Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Training Tuesday: More Heeling

Maisy and I continue to work diligently on our heeling. When I last posted, Maisy was going rather wide, but was getting more or less in line with my leg for 10 to 20 feet at a time. So, I increased the criteria to include being close.

Being close is hard for a little dog, especially when you have a clumsy handler who is apt to step on you. In other words: I’ve had my work cut out for me. I started by encouraging her to get close with my voice and by patting my leg. The second she got there, I threw her ball. I wasn’t paying much attention to where I was throwing the ball, though, until Tegan pointed out that by throwing the ball to the left, I was encouraging her to go wide. Well, duh. I’ve read about reward placement, and yet I didn’t realize that I was working against myself. *sigh*

Once I started throwing the ball only in front or behind, Maisy immediately came closer, which was awesome. Her closeness is still inconsistent when we’re using the ball, but it’s much improved, and there are definite moments of brilliance:

I’ve started taking our training “on the road,” too. Last week, we went to a local training club, and she did some really nice heeling up and down the hallways. There weren’t classes going on at the time, so there were no distractions, but it was an environment she hasn’t been in for quite awhile. I was very pleased with her attention and focus! Even better, despite the fact that I was using treats and not her ball, she still drove through the about turns with tons of energy and enthusiasm (and she has always lagged on those).

Unfortunately, since you can only work on one criteria at a time, she’s begun forging again. Denise Fenzi suggested using pace changes to help emphasize correct placement. A trainer friend suggested experimenting more with reward placement (throwing behind more often). I’ve been playing with both of these ideas for the last few days. Hopefully in a few weeks, I’ll have more progress to share!

In other training news, I’ve decided to enter an obedience trial at the end of December. My “breed club” is hosting a CDSP trial the day after Christmas. It promises to be a small, quiet trial, and I know the judge well enough that I won’t feel (overly) embarrassed if it all falls apart. I really like that venue because it allows you to talk during exercises and use treats between them, which means that if she’s feeling uncertain, I can make it a good experience for her. I’m sure it’ll be fine, but it makes me feel better knowing I’ve got a back up plan.

Since making this decision, I’ve started working on the other skills Maisy will need for the trial- namely the moving stand for exam and the recall over jump. These are going well. I need to start working on her honoring skills, too, but… well, neither of us are very good at stays. Mostly because I find them boring.

Anyway, that’s were things stand now. I’m quite pleased with Maisy’s progress, and am confident we’ll be ready for that trial!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ken Ramirez Seminar: Strategies for Solving Problems

In addition to his duties as the executive vice-president of animal collections and training at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ken does consulting work with everything from zoo animals to regular old pets. Some of these problems can be quite complex, and as a result, Ken has found that having a system to follow is invaluable.

The particular system you follow doesn't matter so much as the fact that you have one. Ken believes that following a system will help you objectively examine the problem so you can see what's going on more clearly, challenge assumptions you have about the problem, improve communication and buy-in from clients or family members, and ensure that you treat the cause of the problem and not just the symptoms. A good system will also help you document the process for future reference.

There are many systems out there, and today I'm going to share the one that Ken developed and uses. It consists of five steps:

Step 1: Identify the Problem
This is often not as easy as it sounds. Behavior is a very complex thing, and usually only certain parts of the behavior need to be fixed. Ken said that if you choose the wrong part or if you define a problem incorrectly, it will be very, very difficult to fix.

One way to start breaking the problem down is to analyze each component of the behavior. At what point does the behavior fall apart? Are there patterns? Ken also recommends keeping a log with information such as who is present when the problem happens, the location, the time of day, or any other relevant details. If there is more than one person who works with the animal, each trainer/family member should contribute ideas and observations, as well as possible hypotheses on what's causing the problem.

That said, Ken did caution against labelling the animal or the problem in a counter-productive way. Simply dismissing the problem as “this dog hates men” or “he's always been like this” does nothing to fix the problem. Instead, shift your thinking, and instead of trying to figure out what's wrong with the animal, ask “why can't I train this?”

Step 2: Determine the Cause
There are many, many possible contributors to a problem. Ken told a story about how the dolphins he was working with would not come close to the stage, despite having been trained to do so. In the end, the problem was that he was wearing new shoes that had a markedly different look. Once he changed his shoes, the problem went away- no training needed!

