also a special thanks to Sophie Cox who contributed to this interview.
The Bark had a chance to speak with Ken Ramirez about his experience with clicker training and what the future holds for him in his new role as Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer for KPCT.
The Bark: Why is it important that people successfully train their companion dogs?
Ken Ramirez: There are so many reasons that training is important. It is a critical part of good animal care, just like veterinary care, nutrition and a safe environment. You cannot give animals all they need unless it includes a training program. Good training helps teach animals how to live successfully in our world, and helps to build a strong lasting relationship between people and their pets.
Bark: Tell us about your professional experience with operant conditioning or clicker training.
Ramirez: I began my training career working with guide dogs in a very traditional training environment. However, right out of college I had the opportunity to work with a variety of marine mammals, birds, and big cats in several zoological facilities. That is where I was introduced to the world of positive reinforcement and marker-based training. That experience changed my life as I experienced how powerful this type of training is. Not only is it force-free and fun for the animals, but it assists in developing strong relationships with each animal partner. I went back and re-read all my animal behavior text books, made contact with my professors, and began trying to understand why this type of training was not more wide-spread, except perhaps in the world of marine mammal training. My quest for knowledge exposed me to Karen Pryor and some of her early works. I read every positive reinforcement training article I could find, sought out conferences and training organizations that could forward my knowledge and understanding of effective positive reinforcement training. I had the good fortune to travel to many corners of the world and work with a wide variety of species of animals, and discovered just how universal this technology really is. In 1989 I was hired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to oversee the development of their animal training program. Since joining Shedd, I have had the good fortune to oversee the care and training of more than 32,000 animals representing over 1500 species. I continued to consult with many zoo and aquarium programs worldwide. Then, in 1997, Western Illinois University asked me to develop a graduate course on animal training, which I still teach today. In 1998, I returned to dog training as a consultant to several search and rescue dog teams, which led to my involvement in many other working dog programs including service dogs, law enforcement, and a return to guide dog work. When Karen Pryor decided to start ClickerExpo, she chose Chicago as her inaugural location. She invited me to that Expo as a guest speaker, which led to an invitation to join the faculty the following year, and I have been on the faculty ever since.
Bark: What has been the biggest revelation about this method of training animals?
Ramirez: The biggest revelation for me every time I train an animal is how much they enjoy the process and how it assists in relationship building. Additionally, as someone who began my career more than 35 years ago using more traditional training methods, I always marvel at how well positive reinforcement works and how much stronger and precise behavior is trained in a fun force-free environment.
Bark: Is it your experience that most animals enjoy learning and training exercises?
Ramirez: Absolutely. That’s what makes positive reinforcement so effective—the animal is a willing partner in the process and it is so much fun for them.
Bark: What has you most excited about working with Karen Pryor's clicker training programs?
Ramirez: I am excited about everything that Karen Pryor Clicker Training represents. Karen was an inspiration to me personally as I was seeking good information about the use of positive reinforcement training during the early stages of my career. I am passionate about educating people about the power of positive reinforcement and the beneficial impacts it has on the welfare of the animals in our lives. Each program, whether it be the ClickerExpos, the Karen Pryor Academy, or the production of positive reinforcement books and training tools furthers the education of the public about marker-based positive reinforcement training. I am excited about helping to continue and further the amazing body of work that Karen has produced over the years.
Bark: Do you currently have a dog, cat or other pet?
Ramirez: I have had dogs my entire life. Sadly, my 12-year-old Spaniel that I adopted from a shelter after my first Clicker Expo 11 years ago, recently passed away. I will probably look for my next dog at one of the local Chicago shelters sometime later in the year. However, I established a dog training program with dogs adopted from local shelters at the Shedd Aquarium several years ago, and I consider the four dogs in that program close companions and training partners. These four dogs include a Pit Bull, an Airedale, a Shepherd, and a Lab.
Ken Ramirez is a regular consultant for zoos, oceanariums, and parks around the world. He has held top leadership positions in most of the profession’s associations, including as past president of IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association). As part of his leadership, Ken has been involved in the creation of a certification process for animal trainers in zoological settings. He has been featured on television and in the media numerous times, including as host of a popular Australian television series Talk to the Animals. Ken has been on the faculty of KPCT’s ClickerExpo conference since 2005; he also teaches graduate-level courses at Western Illinois University.
Ken began his training career working with guide dogs for the visually impaired and has maintained a close connection to dog training ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium, Ken spearheaded the development of a program to rescue dogs from animal shelters and to train and care for them in order to show the public the transformative power of marker-based positive-reinforcement training. Outside of Shedd, Ken’s canine work includes training for search and rescue, guide and service work, scent detection, animal husbandry, and more.
Author of The Good Boy
What could be better than a novel that combines a strong sense of place, a fast-moving story and a dog as a primary character? Theresa Schwegel’s newest book, The Good Boy (Minotaur), fulfills all these requirements and then some; Butch, a Chicago PD K9, races through its pages in a most authentic way. Despite a busy book-tour schedule, Schwegel kindly took time to answer a few questions—like all dedicated dog people, she enjoys talking about her co-pilots.
Bark: In the acknowledgments, you thank the dogs who inspired you, Wynne and Wiley and CPD K9 Brix. Tell us more about the first two, and how you came to know Brix.
