Good Dog: Studies & Research
When operant conditioning clicked (and clucked)
On a warm and slightly overcast morning in 1967, a rusty, mustard-colored station wagon slowly approached the terminal at San Francisco International Airport. Wheels still rolling, a door opened and something gray jumped out. As the wagon continued on its way, an animal headed toward the terminal. It was a cat.
Straight five steps, then wait. The glass door opened and as a portly man in a business suit dragged his overnight bag through it, the cat darted in. Straight 10 paces and the cat was inside the terminal. It headed left 20 feet, then right 30 feet, then left two more feet. No one seemed to notice. The cat settled under a bench where two men sat, engaged in intense conversation. Ten minutes passed, then 20; the cat lay patiently, its tail occasionally twitching.
Then, abruptly, the cat stood up and retraced its steps. Two feet to the right, 30 feet to the left, 20 feet to the right and out the glass doors. Once again, the station wagon pulled up and without stopping, a door opened. The cat leaped in. Mission accomplished.
The project, commissioned by the CIA and run by Animal Behavior Enterprises, had been a success. The cat’s cochlear implant (a device agents used to listen to the cat’s environment) had proven reliable, and its months of training using the relatively new technology of operant conditioning had proven effective for this intelligence operation.
Does this sound preposterous? Would it sound less preposterous if the trained animal had been a dog? Thanks to the science of operant conditioning, European police and military teams have been able to train their working dogs to perform at a much higher and more reliable level than had been possible using traditional coercion- based methods.
This type of training is no small feat. In 1996, Simon Prins, co-author of K9 Behavior Basics: A Manual for Proven Success in Operational Service Dog Training (2010), was hired to lead an innovative project for the Canine Department of the Netherlands National Police Agency. A test project with a three-year timeline, it would continue if it were a success. The project included a detailed list of tasks for dogs to perform.
“This included normal operational tasks, such as tracking, and explosive and narcotics detection,” says Prins, “but also climbing, rappelling, traveling by helicopter and boat and, the most challenging, training dogs to work with cameras and to follow radio or laser guidance at long distances.”
Although Prins had been a patroldog handler in the regional police force for only a few years, he was selected for this project because he was seen as an innovator. “I had been questioning our traditional force techniques because I noticed that dogs would shut down and stop working, or my police dog would become aggressive to me and to the trainer. So I was already looking for new methods.”
At this point, you may be asking yourself — given the fact that people have been training dogs for more than 4,000 years — why did traditional trainers feel these new tasks were impossible? Also, if a guidance system had already been developed for cats in 1967 in the U.S., why did it take Prins three years to reinvent the wheel 30 years later?
Bob Bailey, who worked on the 1967 project and later became co-owner of Animal Behavior Enterprises after marrying its cofounder, Marian Breland, explains. According to Bailey, it was the advent of animal training and behavior as a science that allowed them to develop the system for dogs, cats and, later, dolphins. “Dog training has been practiced as an ancient craft,” says Bailey. “The science of training wasn’t developed until the 1940s with B.F. Skinner.”
What’s the difference between craft and science? According to Bailey, “Crafts generally develop over thousands of years and tend to preserve what’s old and what has been done before. Information is passed down in secret from master to apprentice, and the apprentice must never question the master.” As a result, when errors are introduced, they tend to be preserved. Another characteristic of a craft is that a change is usually designed only to solve an immediate problem. “Rarely do they look for general principles,” says Bailey.
Science, on the other hand, is a systematic way of asking questions, a process that eventually weeds out mistakes. It’s guided by principles and data, and researcher’s approaches change and are revised as new information comes to light. As a result, science advances quickly compared to craft.
Bailey backs up his description with an example: “For 1,000 years, the Chinese used gunpowder to build small rockets. Then the Turks decided to build bigger ones, which they used on the British. It took them 800 years to develop the technology.” Then, in the 1900s, science and technology stepped in. In 1926, American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard launched the first liquid- propellant rocket. In 1949, less than 25 years later, the U.S. sent a rocket to the moon.
“So it took 800 years of craft to send a six-foot rocket half a mile and less than 50 years of science to send a rocket to the moon,” Bailey summarizes.
From Puzzle Boxes to Bells and Whistles
Others were making discoveries at the same time, but the one who really put things together was B.F. Skinner. Through many experiments, Skinner developed the principles of operant conditioning, which describes how animals cope with their environments.
Skinner found that animals learn to repeat behaviors with consequences they view as positive and to avoid behaviors with those they view as negative. They learn best when the positive or negative consequence is timed exactly to the behavior, and their learning rate is directly proportional to the rate at which the behavior is reinforced.
Research and technology advanced quickly, and within only eight years, operant conditioning had made its way out of the lab into an applied setting. During World War II, Skinner, who wanted to help with the war effort, set out to train pigeons to guide missiles by pecking at an image of the target site on a screen in a project called Project Pigeon. To demonstrate to the navy how it worked, Skinner took six pigeons and the apparatus in which they were trained to Washington, D.C. The demonstration was successful, but the navy turned him down; the admirals may have been taken aback when Skinner opened the chamber, which resembled a Pelican missile warhead, and they saw three pigeons pecking away.
Skinner’s two graduate students, Marian Breland and her husband, Keller Breland, had dropped out of their degree programs to help with Project Pigeon. They learned a lot while working with Skinner, more than they had learned in class, and became skilled at shaping — a process by which a goal behavior is taught in increments, systematically rewarding intermediate behaviors. They also learned about secondary reinforcers — unique tones such as a clicker or whistle that, when paired with food, could be used to tell the animal exactly when it had done something right.
The couple, who saw how powerful these nonforce techniques could be, decided that when the war was over, they would get into some kind of business where they would use operant technology to help solve problems for animals and, later, humans. In 1947, they founded Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), whose mission was to demonstrate a better, more scientific way of training animals in a humane manner using less aversives.
They started with dogs, but trainers shunned the new method, claiming that people had been successfully training for centuries and no new approaches were needed. Rebuffed on the canine front, the Brelands turned to other species. For 47 years, ABE trained animals for its own theme park, the IQ Zoo, in Hot Springs, Ark., as well as for shows across the country. At ABE’s height, the Brelands could have up to 1,000 animals in training at any given time, many for companies such as General Mills, who used them in commercials and at sales conferences. They also worked on animal behavior and training projects for the U.S. Navy and Purina, as well as for Marineland of Florida and Parrot Jungle, where they developed the first of the now-traditional dolphin and parrot shows. When they started, there was only one trained dolphin, whom it had taken trainers two years to get ready to perform. In six weeks, Keller trained two new dolphins to perform the same behaviors.
Bob Bailey met the Brelands when he was hired as director of dolphin training for the navy and Keller and Marian were contracted to help. “I spent six months at ABE learning to train many animals, including chickens.”
Three years later, the same year Keller passed away, Bailey joined ABE as assistant technical director and head of government programs. Later, he became research director too and then executive vice president and general manager. Eventually, he and Marian married.
Over the course of their career, the Baileys trained more than 140 species (or about 16,000 individual animals). In 1990, they retired and closed ABE. Then, in 1996, they received a series of calls from Simon Prins.
Inspired by Dolphins
“We didn’t want to deal with police or military because in our experience, they are punishment-based,” says Bob. In the U.S., the Baileys had come to feel that force-based trainers could not make the change to operant technology because eventually, they fell back on the method with which they were most comfortable. “These trainers take what we say and modify it. They take good operant-conditioning principles and modify them, and then say they won’t work.”
Eventually, as Prins continued to meet Bob’s increasing demands, Bob agreed to help. Prins came with a few other trainers as well as his superiors to the Baileys’ Hot Springs headquarters to learn by training chickens.
