Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Self Controlled Canines (Part One: Leave It)

Many dogs seem to know that if
they look at the object of their desire
they won't be able to resist taking it,
so they actively look away instead!
Behind every dog that has learned to ignore a squirrel, stop jumping on guests, or cease relentless barking, there is one valuable lesson at work: self control. Believe it or not, this is even harder for dogs than it is for humans. Humans can immediately rationalize the benefits of practicing a little self control (even if we don't always follow through) but dogs have to really have it spelled out for them. After all, if they weren't living with us then their entire lives would be ruled purely by instincts and impulses. Chasing, barking, and even enthusiastically greeting are all normal dog behaviors. When curbing those behaviors we have to not only teach the dog what we want him to do but also help him learn how to control the irresistible urge to act on impulse.

Certain lessons in your average obedience class are fantastic for practicing this. My absolute favorite is "leave it." If you're not familiar with this cue/command you can think of it as teaching your dog the meaning of patience. You start off just teaching him to leave a treat in your hand or on the floor until you give him the cue to take it. Very simple stuff, just follow these steps:

1. Hold a yummy treat in your closed fist, making sure that your dog first knows it's there.
2. Do NOT let the dog taste or grab the treat (hence the closed fist).
3. Keep your fist held out toward your dog so that he can inspect it. Expect lots of licking/pawing/frantic searching for a way to get to the food but do NOT move or jerk your hand away. Be patient and allow your dog to figure this out on his own. It will happen.
4. The very instant that your dog backs away or looks away from the treat, click (or say YES!) and offer the treat. You can say "Take it!" as you give the treat to your dog.
(Note: Usually I would advise against adding the verbal cue before the dog has caught on to what you want as he doesn't know what it means yet, but in this case you can sometimes use the tone of your voice as you say "leave it" to give your dog a bit of a clue if he's not catching on at all. This doesn't mean to yell at him...if anything you should just calmly say this to kind of redirect his thinking. And be sure to NOT repeat the cue over and over and over again as he'll only learn to completely ignore the words.)

Once you're positive that your dog has caught on to this trick you can increase the difficulty a bit by offering the treat in an open palm instead of a closed fist. It will feel as if you're starting all over but as long as you're fast enough to keep Fido from snatching the treat right out of your hand (remember, close your fist, don't jerk your hand away if you can help it), he'll figure it out without much trouble. If he does manage to sneak past you, just aim to be quicker next time. You'll get pretty skillful at looking for that little glint in his eye right before he pounces! It really is like a game and a score is being kept. In order to solidify a behavior you need to make sure that you win by a landslide, not by a hair. Every instance where your pup manages to sneak the treat away without "leaving it" is an instance where he begins to think that that's the best strategy to use! Prevent this as much as possible.

Once Fido has mastered leaving treats in your hand, start placing them on the floor a good distance away from him. Make sure you're on top of things and can cover the treat with your hand immediately if he tries to snatch it up. Again, be quick and win this game by a landslide! When he backs away or just stops actively trying to get the treat then instantly click and treat (or say YES! and treat). 

"Leave it" with other dogs is especially appreciated by
the other dogs.
"Leave it" will become more than just a cute trick with food. I've successfully used the principle of this cue to eliminate food aggression as well as reactivity with other dogs. These uses will be discussed in later parts of this series of posts and I highly suggest practicing the basics in the meantime. I've yet to meet a dog who didn't benefit from a good, solid understanding of "leave it."

If you do decide to practice this week (and I hope you do!), here's a great tip: Our ultimate goal is not just for your dog to look away or even step away from the food, but to bring the focus back to you as well. Anytime you catch a good "leave it" that also involves eye contact from your dog, make sure to be extra enthusiastic about reinforcing it. That will be the key going forward.

If you practice correctly your dog will quickly catch on. Remember that we're basically teaching two things here: 1) Stepping away from the tempting food is REWARDING and 2) trying to take the food simply doesn't work. Your pup will try really hard before finally giving up, but be patient, it will happen!

Good luck, and feel free to email with any questions!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Whatever Works

For every strong belief there is another that opposes it. Most of you are probably familiar with the "differences of opinion" between positive trainers and alpha trainers. At some point or another, it has probably affected you as a dog owner. If not, it certainly will eventually. As someone who has been a trainer on both sides of the spectrum I can say from experience that experience rarely even matters during such a debate. When all is said and done, the argument about training philosophies unfortunately comes down to emotions. Why is this?

Everyone at some point has watched either set of methods "work" on one dog or another. That's just how it is. If that weren't the case, this would be a much easier argument for one side or the other to win. Of course, it's just not that simple. Your groomer has probably "dominated" many a dog until it stopped biting and squirming (unless you have one of the few who actually understand how to get results by using positive reinforcement). Your local positive reinforcement trainer (assuming they have the appropriate skills and aren't just "playing trainer") has turned around a food or dog aggressive dog. One of your neighbors has probably figured out a prong collar to the extent of being able to walk his dog without dislocating a limb.