Some possible causes* of behavior include the environment (weather, physical or structural changes in a training area, prop changes, etc.), social considerations (especially when you're working with multiple animals- aggression, competition for resources, or one animal being in heat), psychological concerns (boredom, neurotic behaviors), and physical health (the animal may be sick, aging, or simply bodily incapable of the behavior). Other causes include the trainer (you making mistakes, working beyond your skill level, being inconsistent, or allowing your emotions to affect your animal), and the way the training session is used (perhaps your pace is too fast or too slow or you're doing too much drilling with too little reinforcement).

Ken also said you shouldn't get hung up on this step. Sometimes determining the cause is impossible, and sometimes, even when you do know the cause, there's no obvious solution. Do your best to figure out what might be contributing to the problem, but be ready to move on to the next step.

Step 3: Determine the Motivation
There are always two ways of looking at a problem: by focusing on the desired behavior or by focusing on the undesired behavior. Often, problems arise because the balance of reinforcment and punishment has skewed. Here you will need to do some brainstorming: what might be reinforcing the undesired behavior? What might be punishing the desired one? Has the behavior come up because the animal is trying to avoid getting punished, or is it because he's trying to obtain reinforcers? Or, is it both?

Either way, you will need to shift this balance. Ken prefers to do this by adding more reinforcers to the mix while simultaneously removing punishers. Perhaps the task is too hard, or there are huge distractions present. Getting rid of these problems helps make the reinforcers more salient, and thus stronger. This usually fixes the problem. However, if you get rid of all of the punishers you can and the behavior still isn't fixed, either your reinforcers aren't really all that reinforcing, or you didn't identify the correct punishers.

Step 4: Implement a Plan
There are many, many ways to change behavior. In her book Don't Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor lists a number of methods for changing behavior, ranging from punishment (which Ken acknowledged will work, although it often creates other problems) and negative reinforcement (which he prefers to punishment, but still prefers to avoid as it depends on using aversives), to things like training an incompatible behavior (very effective, according to Ken) and changing the motivation (by shifting the balance of punishers and reinforcers as outlined above).

Although Ken has an obvious preference in the type of method, he did acknowledge that there are many paths to a solution, and most work. It's important that no matter which method you pick, you remain committed to it. He reminded us that if the problem were easy to fix, it would have already been done, so when confronted with a problem, you need to make sure that the plan you choose doesn't require more time or money than you're willing to spend.

Step 5: Constantly Monitor the Progress
Finally, Ken emphasized the importance of continued monitoring. While you may get rid of the problem behavior, that doesn't mean that the animal has forgotten how to do it. Once you learn how to do something, that memory is always there. This doesn't mean that the animal will automatically return to his undesirable ways, but the possibility does exist.

And those are Ken's five steps for solving problems in animals. I wish you could have been at the seminar- he had some great stories to illustrate each step. Again, I must encourage you to go see him if you ever get the opportunity. I've found him to be both entertaining and interesting, and while his methods are incredibly systematic, I can see how that might be useful. I know it's not for everyone, though, so I'd love to hear from others: is this too cumbersome? Are there ways to make this easier, or do you think that following each step would be helpful?

* The possible causes of behavior Ken referenced were originally developed by Tim Desmond and Gail Laule in their 1980 Active Environments Training Manual.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ken Ramirez Seminar: Non-Food Reinforcers

One of the big objections people have to clicker training is “all that food.” They always want to know when they can stop using it, an attitude that used to baffle me. I mean, I get that people who are active in dog sports need their dog to perform many behaviors for a single treat, but when there are no rules, what's the problem? It's not hard to stick a handful of kibble in your pocket, after all.

Well. Leave it to Ken to not only be entertaining, but to also convince me that non-food reinforcers are both valuable and necessary (mostly because it is much easier to perform husbandry behaviors on a sick animal who is refusing to eat when you have a non-food reinforcer available). He also presented a very thorough method for creating non-food reinforcers, and gave us some tips on how we should and shouldn't use them once they've been established.

Let's start at the beginning: what are non-food reinforcers? Well, obviously, they're not food, but Ken was a bit more scientific than that. When Ken talked about reinforcers, he broke them down into two categories: primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers. A primary reinforcer is something that is inherently reinforcing; the animal doesn't need to have any experience with it to understand that it is a good thing. Typically, these reinforcers satisfy biological needs, and food is the ultimate primary reinforcer (that's why it is so useful in training). By contrast, secondary reinforcers are something the animal needs to learn is desirable.