Animal Behavior Enterprises had tested many animals for learning purposes and found that chickens provide by far the best training model (find out why). Prins and his bosses quickly learned that training is a technical skill rather than a mystical, inborn ability. A science, not a craft. They trained chickens to selectively peck just one type of object among a group of objects, and to perform tasks only on cue. They learned to train behaviors as a series of many little shaping steps, and to keep track of the outcome of each trial in order to determine whether they were having success or needed to fix their technique or plan. They did this all with positive reinforcement — without physically manipulating the chickens.
“Bob and Marian changed my whole perspective on animal training,” says Prins. As a result, he met all of the 1996 goals, and more. At first it was difficult. ABE had developed remote-guidance systems for cats, dogs and dolphins by 1967. In months, they could train dolphins to perform many behaviors, including traveling 12 hours on a circuitous eight-mile route with no reinforcement. It took Prins three years to work out the methods.
“I talked to Bob by mail and phone, but it was difficult, because I was the only one here using these techniques,” he recalls. The process required thinking about what he wanted, planning how he would get it and then implementing the plan and collecting data. This was followed by an evaluation of the data and revisions to the plan based on the results. This process defines the field of applied animal psychology that the Brelands had created based on Skinner’s work. It’s something that most dog trainers are ill-equipped to do.
Whenever Prins got stuck, he fell back on his old habit of blaming the dog instead of recognizing that he had signaled the wrong behavior with his body language or had poor timing or an inadequate shaping plan. According to Bob, the traditional method of training would advise, “Get a bigger stick and beat the dog harder.” He reminded Prins that he needed to stop blaming the dog and look more carefully at video evidence to see what was going wrong.
“He had been training under the eye of other trainers, who for many years [had taught] him it was the dog’s fault, and you must correct the dog,” says Bob. “If you’re the one making the errors, you should be beating yourself, not the dog.”
The three-year process was a challenge, but he kept at it because he felt that it was the only way they could get the consistency and reliability they needed. As Prins explains, “If you have a punishment-trained dog, in the new situation when they are not sure what to do, they are afraid they will receive punishment, even if it is mild. Dogs just stop performing, [and] learning slows down or stops.” He had already found that it was much more effective to condition an animal to see the world as an environment in which something positive could occur at any moment.
So he stuck with it until he had the techniques down. As a result, the program was even more successful than anticipated. “Our dogs often work far from our position, often in the dark and always in an area they have never seen before,” he says. While trainers prepare the dogs for many situations, they can never truly simulate real-time operations, which usually happen in unpredictable surroundings and are stressful for the human handlers. But once they are taught by teaching dogs that performing in many different situations is fun, dogs are able to perform reliably.
Training speed has also improved. “[With] the first dog, [it] took me eight months to train him to follow a laser. With operant-conditioning, it now takes me four weeks.”
The training is heavily weighted toward positive reinforcement, but both Bailey and Prins point out that rarely, aversives are also used. Aversives are not used until trainers understand operant conditioning well and have been training extensively in it for six months, and only when a dog exhibits behavior that puts himself, humans or the operation at risk. The aversive may range from verbal reprimands to low-level shock. Before trainers use an electronic collar, they must wear the collar around their own necks and see what it’s like to be trained this way. They find out what it feels like when a correction is given, and even worse, given at the wrong moment as commonly happens even with the most skilled trainers. “Then they understand how difficult it is, and they do not like to use it,” says Prins. Overall, aversive methods comprise about 1/1000 of the training.
Their success has led to other countries, including Belgium and Norway, adopting this approach. Despite the advantage of being able to learn from Prins’s mistakes, all the trainers in his group experience some of what he did during his first three years. To select new trainers, he sends potential candidates through four five-day chicken training camps in Sweden. “The punishment trainers fall hard. We give them four days to see if they can make the change. The process is grueling,” he observes.
The change is worth it. Trainers see the difference, and the proof is not just in their impressions. It’s in the hard data: shorter training times, more dogs trained for less money, behaviors they could never train before and more consistent, reliable dogs, which lead to more successful missions.
Bailey explains that while a handful of trainers may be motivated to improve the treatment of their dog, “the trainers who actually make the changes are those who want more success and recognize that simply beating their dog more will not get that additional success.” Once they understand and become skilled at the operant technology, an added benefit is that they can finally enjoy their work and so can the dog.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Advice for those who aspire to such work
One of the questions I receive most often is how to become a canine behaviorist or trainer. Neither is a career with a typical path made up of a standard educational program followed by an exam or an approved internship. All of us in the field have carved our own way, which is why there are so many variations on the story we each tell about how we came to do what we do. While there are many paths to a career in this field, some basic advice applies to all of them.
The most important advice I like to give to anyone with an interest in this type of work is that there are two equally important aspects of preparing for such careers. I feel strongly that the best trainers and behaviorists have pursued both avenues as part of their education.
One is acquiring the knowledge you’ll need in this field, and that involves learning a lot about a variety of areas: canine ethology, learning theory, coaching skills, proper equipment, and business. To educate yourself in these areas requires a lot of reading of books and blogs, supplemented by seminars, online or in-person courses, webinars, and workshops.
The second, and equally important area is practical experience and hands-on work with animals. All the book learning in the world will not take you very far as a behaviorist and trainer if you don’t have the skills to actually work with a dog. The best ways to acquire these practical skills are with a combination of workshops, training your own and friends’ dogs, and volunteering at a place with a lot of animals, such as a shelter or humane organization, a rescue group, a veterinary clinic, or a dog-training business.
In my experience, most people are stronger in one area or the other. Either they are really on top of the knowledge and information side of things but a bit weak on dog handling skills or they highly skilled with dogs but could benefit from having more information at their disposal. The people who really excel as dog trainers and behaviorists are balanced—very knowledgeable and highly skilled.
When I started doing this kind of work full time, I was far more advanced in my book learning than my dog handling skills. I had completed my Ph.D. in zoology with an emphasis in ethology, and I was in good shape in terms of what I knew. (To clarify, I think it’s critical not ever to be done learning, so I follow my own advice and continue to learn, especially with a lot of reading and also with webinars and conferences when I can). Though I had good practical skills for working with large colonies of stinging wasps, as was required for my dissertation work, I lacked enough experience with dogs, and that’s what I set out to correct.
I worked as a dog groomer for a year just to get to know my new species of choice, while I worked as an assistant trainer and then as a trainer. I remember after that year when I began my internship with behaviorist Patricia McConnell, she once said to me, “I’m as proud of my dog training skills as I am of my Ph. D. They were equally hard to acquire.” That comment has always stayed with me, reminding me of the importance of excelling in both knowledge and practical skills. These skills must be practiced regularly to be maintained.
If you haven’t yet worked a lot with dogs, you may wonder what sorts of skills I’m talking about. The things that people who work with dogs need to be able to do take practice to be able to do with dogs of every temperament, size, and learning style. They include:
If you are interested in a career as a behaviorist or trainer, know that you will be working with people as much as with dogs. If you want to work with animals because you love them and aren’t so fond of people, this is not the right field for you. People and dogs are two of my very favorite species, which is lucky since I spend so much time with members of both of them.
Best of luck to all of you who want to be in this field. I love my work and I would recommend it to anyone who loves dogs (and people!) as much as I do!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do your homework!
I’ve always been happy to believe that my students need a dog trainer (otherwise, why am I there?), but it came as a surprise to learn that Pat Miller took her newly adopted puppy to class. Miller has decades of training experience; she’s the training editor of Whole Dog Journal, and people pay her to teach them how to train. So why … ?