The glaring differences appear if you stand back to look at why different techniques create results. Why does a dog stop pulling when you use a prong collar? The most common answer from alpha trainers is that "it gets their attention." This is also their answer for shock collars and other such devices. Personally, I am pretty certain that about 99% of them know that this isn't necessarily true. I'm sure these collars manage to get your dog's attention but so would a poke, prod, or the sound of a whistle. What's so "attention-getting" about a prong or shock collar? It is painful. Perhaps just an instant of pain, but it is pain nonetheless. If you can't even acknowledge this simple fact then you probably shouldn't start using one of these tools. (Can you imagine how shock-happy your average person might get if they truly didn't believe a shock collar caused pain??)

During a debate over training methods I actually had someone ask me if I could get ten dogs to walk off leash next to a busy highway the way another trainer does. My response was that I absolutely could, especially if I used a shock collar on them as this other trainer does. Anyone could. (It's called an underground fence and while it's the same concept I have to say that the underground fence would be more humane considering the dog ends up with a clear idea of where his boundaries are.) Of course, you can teach a reliable recall without a shock collar as well but I don't know what the point of practicing next to a busy highway would be other than to make yourself look special? I've had plenty of safe, fun, productive off leash practices with multiple dogs without the use of any special collar. At any rate, it still comes down to results. If you wanted to teach your dog to stay near you off leash then yes, a shock collar could very quickly give you the desired results.

Blind foster puppy Kota had intense fear of any terrain
that wasn't grass.
Another great example of the differences in technique come when handling fears and phobias. This is probably where I have the most trouble staying professional and letting go of emotions. I simply cannot stand the thought of a fearful animal being mishandled. I've seen it too many times. I've accidentally practiced it myself... I can't and won't stand back to watch it happen ever again. Of course, in writing this post I still have to point out that either set of training methods can supply results. For example, if you have a dog afraid of going up steps you could attach the leash to his collar and pull your pet up and down until he finally comes/goes willingly. For some dogs, that might be the fastest way. For others, it will be the fastest way to getting yourself bitten. The positive approach would involve desensitizing the dog to the stairs a little bit at a time by using rewards (food, toys, belly rubs, whatever your dog likes). Depending on the dog, it might be just as fast. For those dogs that would have ended up biting you for dragging them around, it'll take a little more time as their fear is much stronger. Again, either way can work. One of those ways does involve exposing your dog to terror for however long it takes and could result in him never wanting to be touched by you or wear the leash again or go anywhere near your stairs but hey... it might instead be a quick fix, right? Totally worth it.

So, what's really so bad about an instant of pain or a few minutes spent forcing your dog to face his fears as long as it works? It really depends. A fearful dog can easily be turned into a fear aggressive dog if it feels that you are suddenly a threat instead of a protector. Even a fearful dog who doesn't go on to show aggression has to endure all the time spent being terrorized by the object of its fear. A dog trained by a shock collar has to, of course, endure the pain of the shock collar. Don't let anyone tell you it isn't painful unless you watch them tightly fit the collar around their neck (not their arm, not their leg) and withstand the shock themselves. The urge to leave your side and chase a squirrel or explore is too strong to be overcome simply by a happy little vibration "getting your dog's attention" for a moment. This is common sense.

My point is that it's not about what works. It's about why it works (or might work) and the relationship that you want with your dog. A shock collar might fix your problem for you, but at least understand why and understand that there are other ways. Don't let someone convince you that there isn't a pain-free way to handle the issue. Many "last resort" cases end up either dying or wearing a shock collar because someone didn't have the time or take the time to handle it otherwise. Many last resort cases also started with someone who hit them, kicked them, or jerked them around. This would be considered abuse and most of us would fight against it. Can we really condemn hitting but promote shocking at the same time? Is that something that you're ok with on a personal level?

I've written before about teaching dogs to make good decisions but this time it's about us. What type of owner and trainer do we really want to be? Have we really become so lazy that we've given up on taking the time to understand what we're doing? Have we gotten so deluded that as long as we call it a "remote collar" we can pretend it does something completely different than cause pain? As I mentioned in a recent Facebook post, I think I could stomach hearing about aversive training methods a little more easily if I felt that the people using them really understood what they were doing. If you're ok using pain to train and you've done your research and weighed the risks then there is little more that I can say. But if you believe that it's the only way to get results and that it doesn't hurt (???) then I hope that someday you find a trainer who can demonstrate the truth to you. Sometimes I feel that I've failed in this regard but I am confident that as time goes on and people actually see the amazing things that can be done with communicative, progressive training they will turn around.