Despite the fact that secondary reinforcers are learned, Ken made the point that secondary reinforcers can be very, very powerful. In fact, they can sometimes be more powerful than primaries because of what they represent. For example, money is a secondary reinforcer- the paper itself has no inherent value. However, society teaches us that money is a desirable thing because of what it can buy, and this association is so strong that humans will do some very boring or unpleasant tasks in order to obtain it. In fact, we are more likely to take a job that pays money than one that provides food and shelter.

(As a side note, play can be looked at as both a primary and a secondary reinforcer. Often the act of playing- running or chasing, for example- is innate, making it a primary reinforcer. However, the objects used in play, like balls or tug toys, are secondaries because the dog needs to learn what they are used for. A ball that is not thrown is neither interesting nor reinforcing to most dogs.)

Another way to think of secondary reinforcers is as a “reinforcement substitute,” which emphasizes the fact that secondary reinforcers only become powerful through conditioning. Ken is very, very systematic in the way that he creates secondary reinforcers. His approach is so thorough and slow, in fact, that I suspect some readers will be turned off by it. This is partly because he's found that the more time you spend conditioning them, the more powerful they will be, but also because he believes that if you use secondary reinforcers improperly, it can lead to a lot of frustration. Since frustration is sometimes inherent in training, he tries to minimize it whenever possible, something which is both kind to the animal and practical when working with wild animals who are less tolerant of human mistakes than the domesticated dog.

Ken creates secondary reinforcers in almost exactly the same way he trains a behavior. He starts by choosing a stimulus to act as a reinforcer. This stimulus should be one that is useful- that is, it is easily accessible, and not overly cumbersome to implement. He also thinks it works well to use something that is novel to the animal; choosing something the animal has habituated to and now ignores is going to make things much more difficult. One of his favorite secondary reinforcers is clapping.

Then he does straight-up classical conditioning: he presents the chosen stimulus, and then immediately follows it with a primary reinforcer. So, he claps, and hands over a bit of food. Clap, food, clap, food, until the animal seems to understand that the clapping predicts the food. This shouldn't take long at all unless the animal finds the stimulus aversive (if the animal is sound-sensitive, for example), or if your primary isn't that exciting.

Then he asks the animal for an easy, well-established behavior. This is something the animal already knows well, and has a very strong reinforcement history for. In dogs, the behavior of sit is often a good choice. When the animal does the behavior, the trainer will present the new stimulus, and then give a primary. For example, the dog sits, the trainer claps, and then he gives a treat. Ken will do this daily for several weeks, although the length of time will vary based on the animal, his relationship to the trainer, and his past reinforcement history.

The next step is to cue the same easy, well-established behavior, and then reward with only the new stimulus. Here, it is truly acting like a reinforcement substitute, as the dog will sit and receive only clapping as his reward. Ken will do this a maximum of three times during a training session, and he'll spread it out so that the animal is also getting primary reinforcers for other correct responses in between. Again, he'll stay at this step for several weeks.

This cycle repeats, except now Ken will cue a harder behavior, though it should still be well-established. When the animal responds, he'll give the new stimulus, and follow it by a primary. So, he'll cue, for example, a roll over or a stay, clap, and then give a treat. He stays at this level for several weeks before cuing the harder behavior and using the stimulus as a reinforcement substitute. Again, he continues doing this for several weeks.

Once this process has been completed, you're ready to use your new reinforcement substitute in training... but Ken has a few rules before you do. The most important is the 80/20 rule, which is actually more of a guideline, but basically, he says that you should use primaries approximately 80% of the time, and secondaries approximately 20% of the time. He never uses the same secondary reinforcer twice in row, although he might use two separate secondaries in a row. He always treats the new secondary as a behavior and occasionally “recharges” it so that it retains its strength. Finally, he recommended that novice trainers use secondaries only to maintain existing behaviors, and not to create new ones.

Yes, this is a very regimented way of moving away from food reinforcers, but Ken has a very convincing story to support the importance of being so systematic. It involves a new trainer trying to use tongue scratches to reward a killer whale, with a very poor result. I won't spoil the story for you (and Ken tells it so much better than me anyway), but trust me when I say that I completely understand why Ken is so thorough. His advice is that we never take any reinforcer for granted, and to work to build up as many reinforcers, both primary and secondary, as possible.

If you've found any of this even remotely interesting, you totally need to see Ken speak about it. Imagine this information, only peppered with incredibly funny and informative stories about dolphins, seals, penguins, and yes, even some dogs. He's also got illustrative videos, and I always enjoy seeing familiar concepts used with exotic creatures.