Because, Miller admits, “I tend to get lazy about training my own dogs beyond the basics.” And because she lives on a farm, and it’s helpful to teach her dogs to be comfortable and mannerly in all kinds of environments. And because it’s good for her to “realize how it feels to be a student again.” One advantage Miller has is that she knows exactly what she’s looking for in a dog trainer, and she knows why. She isn’t reduced to making her choice on the basis of who has the cutest ad in the yellow pages, or an address nearby.
A good trainer is golden, like a good psychotherapist or car mechanic, and finding one can be equally hard—maybe harder. As Barbara Davis, of BADDogsInc. in Corona, Calif., points out, all you need to call yourself a trainer is a pulse and a business card. For example, recently I’ve seen fliers around my Brooklyn neighborhood advertising the services (names and details changed to protect the guilty) of one “Joe Smith,” who says he’s “certified by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.” Evidently, one assumes, a government body evaluated Mr. Smith’s skills; one imagines him taking a test of some sort, maybe undergoing a background check. One would be wrong: New York City has no certification program for dog trainers. Neither does any of the 50 states. Let’s improve your chances of avoiding Mr. Smith and his ilk.
Begin at the Beginning
On the other hand, if your dog or puppy is shy or reactive, the presence of other people and dogs may frighten or overstimulate her and make the problem worse. One-on-one coaching could be the answer here, as it can be tailored to address any behavioral issues your canine friend may have. (There are also specialized classes for reactive and aggressive dogs.)
A third option is “board and train” (B&T): Your dog stays with the trainer and is returned to you with manners installed. The trainer should then practice with you so that your handling styles are consistent. B&T is the most expensive route to take; usually, lessons or classes are not only cheaper, but better, because they teach you skills that you can apply throughout the dog’s lifetime (think of that old saw about giving a man a fish). However, B&T may be the right choice if you just plain know that you don’t have time to train, even though you take good care of your dog otherwise. Keep this in mind, however: Your dog is going to be out of your sight and out of your protection. Be sure you know who you’re turning her over to.
As for that guy at the dog park: The very first trainer I hired to work with me and my dog Muggsy was referred by several dog-park pals. His method involved eliciting the problem behavior—in Muggsy’s case, aggression toward strange men—and then punishing the dog by throwing a penny-shaker can at him. But you can’t punish anyone (human or canine) into liking people. A different trainer—also recommended by a dog park friend—showed us how to pair the appearance of strange men with delicious treats. Muggsy learned to like men PDQ, but for the rest of his life, reacted to that first trainer by barking and lunging at him whenever their paths crossed. Be aware that the stakes are high; someone ignorant and harsh can easily damage your dog.
Who Trains the Trainers?
A single program obviously can’t make a seasoned dog trainer. But, assuming a trainer also has lots of experience, should you limit yourself to those who have attended one of these programs? I’d say no. Space in the good programs is limited, and tuition is high. Many people are able to acquire skills through independent study, and there are other routes, such as apprenticeships and volunteer shelter work, to practical experience. Many skilled older trainers entered the field before formal programs existed. And not everyone who graduates from them is necessarily competent and kind.
Still, education is a Very Big Clue, however the trainer goes about getting it. Dog training isn’t a mystical art; it’s a combination of particular mechanical skills; a good, solid knowledge of the processes by which animals learn; and an understanding of canine evolution and behavior.
Whatever method of dog training you feel comfortable with, skip the trainer who talks about dogs being “spiteful” or “defiant” (complicated states of mind more likely to be held by humans), or who isn’t familiar with learning theory, or who talks about your household as though it were a wolf pack (dogs aren’t wolves). The important thing to remember is that dogs are a whole other species, and someone who’s taking your money to help you train yours really ought to have taken the trouble to learn some of the relevant science.
There is only one national independent certification program. It’s administered by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and people who earn this credential get to put “CPDT” after their names (see “Source Code and Resources” sidebar). Elaine Allison, of Canine’s Best Behavior in Los Angeles, who has the CPDT and is endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Trainers, stresses, “It’s important that the bells and whistles after [the trainer’s] name are not the sole factor.… Ultimately, it’s best to see them with dogs, particularly how well they relate to their own dogs.… [People] should be looking for someone who has skill and rapport with their dog.” Anne Martindale rejected a trainer whose “remote-control dogs … had no spontaneity left in them.”
As for experience, the more the better—just keep an eye out for the trainer who’s been working with dogs for 30 years but hasn’t learned anything new in the last 29. Animal training, like every other field with any claim to being scientific, grows and changes over the years. Real professionals work to keep up.
The ideal trainer is not only knowledgeable, she’s cordial and respectful. She doesn’t roll her eyes at the students or make fun of them (well, maybe gently, in the context of a well-established relationship). She looks for what students do right and builds on that, rather than relentlessly pointing out what they do wrong. Her explanations are clear and patient, and she really, truly believes that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Most of the people in the class should look as though they’re enjoying themselves, and so should their dogs.
Watch out if the dogs in class don’t like the trainer. Special classes for reactive or shy dogs are an exception, of course, and a dog with a specific fear (of men with beards, say) may react negatively to someone who hasn’t done her any harm. Some puppies pee whenever a person so much as looks at them. But nothing should be happening in an ordinary good-manners class to make the average dog or human unhappy or afraid.
The same goes for behavior problems; by happenstance or because of their personal interests, people acquire varying degrees of expertise in helping dogs overcome particular kinds of difficulties. The behavior counselor who refers you to someone else for help with separation anxiety may be the go-to person for food-bowl guarding or dog–dog aggression. An ethical trainer is honest about her expertise and its limits.
Have a puppy? There are classes just for them. Also known as puppy kindergarten, these classes often include playtime. (Adult-dog classes usually don’t, but there are exceptions.) Well-run play breaks help puppies learn doggy social rules—sometimes an older “nanny dog” assists with this—and get their ya-yas out, and are also a blast to watch. Puppy play should be carefully supervised and the puppies should be segregated by size, age, outgoingness and play style—badly run play breaks can be canine versions of Lord of the Flies, with shy puppies overrun by larger, older, more exuberant comrades, and incipient bullies getting really good at scaring the daylights out of their peers.
Categories needn’t be rigid; a small, super-confident Terrier type may do just fine with a Lab mix twice his size. But steer clear of a trainer who allows a 15-pound body-slammer to chase a panicked 3-pound Maltese around the room, or who doesn’t take steps to increase the confidence of a shy puppy crouched under his handler’s chair.
Look for puppies eagerly engaging with each other, whether they’re low-key or rowdy; if not actively playing, they should be happily exploring the play space. The trainer should be carefully supervising, interrupting inappropriate play, and perhaps narrating and interpreting the action. If there’s a shy puppy, progress may take place over more than one session, but in any case, the trainer should be keeping an eye on him and his owner. No puppy, however inappropriate his behavior, should be handled roughly or berated.
How About Methods?
My own view is that the best dog training is solidly grounded in science and requires no force to develop desirable habits in place of undesirable ones, and of course, I’d like to steer you to trainers who share that view. Gail Fisher, the owner of All Dogs Gym in Manchester, N.H., has more than 30 years of professional training experience. An expert traditional-style trainer now wholeheartedly committed to clicker training, she says that “over the past 15 years, there has been a sea change in dog training philosophies. Trainers using positively oriented, dog-friendly techniques can be found virtually everywhere … And we are all the better for it.”