Theresa Schwegel: Wynne is my wonderfully neurotic Australian cattle dog mix; Wiley is my stomach-brained Ridgeback-Lab. They’re rescues and they’re my best friends. My husband trained them when they were puppies, and they’re easier off-leash (especially since Wynne’s herding instinct only tangles us). They both exist in Butch— his yin and yang, I suppose—as does Brix, the German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix I met when I asked a detective friend to find me a working K9. And yes—Brix is Butch’s physical model; I’d seen Bloodhounds work as well, but I needed a dog who could track and trail and detect and protect.
Bark: Your portrayal of the world of the working police dog has a lot of authenticity. Were you already tapped into it, or did it require research?
Schwegel: Research, of course. I need to see what I write, whether it’s a place or person or procedure. I was fortunate to spend time with some German Shepherds; both a trainer and a former K9 officer were kind enough to let me peek into their homes to see how a working dog lives off the clock. And Brix’s handler, Tara Poremba (now a trainer for the Chicago Police Department), was instrumental in teaching me how a dog team works; at one point, we staged a mock drug search at a neighborhood bar. Truthfully, though, I think Butch’s authenticity comes from living with my two dogs. I think Wiley would be a great K9 if I put bacon in the Kong.
Bark: Butch has a brief foray into dog fighting. What made you decide to add that element?
Schwegel: I felt Butch needed to fight his own fight, too. To be the real “good boy.” What limited research I did with regard to dogfighting was mortifying. The culture, the language, the cruelty. Despite the tough bullying scenes in the book, I could only bring myself to allude to the dogfight.
Bark: Butch really is a central character, one who in some ways drives the action, or at least inspires a lot of it. Did you start with that intent, or did it develop as you wrote?
Schwegel: I knew Butch would cause Joel’s journey, and I knew he had to go along (Joel would need someone to talk to). He became a central character as I realized he was the only one who couldn’t tell a lie (and everybody else in the book was buried under them). His “personality”—if I may anthropomorphize, because I always do— developed as a result of his interactions with Joel.
Bark: We were also interested in your choice to give Jack London’s book White Fang a role in the story; what inspired that? Are you a reader of dog books, or other mysteries with dogs in them? Any favorites or recommendations?
Schwegel: I wanted Joel to have a city map and a moral compass on his journey. White Fang is one of my favorite soul-searching books, and so it was an obvious choice. I don’t really seek out “dog” books, though two favorites that both feature dog-as-narrator are Timbuktu by Paul Auster and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.
Bark: Are there any more “Murphy and Butch” books in the works?
Schwegel: I don’t have plans for a series, though I had a writer-friend recently comment that Joel would be a “pretty interesting dude” if I let him grow up. The novel I’m working on now jumps to the other end of the spectrum, as it deals with financial exploitation and elder abuse. (I must admit, though, that I’m partial to the idea of giving the detective a dog.)
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog trainer Denise Fenzi talks about methods and perceptions with
On engagement and relationship building:
However, in the switch to food-based training, we seem to have lost some of our basic positive interactions and expressions of joy with our dogs. Instead of learning to joyfully work together, we “pay” our dogs with cookies—and once they’ve paid, many owners forget to tell their dogs how proud they are of whatever [the dogs] accomplished. I think this is a terrible loss. Humans can be so much more than Pez dispensers!
Great training should not be about substituting cookies for approval. Great training should be about getting needed behaviors (often through food), then taking it further. That next step —relationship—is what fascinates me about dog training.
Building a relationship with a dog is much the same as building a relationship with another person. While sharing food is a fundamental pleasure, no one would say that the meals “create” the relationship. Food simply supports one aspect of it.
What’s really being developed (quite possibly over a meal) is an understanding and an awareness of that other person; the thing that develops, which we call relationship, is incredibly hard to explain or put into words. It is sympathy for their circumstances —both what goes right and what goes wrong. It’s about knowing what makes them happy or sad. It takes a relationship to know that, since each person has unique needs. The stronger your relationship with another, the more likely you’ll make the right choices.
We can have exactly the same type of relationship with a dog, but I think very few people are aware of that. When I think about the time I spend with my dogs, most of it [involves] trying to build that underlying foundation. I study my dogs carefully to understand what matters to each of them. I pet them and play with them, and soon I learn what does or does not work for each one. I know what frightens them, and I support them as needed. I also know when to back off and let them solve their own problems. And each dog is completely different!
I do use lots of food and toys to train. But at the end of the day, my goal is much bigger than acquiring behaviors. It is finding out what we can become together. Since this is a unique process (just like it is a unique process to develop a relationship with another person), it never gets tiresome, boring or “rote.” It’s fascinating. And it can take you places that most people have no idea were possible with a dog.
On what her peers in IPO and competitive obedience think of her use of positive reinforcement:
At the lower levels, I think most competitors like what I am doing and are interested in learning how to train with more positive methods. At the middle levels, I think there is curiosity mixed with a good dose of doubt. They have been raised on the idea that dogs must learn that they have no choice about training, and they struggle to believe that this might not be correct. This level of trainer is already using mostly positive methods to train new behaviors, but they don’t understand the final steps that are important if you want to compete and still not use compulsion.
At the middle/high levels, I am an irritation. They want to believe that they have the most current and best methods, and it irritates them that I am succeeding without compulsion, because they are convinced that it is not possible. This group often speaks very poorly about me, but they know nothing about my methods nor do they show any interest in learning. They have already decided that what I am doing is not possible. The high level trainers mostly ignore me. They are successful however they are training, and they neither know nor particularly care what else might work.
Of course, those are generalities. I have supporters and detractors in all camps, but those are my basic observations.
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