What about you guys? Has anyone used such an in-depth process to create secondaries? Do you see value in doing it with your dogs? What types of non-food reinforcers do you use... or would you like to start using? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ken and Kathy Seminar: Introduction

At the end of July, I attended a two-day seminar held by Narnia Pets in Chicago. The first day was Ken Ramirez, and the second was Kathy Sdao. It was, of course, amazing.

I think I've waxed poetic about how much I love these two presenters before, but allow me to do it again: I love these two presenters! Both started their careers in marine mammal training before moving on to dogs, and so both have fascinating stories to tell. Both are energetic and entertaining. And no matter what the subject, both leave me with tons to think about.

The theme of the weekend was classical conditioning. Kathy devoted the entire day to it, and specifically how it can help dogs with anxiety or aggression, while Ken's day was broken into three main topics: non-food reinforcers (hint: classical conditioning was involved in this discussion!), problem-solving, and a very fun segment he called “The Evolution of a Modern Trainer.” The latter was more of a review of his career, but goodness, the video footage (which, of course, included some classical conditioning) was amazing.

One thing I really took away from the weekend was how valuable classical conditioning is. This is, in a way, kind of funny. Trainers (well, geeky ones like me) often talk about teaching behaviors in terms of operant conditionig, but we don't really talk about That Other Type of Conditioning. Kathy actually called her seminar “anti-trendy” because most presentations are about operant processes instead.

It also helped me realize just how much I use it. Reactivity work, of course, often has a base of classical conditioning, but simple things too. A few weeks ago, Maisy spent the morning in a crate under my desk at work, and a co-worker asked how I taught her to be so good in her crate. Answer: I feed her in there, so she associates the crate with great things.

Anyway, it was a phenomenal weekend, and I'm looking forward to telling you all about it. As always, if you get the chance to see either Ken or Kathy, take it. Even the best blogger couldn't come close to capturing the sheer brilliance that both Ken and Kathy bring to a seminar, but I'm sure going to try...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fixing a Broken Tug-a-Jug

We live and breathe food toys around my house; almost every meal comes out of one. Maisy’s favorite kibble-dispensing toy is the Tug-a-Jug, so when the rubber rope on hers finally broke last fall, I immediately went out and bought another one.

Despite the fact that I had a working replacement, the hoarder in me just couldn’t throw away what was an otherwise perfectly good toy, so I started experimenting with ways to use the jug without the tug. I started with the old stand by: I threw a couple of tennis balls in the jug along with her kibble. That worked, but it wasn’t very challenging. Next, I crumpled up a piece of paper and stuffed it in there. This was better, but still too easy for my food-toy connoisseur. Then I hit on the winning combination: a series of cardboard layers inside.

I really like this method because it’s both cheap and easy to make yourself. It changes the way your dog interacts with the toy, basically making it like a brand-new toy. And best of all, it’s fully adjustable because you can add or remove layers to create the right difficulty level for your dog. In fact, compared to using a Tug-a-Jug the traditional way, Maisy’s repurposed one takes her almost twice as long to empty, meaning I get that much more time without a tennis ball in my lap!

Intrigued? Want to try it yourself? Follow along…

Materials Needed: Cardboard, scissors, and a pen or pencil.

Step 1: Take the lid off your Tug-a-Jug, set it upright on the cardboard, and trace it. Then, draw a second circle around that, about an inch away.

Step 2: Using your scissors, cut it out along the outer line. Then, cut a series of strips towards the center, stopping at the inner line.

Step 3: Tear out every other strip. Fold the remaining ones up in the same direction.

Step 4: Make a hole anywhere inside the remaining solid area. The easiest way to do this is to stab the cardboard with your scissors and twist until the hole is the right size. Bigger holes will obviously be easier for the kibble to fall through.

Step 5: Place the cardboard inside the Tug-a-Jug. Right now, Maisy is using three layers, with each layer arranged so that the holes do not line up on top of each other. Allow enough room between each layer for the kibble to move freely. Once you’ve put all the layers in, add kibble, replace the lid, and enjoy!

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Maisy and I did BAT for the first time on Friday night. BAT, short for Behavioral Adjustment Training, is a method of training reactive dogs by teaching them that they can control the environment through peaceful means. Basically, it rewards the dog for performing a calming signal (or appeasement gesture) such as turning his head away by giving him what he wants most: distance.

BAT is usually done with a subject dog- that is, the reactive dog who is being trained- and some sort of decoy. The decoy is one of the reactive dog's triggers, and it needs to be something that can be controlled. If the decoy is another dog, it needs to be calm and inoffensive. 