In conclusion, if someone who makes her living as a professional dog trainer avails herself of others’ expertise, the rest of us mortals should probably consider it, too. Many people don’t know where to start, or have a hard time translating the words they read into physical movements. Some just need encouragement. As for the dogs, even minimal training greatly increases their chances of staying in their home for life. Good training takes work, but it isn’t drudgery—it’s a joy. And out of joy grows love.
The Name Game
News: Guest Posts
Training either a pet or a working puppy should be a full time job, and with Ranger it sure feels like it!! Ranger is now four months old. He is a fairly confident and independent puppy by nature, and I continue to bring those qualities out in him in a controlled way to avoid any overly scary or traumatic experiences. Puppies up to about a year old are very malleable, and one scary experience can be a huge setback. I take Ranger to new places all the time, and he is allowed to meet new people (with treats in hand) and new dogs who I am sure are friendly. He is also exposed to new surfaces, terrain and challenges almost daily. Rather than assist Ranger when we come to an obstacle like a cattleguard on a farm, I walk off and allow him to independently figure out how to get to me on the other side.
Obedience is also a very important for the working dog. Obviously it is imperative that our dogs have some good foundation obedience such as recalls, down, stay, etc. Ranger and I were generously donated a six week puppy class by Puppy Love Training in College Station, TX. This has been a great class that focuses on positive reinforcement and clicker training. Training outside of familiar locations, around other dogs, and under distraction is incredibly important for Ranger to learn and get used to.
Besides our obedience class, Ranger and I train almost every week with our friends at CenTex Search and Rescue based in College Station, TX. Here we have a chance to learn from some great trainers and wonderful dogs who are trained to find either live people or cadavers. Ranger is obviously not going to be learning to do either one, however he gets to learn and experience so many useful things, including traveling and waiting in his crate, getting on a boat, and of course meeting lots of new people, dogs and even a horse! He must also acclimate to the Texas heat!
During these training sessions Ranger usually gets assessed to see how he is progressing. The main team members of the Search and Rescue group are very knowledgeable when it comes to puppies, and they look at all the attributes I described previously: confidence, independence and play drive. They usually ask me to play with Ranger for a few minutes to see how excited he gets about his toys and how determined he is to get his toy. Play drive is generally a “nature” type trait that dogs are born with or not. Certain breeds, and particularly certain bloodlines, may be predisposed to have a higher play drive than others. Obviously many of the hunting/retrieving breeds are one of the first places we look for these high drive dogs, but this trait can be found in other breeds and in mutts! CenTex Search and Rescue specializes in using Border Collies for example, and some people use only shelter and rescue dogs!
Drug dogs, bomb dogs and conservation dogs all work for one reason… because they are addicted to their toys and will work all day in difficult conditions to get their reward. A dog who will retrieve his ball twenty times in a row in the backyard might not have anything close to the drive and focus we require in our dogs.
Of course, just like with puppies raised to be Guide Dogs for the Blind, there is no guarantee that Ranger will have the rare combination of confidence, independence and drive that he will need to become a successful Conservation Dog. Temperament and personality traits depend on both “nature” AND “nurture.” If you want to read an interesting article about this check out this article about the “Fox Farm” experiments in Siberia. So far the little guy is doing pretty good, and we are just trying to make everything fun for him while he learns!
Until next time, feel free to visit us on our NEW website or on our Facebook page for regular updates on our training progress!! Dogs for Conservation has some other exciting news to share with you!
Training Videos from this month:
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Understanding the things dogs “say”
A basic truth about humans and dogs: We live in overlapping but not identical sensory worlds. To a pup, we are sort of like the Brobdingnagians of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, extra-large beings whose ways just don’t all make perfect sense. That’s a hard position to be in, because your dog’s world is controlled by you. Making matters more difficult still, a dog can’t explain to you what you’re failing to understand about him. While we live in a world of language, dogs communicate via a variety of other means.
Thus, it’s important that you learn to understand your puppy, and understand what he’s “saying” to you, as you call the shots. The better you understand how he experiences his world, the less likely you’ll be to become frustrated or angry (and perhaps treat your charge unfairly). And, ultimately, the better and stronger the bond between the two of you will be. Here are 35 actions, with explanations that will help you translate what he’s “saying” to you.
1. Moves away when you pet his head. How are you doing the petting? A lot of people are taught that the way to pet a dog is to keep patting the top of his head. But a dog perceives that action as a signal of dominance, not affection. It also plain just doesn’t feel good. Dogs prefer to be stroked, particularly on the side of the face, under the chin, or on the front of the chest. They also like having their rumps scratched.
2. Circles the mat before going to sleep. This is an ethologic vestige. Dogs in the wild flattened the grass by circling around it a few times before settling down. They were creating a safe and comfortable nest. Today, dogs are acting out a primordial sequence that was genetically encoded many thousands of years ago and passed down from generation to generation.
3. Barks at the mailman no matter how well acquainted the two are. Your pup probably thinks he’s exerting some power by getting the mail carrier to leave. He does leave soon after the dog starts barking, doesn’t he?
4. Grunts. A grunt from a puppy is a communication of pleasure. Sought-after warmth or communion has been attained.
5. Whines. A puppy whines if he is cold, hungry or separated from those he feels he needs near him. Put a warm towel over him, feed him or pay him attention, and the whining will probably stop.
6. Blinks. That’s what a dog does when he is thinking hard. If you say “Down” to get him to lie down and he blinks before doing so, he is thinking, “Do I have to?”
7. Yawns. A dog may yawn if he’s tired, but more generally, it’s an indicator of stress. With yawning, the dog is trying to displace the stress, or inner conflict, with a safe, neutral behavior. Humans do the same thing when they find themselves in a situation of conflict that causes stress—not yawn necessarily, but do something to cope until the unpleasant situation passes. Let’s say you’re in a hurry and you reach a red light. You want to be there, but you have to be here, both because that’s the safe thing to do and because someone else, the police, will enforce the behavior that causes the stress: staying still until the light turns green. So what do you do?
You groom yourself in the rearview mirror, or you look at the driver in the car next to you. Neither of these actions is directly related to what’s pressing on your mind, but engaging in them is better than doing nothing while you’re stuck in the state of conflict between what you want to do and what you must do despite your desires. That’s pretty much akin to a dog’s yawning when he’s not tired.
8. Licks his lips. This is a sign of nervousness, anxiety and submission. People do it, too.
9. Licks you. This is not really a kiss. Rather, it’s a deferent, attention-seeking gesture, similar to what a pup is expressing when he licks his mother’s lips to get her to regurgitate food. (Young puppies will sometimes feed off their mother’s regurgitations.) Why, then, do dogs often lick people in moments of affection? Most likely it’s because they get good feedback for it. For instance, puppy happens to lick baby, baby squeals with delight, mom and dad are overjoyed and pet puppy while racing for the camcorder. The puppy learns, “Ah, when I lick the kid, everyone gets in a good mood and treats me well.” Inadvertent conditioning has taken place.
Note: In some instances, a dog will lick to establish dominance. It has happened in our own offices. One owner brought in a Rottweiler puppy who needed to have his overly dominant and aggressive behavior curbed. The pup immediately put his two front paws on the treating veterinarian’s desk and slobbered him up and down with his big, pink sandpaper-ish tongue. It was clearly not a deferent gesture but, rather, a gesture in which the dog was exercising control and showing he could get away with it. You’ve got to read the situation a little (which is not hard to do).
10. Keeps climbing up onto the couch even when you’ve told him “No.” A puppy who tries to get as high as or higher up than you might be vying for dominance. But puppies also prefer soft to hard surfaces. Sometimes a cushion is just a cushion.
11. Paws and scrapes the ground after eliminating. A lot of people mistakenly think that a dog, like a cat, is scratching and scraping to cover his “deposit,” or at least the scent of his deposit. Nothing could be further from the truth. A dog that scratches the ground after eliminating is actually engaging in a kind of marking behavior to advertise his presence—the opposite of trying to cover up the “evidence.” By pawing the dirt, he is leaving both a visual cue—unearthed soil—and an olfactory one coming from, we surmise, sweat glands on his paws. It’s for emphasis. If the urine doesn’t say clearly enough that “Kilroy was here,” the other scents will.
12. Eats feces. Called coprophagia, this behavior is commonly displayed by puppies. It is species-typical behavior. Bitches keep the whelping area clean after they give birth by eating their youngs’ feces. There is nothing harmful about it to a pup, who will probably outgrow the behavior by the time he’s one year old. But if you find it too objectionable, simply deny access. Always walk the pup on a leash, and pick up after dogs—and other species of animals—who have relieved themselves in your yard. (Some say that adding meat tenderizers or breath fresheners to the dog’s diet helps curb the habit, but it does not work.)
13. Rolls around in disgusting stuff, including muddy messes, feces, and carcasses. Remember, dogs “see” largely through their sense of smell. When they roll around in something and stink to high heaven, they’re not trying to be disgusting. They’re saying, “Look what I found. What a day I had in the cow pasture,” and so on. It could also be a holdover from the times when dogs ran wild. Rolling in the excrement of another animal or rotting material masks the dog’s own odor, thereby making him less easily detectable by potential predators—or prey that he is staking out.
14. Eats grass. Some people believe dogs eat grass to make themselves throw up when they have stomach upset; that is, the dogs are thought to self-medicate. Some believe dogs simply like to eat grass and then throw up when they eat too much of it. Who’s right? Both. Different dogs have different grass-eating patterns. None of them are harmful, so don’t fret if your dog throws up after nibbling on the green stuff.
15. Sniffs around forever before urinating. To a human, urination is urination. To a dog, it’s an elimination process and a way of communicating. So a dog has to take in the various olfactory notices left by other dogs before leaving a message of his own. He may even want to make sure that no other pup has previously urinated in the spot he’s considering. An “all-clear” sign takes some time. Be patient. He’s not trying to drive you crazy.
17. Pants. Unlike humans, dogs don’t have sweat glands on most of their skin. There are only a few on their paws and around the anus. Thus, they don’t have the mechanism we do for cooling their bodies by losing body heat through the evaporation of sweat. Rather, the way they regulate body temperature when it starts to rise is by panting. The faster a dog pants, the more water-saturated air he is breathing out (evaporating) from his lungs, and that has a cooling effect. That said, dogs don’t pant only when they’re hot. Sometimes they pant when they’re anxious. For instance, you might see a dog panting when he’s suffering from separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobia. He’ll pant, pace and generally look nervous.
18. Acts happier around dogs of his own breed. It is believed that dogs do not have a sense of self-image and do not even necessarily recognize themselves in a mirror, so it’s not vanity that is attracting your pet to others of his kind. It may simply be that your pup had good experiences with his siblings, so he seeks out others who look like them. It can work the other way, too. If, say, your pet is a Border Collie who has had unfortunate experiences with Cocker Spaniels, he may spend his whole life acting aggressive or fearful about that breed.
19. Lays his head and front paws splayed out close to the ground while sticking his rump in the air. That’s what’s known as the play bow. It’s a dog’s way of saying that he wants to play—or keep on playing. When a dog does that, he’s in a very good mood. All dogs (and coyotes and wolves) are genetically hard-wired for this position. When another dog sees it, he knows that the lowered head is an invitation to come forward, while the rump in the air is a signal of playful, frisky readiness. Oftentimes the lips of a dog doing the play bow will be retracted in a kind of teeth-showing grin. The oncoming dog will make note of that signal of friendliness, too.
20. Chases his own tail. Is your dog a Bull Terrier or German Shepherd? Those are the breeds most likely to go after their own tails. But it is not normal doggie behavior, for them or any other breed. It is believed that tail-chasing starts in dogs with a high predatory drive with no natural outlets for their predatory instinct. One day, out of boredom, the dog spies his tail from the corner of his eye and tries to pounce on it. The result is that circular tail-chasing motion, which is perfect, in a way, because the tail moves away just as fast as the dog moves to catch it.
Unfortunately, for some dogs, the behavior becomes so ingrained that they do actually get hold of and bite their tails, causing bleeding. Other dogs spin themselves into extreme dizziness for hours on end, barely even taking time to eat or sleep. That means the anxiety arising from the inability to stake out real prey has resulted in a compulsive behavior that can only be corrected with a major lifestyle change (allowing the dog a lot more free rein in the woods, for instance) or anti-obsessional drugs.
21. Nurses on things like blankets or stuffed animals. If a puppy lives with his mother until he is at least six to eight weeks of age, he will probably not suck on various non-living items. That’s because he will have had the opportunity to nurse to his heart’s content as a newborn, and even to suckle from his mother once he moves onto solid food in those instances that he needs comfort after an unnerving event. It’s those puppies whose biological drive to nurse from their mothers has been denied that end up nursing on things they shouldn’t be nursing on. Note that some puppy breeds have a greater propensity to nurse on blankets and such (and even on themselves) than other breeds when denied access to their mothers. These include Doberman Pinschers and Dachshunds. Why is not known. It may be that these breeds have a particularly high nursing drive that is more likely to become displaced when not offered the right outlet.
22. Sticks his head out the car window during drives. It’s fun! Dogs, like many humans, enjoy the feel of the wind on their faces. In addition, with those noses out the window, they can smell various neighborhoods they’re passing through, which is their best way of “seeing” them. Be aware, however, that a pup or older dog can get hurt by flying pebbles thrown up by other cars, particularly if their eyes are hit. For that reason, one company makes doggie goggles, although, admittedly, not all dogs willingly become like Snoopy’s Red Baron.
23. Barks at another dog with his head held high. When one dog barks at another with his head held high, his eyes directed at the other dog, his ears pricked forward (if they’re not floppy), and his body tense with his tail erect, he is signaling confidence and dominance. He is not only calling attention to his presence but announcing his control over the territory.
24. Barks at another dog with his ears pressed to his head, his tail tucked and his eyes darting from side to side. Such a dog is afraid. He might actually be barking more ferociously than a confident one, but it’s all bluff. Watch how he might charge forward a couple of paces and then step backwards. He doesn’t really want to get into a tussle.
25. Digs fast and furiously in the dirt, or even in the bed linens. This action is often derived from aspects of the so-called appetitive phase of predatory behavior. Consider that Terriers, for instance, were bred to chase small varmints. The varmint, after running some, would burrow into the ground, and the dog’s job was to dig in the dirt and pursue it. When there aren’t any true predatory outlets, he might displace these aspects of a hard-wired behavior with seemingly pointless behavior—digging in some leaves in the garden, perhaps, or in some heaped up bed clothes.
Not all dogs dig for predatory reasons. A northern breed, such as a Siberian Husky, might dig to simulate what he does in the harsh terrain of some polar region. Wandering around in ice-cold wind blowing 70 miles an hour, he’ll dig a little depression into the snow to shield himself from the elements. Likewise, on a very hot day, a dog might dig in the ground and lie in the cool soil to shield himself from the sun. In other words, digging could be a vestige of thermoregulatory behavior rather than predatory.
26. Takes food out of his bowl and then goes into another room to eat it. A lot of dogs engage in bizarre behaviors around the food bowl. Some will lift one or more pieces of kibble out of it and position them “strategically” before going back to eat them. Others snatch the food and go to a different area before eating it. It is thought that a dog that sees himself as relatively low in the pack order might be more inclined to move his food around out of fear that some alpha dog might come and take away his meal. Perhaps in the wild, he would have waited his turn in line to grab his share of the kill, then run away to protect his allotment from any potential usurpers. Call it a little paranoia, if you will.
27. Hides treats rather than eat or chew on them. A typical instance of this behavior is a dog burying bones. Going back to nature, if you’re a dog and you’re currently replete but you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you might stash some food as rations to be consumed at a later time. You’ll always be able to locate it with your keen sense of smell.
28. “Runs” in his sleep. With that slight paddling of limbs some dogs experience while sleeping, it is believed they are dreaming about precisely what you might think they’re dreaming about—chasing a squirrel or some other creature. Your pup could even be revisiting some great memory of the previous day, during which he ran a rodent up a tree.
29. Wags his tail. A lot of people think a wagging tail is a friendly sign, and it can be—but not always. The best way to think of a dog’s tail and its side-to-side motion is as an energy indicator. When a dog’s energy level is up or when he’s excited, his tail will wag fast. When he’s interested but not fully engaged, it might wag slowly. Then, as he becomes progressively more riveted or excited, his tail will wag progressively faster. Think of the tail as you would a car’s tachometer. It indicates how fast the animal is revving internally. Now, that can be happy revving or frightened revving or conflict revving. In other words, fast and furious tail wagging could mean the dog is “locked and loaded” and ready to charge. The wagging has to be interpreted circumstantially.
30. Puts his tail between his legs. This means submission and is an effort at appeasement. The dog is not at all sure of himself in a particular situation.
31. Sets his tail bolt upright. A dog that stiffens his tail into an upright position is showing confidence, even dominance. It’s a very forward, confident position. Some dogs, such as Chows, were bred to always have their tails up in order to always look masterful and in charge.
32. Chews socks or slippers. A dog’s gotta chew what a dog’s gotta chew. If you haven’t supplied him with appropriate chew toys, he will turn something else into his chewing gum. (Don’t run around all agitated, trying to get the item of clothing back. The dog will think the two of you are having a game of “Keep Away.”)
Note: Some dogs don’t just chew. They swallow—dirty socks, wash rags, pantyhose, and other smallish personal effects. That could cause intestinal obstructions, symptoms of which include vomiting, loss of electrolytes, shock, even death. If you see that your dog might be a swallower of such items, eliminate access to them. Otherwise, you’ll end up with expensive surgery bills to remove the swallowed fare. And we mean bills, not bill. Dogs that swallow small articles of clothing do not learn from experience that their actions lead to unpleasant and sometimes dangerous ends.
33. Sniffs people in the groin area. A dog can tell an awful lot about a person from one hit of the odor of pheromones coming from that part of the body. Even if you’ve just bathed, a dog can “read” you, even to the point of being able to detect differences between identical twins. He might even be able to tell whether you’re afraid or whether you’re a super-alpha with a lot of testosterone—a force to be reckoned with.
34. Shakes toys back and forth in his mouth. Like digging, this harks back to the appetitive phase of predatory behavior. A dog will shake the neck of his prey in order to kill it.
35. Keeps the hair on his back standing on end. Called piloerection, this is sort of like goose bumps. It’s not something a dog can control. Consider that a dog’s hairs have little muscles attached to them called the piloerectile muscles. When his sympathetic nervous system, involved in fight or flight reactions, releases epinephrine, those muscles contract, in turn raising the hairs. It is assumed that nature programmed dogs to raise their hackles when faced with danger in order to make them look bigger and fiercer. A dog’s hair will also stand on end when he is very, very cold. Again, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, this time to help the dog burn fuel faster, but the muscle-contracting action in the hair takes place, too. If the hair stands up, an insulating layer of air gets trapped between hair shafts, so the cold air cannot get so close to the skin. It works like a down jacket.
Excerpted from Puppy’s First Steps: The Whole-Dog Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Puppy, Edited by Nicholas Dodman with Lawrence Lindner, and the Faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University; Copyright © 2007. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, used with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An engaged mind equals a happy dog
A great many dogs today live lives of leisure, and even dogs who are physically active often lack opportunities for mental exercise. That understimulation can result in the boredom that is the enemy of the happy, well-behaved dog. Dogs evolved to solve problems, and a life of lying on the couch while the rest of the household is at work, and then taking a human-paced walk around the neighborhood, doesn’t present many interesting problems. Which is where enrichment toys come in. Making dogs work to get treats (or even all of their food) by solving the puzzles offered by enrichment toys is a natural fusion.
The Swedish toys from Nina Ottosson’s Zoo Active (see Bark's article) line are some of the highest quality and most original enrichment toys I’ve seen. Each is a puzzle that the dog must figure out using her sense of smell, reasoning abilities and dexterity in order to get the reward. Besides the food itself, the dog benefits from mental stimulation; problem-solving practice; the opportunity to develop dexterity, coordination and balance; and last—but definitely not least—the fun of facing and succeeding at new challenges. The complexity and variety of the toys’ designs heralds a new era in enrichment toys for dogs.
Each toy requires the use of somewhat different skills. For example, the Dog Brick is a flat rectangle with four channels. Each channel has two covers that slide along the channel so that at any one time, two-thirds of the channel is covered. The dog must figure out that the way to access the treats is to use her paws or nose to slide the covers along the channel until the treats are exposed. In contrast, the Dog Smart is a circle with nine wooden cups over cavities that hold treats. In working this puzzle, the dog learns to pick up or shove aside the cups to get to the treats. The Dog Tornado is a series of stacked wooden circles with cutouts in various places. The dog spins the circles to line up the cutouts, thus exposing the food.
Several of the toys require the dog to perform an action that indirectly releases the food, which for dogs is a harder cognitive task than just uncovering it. For example, with the Dog Box, she has to figure out how to insert an item into a hole in the box. If that item adds enough weight, the mechanism inside is tripped and food spills out. Solving the Twister is a two-step process. First, the dog must remove pegs from a circle of wedges; then, with the pegs removed, she can slide the wedges out of the way and get the treats hidden below.
While it’s fun to watch dogs play with the Zoo Active toys, the play has a serious purpose. The value to dogs of thinking as they figure out how to get the food from these puzzles cannot be overstated. When dogs are challenged to figure something out, and are able to do so, they are doubly rewarded: They benefit by exercising their brains and then by experiencing success, both of which are critical for their happiness.
Another interesting aspect of watching dogs play with these toys is observing the different ways they solve the problems the toys present. Though many dogs are paw-oriented, some seem to prefer to use their noses or their mouths. Then there are those with a very paws-on experimental approach, trying a variety of motions and behaviors in rapid succession. Others contemplate the toy and methodically try one technique at a time. During the setup, some dogs watch the toy as the person is putting food into it, and others watch the person’s face. Since every dog has a mental style in addition to a unique personality, these toys provide dogs and their people with an opportunity to get to know each other better in a fun, interactive way. Both stand to benefit if Zoo Active toys become as popular in the U.S. as they are in Europe.
Watch Bark dog Lola (with help from her packmate Lenny) face down the Dog Brick.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Even a bad example can have a good influence.
He was short, only 5' 4" or so, but his broad shoulders and thick arms gave an impression of size and strength. He had close-cropped, steely gray hair, and none of us in his dog-training class had any reason to doubt that he was the Marine he claimed to be.
You’ve never heard of him, but he had as much impact on my life and career as anyone I’ve ever met.
I encountered him (I’ll call him Mark) in 1969, when he stood in the middle of a circle of people and dogs that included me and my adolescent Saint Bernard. This was back when comedian Bill Cosby was young and edgy and the ultimate in cool. And cool my husband and I wanted to be. So cool that, instead of buying silver tableware, we turned my aunt’s wedding-present money into a St. Bernard puppy and named him Cosby, oblivious to her thoughts on the matter.
Cosby arrived as a 15-pound, sevenweek- old pup, and proceeded to barrel through our lives and hearts like a miniature Mack truck. At 10 weeks, he crawled up onto a table and ate our chocolate wedding cake while I was getting married in a bright gold dress to the strains of “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and my father’s conservative banker friends were rolling their eyes and downing their drinks in shock.
Cosby grew fast, and in short order, we had 100 pounds of furry adolescence on our hands. Determined to be responsible—at least, my 19-year-old version of it—I insisted that we enroll our new dog in a training class. (It is unclear how responsible it was for two impoverished people to get a Saint Bernard in southern California, but that was then—my only excuse.) At the time, training classes were all called “obedience” classes, and were far less common than they are now. It took some digging, but I found an advertisement that looked good, checked out the references at my vet clinic and signed up my by-then seven-month-old Saint Bernard.
Class was held in a parking lot, and Mark told all the participants to stand in a circle and listen up. He talked to us briefly about the importance of being “alpha,” of insisting that our dogs respect us and do what we say, just because we say it. I remember nodding my head in agreement. Surely he was right, this authoritative man who wowed us all with a demonstration of his precisely obedient German Shepherd.
He showed us how to put on a “choke collar” (his words), and how to pop the leash quickly and firmly right after saying “Sit.” He cautioned us to use a strong, authoritative voice, lest our dogs think us weaklings who shouldn’t be respected. A Golden Retriever was brought from the circle for illustration. “Sit!” shouted Mark, as he jerked up on the leash. She sat, her face befuddled but friendly.
We were then charged as a group to try it ourselves. I had already taught Cosby to sit when asked, but I piped out the word with vigor. It was a much less commanding version than the trainer’s, but it was my best attempt at saying “Sit!” with authority. Cosby sat, although slowly. His response was good enough for me, but I threw worried glances toward Mark, afraid he’d see my dog’s reaction as some sort of canine passive resistance and insist that I pop the leash.
Cosby and I were spared, but not the Basenji and his 20-something owner. It seemed the Basenji hadn’t gotten the memo and was ignoring both verbal and physical commands. Congo, I’ll call him, was too busy checking out a dainty Miniature Poodle across the circle. Mark watched with concern, and then brought Congo into the center of the ring to show us how it was done.
“Sit!” he bellowed, and snapped the leash so hard that Congo’s front feet left the ground. Instead of sitting, Congo planted his feet more firmly and looked directly into Mark’s eyes. If I’d known then what I know now, I would’ve seen the hard, cold look in Congo’s eyes and not been so surprised when he lunged at Mark right after he was leash-popped again. To a person, everyone in the circle gasped.
Mark raised his arm, lifting all four of Congo’s feet off the ground. The dog had on a “training” collar, the kind that tightens without stopping until it simply can’t tighten anymore. What happened next was a bit of a blur. I remember Mark yelling, and I remember Congo yowling and screaming and somehow climbing up the leash, almost managing to sink his teeth into the trainer’s arm.
And then, in an image imprinted on my brain like a lithograph, Cosby let out a whimper and turned 180 degrees away from the drama in the center of the ring. He lay down, placing his huge, soppy head flat on the dirty asphalt. Meanwhile, I remained motionless, frozen by the scene unfolding in front of me. The Basenji was still hanging in midair. He was running out of oxygen, turning blue in the lips, but still screaming and frothing at the mouth. By now Mark looked equally desperate, angry and out of control—eyes wild and spittle flying from his mouth as he continued to yell.
I took one look at Cosby, saw the wisdom in his choice, and walked away, shaking; I shook until I got home. I called Mark the next day and asked for my money back. I never got it, but here’s what I did get: an invaluable lesson in how never to train a dog. That day was a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with compulsion training. It only works some of the time, and when it doesn’t, people and animals can get hurt. It forces animals to be defensive, and it creates defensive aggression in many of them. It never tells the animal what we want him to do, but rather, waits to punish him for not doing it. It teaches an animal not to think for himself, but to avoid doing anything until told, and to be afraid of trying out something new. Most importantly, it destroys the relationship we should be striving for with our best friends. Friends don’t try to strangle each other, and they don’t punch each other in the face when they don’t cooperate.
After leaving the class, I did my best to train Cosby on my own. He wasn’t the best of dogs, but he wasn’t the worst either. Years after Cosby died, I saw Ian Dunbar talk about “Lure/Reward” training and champion the effectiveness and benevolence of positive reinforcement. I didn’t have a dog of my own then; I was studying communication between handlers and working animals for my graduate research, and had attended his seminar to add to my data. I expected to get information that I could use for my research, but I didn’t expect the weekend to solidify and expand my understanding of what a relationship between a person and a dog could be. As I watched Dunbar teaching happy and exuberant puppies to sit and lie down, I replayed the scene of Mark and the Basenji over and over again in my mind.
I began to watch the handlers I was working with (over a hundred of them, from race-horse jockeys to drug-dog trainers) and noticed how cheerful and encouraging some were, and how others were loud and forceful. I observed how quickly the animals learned when they were trained with positive methods, and how consistently they responded. I saw how many dogs and horses looked nervous and afraid around their trainers, and how the anger in the trainer’s voices overwhelmed everything else.
Although I never would have predicted it, those lessons led to a life dedicated to improving relationships between people and animals. It’s a life that owes a tremendous debt to all the special people who have taught me so much about animal behavior, from Ian Dunbar and my major professor, Jeffrey Baylis, to many of the people highlighted in this issue. But most of all, this is a column for Mark, whoever and wherever he is, because it was he who burned into my soul the dark side of our relationship with dogs and, irony of ironies, made the bright side so much sweeter.
News: Guest Posts
Four-month-old Hero became youngest Trick Dog Champion
Only 17 years old, Sara Carson of North Bay, Ontario, is the youngest Certified Trick Dog Instructor through stunt dog trainer Kyra Sundance's Do More With Your Dog program. Sara's Border Collie puppy, Hero, became the youngest Trick Dog Champion, at only four months of age! Together, they have performed and entertained audiences of all ages at two large events, the Purina National Dog Show and the All About Pets Show, both in Mississauge, Ontario. Watch the video to see this brilliant puppy show off 51 fun tricks. To learn more about trick training or earning trick titles with your dog, go to Do More With Your Dog.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Okay to play tug?
Strong opinions exist about the “Do nots” of playing with dogs. I agree with only some of these prohibitions.
I do stand by the ban on rough-and-tumble wrestle play and the teasing that often accompanies it. Though this form of play can be fun, the high emotional arousal that results often leads to a lack of inhibition, and that’s when trouble can happen, even to nice dogs and to nice people. Many actions of play are also used in serious fights and predation. These can create real danger when you (or your nephew or the little girl who lives next door) are down on the ground with your face next to an excited predator with dangerous weapons in her mouth. Serious bites could happen someday, even if she’s never bitten. All too often, I’ve seen shocked and devastated families crying in my office, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.
I’m also opposed to people chasing dogs, preferring to let dogs chase people instead. If you play by chasing your dog, you risk teaching her that moving toward her means the game is afoot, making her more likely to run away even when you approach her for another reason. This can ruin your dog’s recall. It can also lead to injury if your dog charges away from you into the street or other unsafe area. There’s no denying that letting a person chase a dog can be a great reinforcement for the dog, but I only approve this game for dogs who are so well-trained that the person can stop the game at any time and successfully call the dog to come.
I disagree with the following play advice:
Don’t mix training and play. Yes, do! It’s actually great to incorporate play into training sessions. The best training occurs when the dog views an activity as a game rather than a lesson. Using chase games to teach recalls, playing follow to build a base for heeling, using tug to practice “take it” and “drop it,” and practicing stays with “find it” games or hideand- seek are all great ways to blend training and play. Additionally, play is reinforcing, so playing with your dog may be better than the best treat.
Only young dogs need to play. No, not true! A small percentage of animal species play at all, and even fewer play beyond childhood. Dogs and people remain playful into adulthood, which may partially explain why we’ve been best friends for thousands of years. Many older dogs stop playing only because they no longer have buddies to play with. Keep playing with your dog well into old age. It’s part of what makes them dogs and us human!
Don’t play tug. Most importantly, I disagree with this prohibition (at least for most dogs). Many people advise against tug, which is a shame because so many dogs adore it. Tug is a great game, and dogs can learn a lot from playing it. Many trainers share this view and actually teach tug in puppy classes. The earlier dogs learn the lessons that tug has to offer such as impulse control, mouth control and cooperation as well as skills like “take it” and “drop it,” the safer and more fun the game becomes.
For a long time, many experts advised against playing tug for fear that it would create or increase aggressiveness in dogs. Later, tug was considered fine for most dogs as long as they were not allowed to “win” by keeping the toy at the end. The concern was that it would have bad consequences for her to feel she had just triumphed over the person.
A scientific study by Rooney and Bradshaw addressed this issue. They found that “winning” the toy in a game of tug had no impact on the relationship of the human-dog pair. Based on their research, though, we should still be thoughtful about letting certain dogs keep the toy after a tug game. The most playful dogs in the study exhibited significantly higher amounts of playful attention-seeking behavior when they were allowed to “win.” Therefore, it may be better not to allow those dogs who become relentlessly pushy about seeking more play time to “win” at tug.
Of course, for a few dogs, tug is a bad idea. Dogs who are prone to aggression induced by high arousal are not good candidates for it. The same warning applies to dogs with poor bite inhibition or poor self-control as well as those who tend to creep up the toy with their mouths during tug. Additionally, it may exacerbate object-guarding behavior in dogs who already exhibit it.
For most dogs, tug has many benefits. It is interactive and requires cooperation between humans and dogs. It can give dogs exercise and help them stretch their bodies prior to other activities such as running or agility. Tug can effectively rev up an agility dog for maximum success on the course. It helps many dogs learn better mouth control in general.
With so many “Do nots” out there in the world of play, the most important may be this: “Do not spend so much time worrying about playing with your dog that you don’t have time to actually play with her.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A gentle hand or a tasty treat doesn’t reinforce fear, it reduces it
It was one in the morning, and I was wide awake. Thunderstorms had been rolling like waves over the farm all night, and this one was so loud I thought the windows might break. Lassie, my 14-year-old Border Collie, lay panting beside me. She’s almost deaf, but the combination of a falling barometer, lightning flashes and the crashes of thunder were enough to send her into a panic. As we lay there together, I stroked her soft old head, thinking about the advice to avoid petting a dog who reacts to thunder. “You’ll just teach them to be more fearful,” according to the traditional wisdom. Only one thing: It’s not true.
We’ve been taught for ages that trying to soothe frightened dogs just makes them worse. It seems logical, in a cut-and-dried, stimulus-and-response kind of way. Your dog hears thunder, he runs to you and you pet him. Voilà, your dog just got reinforced for running to you when it thunders, and worse, for being afraid of thunderstorms in the first place. But that’s not what happens, and here’s why. First, no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people. The function of fear is to signal the body that there is danger present, and that the individual feeling fearful had better do something to make the danger, and the fear that accompanies it, go away.
Think of it this way: Imagine you’re eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream “reinforce” you for being afraid, so that you’d be more afraid the next time? If anything, things would work in the reverse—you might develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream. However, you sure as heck aren’t going to be more afraid if a burglar arrives because you were eating chocolate mocha fudge the first time it happened.
There’s another reason petting your thunder-phobic dog doesn’t make him worse, and it couldn’t hurt to take a deep breath before you read it. Research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* If it doesn’t decrease stress, how could it act as reinforcement? Before you write describing how your loving touch calms your own dog, please note that (1) I didn’t do the research; (2) my own dogs stop pacing and whining when I pet them during storms; and (3) I don’t care what the research says, it makes me feel better, it doesn’t hurt anything, so I do it anyway.
On the contrary, it’s just not possible that petting your dog is going to make her more fearful the next time there’s a storm. Warnings that you’ll ruin your dog by comforting her are reminiscent of the advice from the 1930s and ’40s to avoid comforting frightened children by picking them up. That perspective was tossed out long ago by psychologists, when research made it clear that having parents they can count on when life gets scary creates bold, stable children, not dependent or fearful ones.
A Classical Approach
Understandably, many a client has asked, “But isn’t giving him treats when he’s barking and growling just going to make him worse? Won’t he get reinforced for barking and growling?” The answer is no, not if his behavior is driven by fear. Remember, fear is no fun, and a few pieces of food, no matter how yummy, aren’t going to override the brain’s desire to avoid it.
Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. CCC is one of the most important tools in a trainer or behaviorist’s toolbox, yet it can be hard to convince people to try it. It feels like rewarding a dog for misbehaving, and in our punishment-oriented, “you’ve got to get dominance over your dog” society, it is tough for some people to do. But that’s exactly what I did to cure another Border Collie, my Pippy Tay, when she developed a fear of storms many years ago.
CCC is one of many ways you can help a thunder-phobic dog. I’ve used some of the following with good success, either on their own or, in Pippy Tay’s case, combined with other methods: pheromone therapy, wraps, acupuncture, acupressure, diet change and, in serious cases, medication. If your dog is afraid of storms, you’d do well to consult a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for assistance in choosing the method that is right for you and your dog.
I even put thunder on cue. “Oh boy, Pippy, you get thunder treats!” I’d say each time we heard the thunder growl. Mind you, these words would come through clenched teeth at three in the morning, but for two summers, I chirped about thunder treats, pulled out the drawer beside the bed and fed Pip after each thunderclap. By the end of the summer, Pip stopped lacerating my face with panicked attempts to crawl inside my mouth to hide from the storm. She began to sleep through moderately loud storms, not even waking up to beg for treats when the thunder rolled. She came over to me when things got really loud, but with little of the panic she’d shown before.
Fear Is Contagious
However, if you are scared (and who isn’t sometimes?), all is not lost. You can calm things down by concentrating on your body—slowing down your breathing and your movements, changing your posture to one of confidence and relaxation, and speaking slowly and calmly (if at all). These actions have the beneficial effect of altering your own emotions as well as your dog’s. The calmer you pretend to be, the calmer you’ll actually feel.
I kept that in mind last night as I cooed, “Oh boy! Thunder treats!” and fed Lassie tasty snacks from the bedside table. I had a lot more reasons to be scared than she did—she didn’t know that the basement was flooding, the white water crashing down the hill was threatening to take out the barn, and the roads were washing away all around us. All she knew was that every thunder roll predicted a piece of chicken, and that I seemed to think it was a great game. She settled down relatively soon, but I lay awake for hours. I guess it really is time to put some chocolate in the drawer beside the bed. If, the next time they see me, friends notice that I’ve gained a lot of weight, they’ll know it’s been a stormy summer.
*Nancy Dreschel, DVM, & Douglas Granger, PhD. 2005. “Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95:153–168.
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