Maisy was the decoy dog on Friday night.

It all started on Facebook- an internet acquaintance asked if anyone wanted to do some dog training. I "liked" her status, and somehow I found myself meeting her at a park the next day to help her do some BAT with two of her dogs. I wasn't sure how Maisy would do, but I shouldn't have worried. My new friend did a great job keep her own dogs under threshold, so Maisy barely even noticed they were there!

A year ago, I would never have even considered that Maisy could be a calm, quiet, inoffensive decoy dog, but now, she's able to chill in a public park, and just be her adorable self. Needless to say, I am so proud of her!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: The Evolution of Charlie Darwin, by Beth Duman, CPDT-KA

Charlie Darwin is a “borderless collie” (so called because of the likely erroneous breed label given to him by a rescue organization, as well as his propensity to escape from fenced yards) who didn't really meet trainer Beth Duman's criteria for her next dog. Still, he somehow managed to worm his way into Beth's heart, and it's a good thing he did, because the result was this delightful training book.

The back cover promises to help readers who have been “overwhelmed reading long, complicated training books” learn how to train their dogs, and that it does. Starting with how to choose your new canine companion and introduce him into your home, moving along to discuss socialization, handling, and teaching good manners, and finally culminating with a section on using life rewards instead of cookies, The Evolution of Charlie Darwin: Partner with Your Dog Using Positive Training is an excellent introduction to the concept of positive training.

The strength of this book is Beth's gift for writing about complicated concepts in a refreshingly straight-forward way. Unlike many other training books I've read, it never gets bogged down in scientific terminology that the average dog owner has no use for (or interest in!). She bypasses theory in favor of practical advice, and her style is engaging and easy to read. That, coupled with short chapters with descriptive titles, make the book incredibly user-friendly for the new dog owner (or one who is simply new to training).

The information is interspersed with diary-style entries that chronicle Charlie's first year in his new home. While I would have occasionally moved the order in which the information appeared (for example, I would place the section on potty training earlier on), this format still provides an easy-to-follow chronological structure for the book. The Charlie stories also serve to provide some comic relief (Beth adds height to her fence, only to discover that Charlie is crawling under it), and show that even professional trainers will struggle with their new dogs from time to time.

I love her for this honesty; she comes across as genuine, and despite her frequent warnings against the use of pain and fear in training, she never seems preachy. Although the clicker purists may cringe at times (she advises that if you've overestimated your dog's ability to respond to your recall command, you can choose to “reel him in” by a long line), she is both sensible and pain-free in her methods, which is exactly the kind of advice that the public needs.

I especially loved her section on socialization because it emphasizes the idea of quality, not quantity. While other books I've read give numbers and benchmarks, she recommends tailoring your socialization to the dog's needs. The goal is not to have many experiences, but rather, to have good experiences. I also really liked the charts she included. Her Sensitivity Assessment Chart did a great job of explaining how to work through a dog's fears, and the “May I touch your body?” game (and accompanying chart) provides a systematic way to teach a dog to tolerate, if not like, being handled.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I would have no reservations in recommending it to friends and family. If you'd like your own copy, you can purchase it Dogwise, Amazon, and the author's website.

(I am apparently required to make the following FTC disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the author, but was not otherwise compensated for this review.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Training Tuesday: Heeling!

The Denise Fenzi seminar really inspired me. Before that, my training with Maisy had of stagnated. I was kind of bored, and often uncertain what to do next. Worse, I was sometimes afraid that I wasn't doing it right, and that I would therefore screw up competition behaviors. But if there is one thing that I took away from the seminar, it's that training should be fun, and Denise gave me the courage to play with my dog without worrying about perfection.

Since Maisy's version of fun includes a ball, I've been working on developing some self-control during play. That was harder than it sounds- when the ball came out, Maisy's brain fell out, too. In the past, this caused me to become frustrated and give up. But the tips I got from Denise at the seminar helped me work through it, so I was pretty excited that Maisy seemed to be understanding that the ball only got thrown when her neck/shoulders were in line with my pants seam. When I noticed that Maisy was getting into position fairly consistently and quickly, I told Denise how happy I was.

Her response was to ask for a video.

Well, while I was happy with the progress we'd made, I wanted to show Denise something a bit more impressive than what we had. So I pushed Maisy hard, raising my criteria much quicker than I ever have in the past, and taped the results:

As the video shows, the difference between the first session on Friday evening and the fourth one on Sunday morning is phenomenal!

No, neither of us is perfect. Maisy is still wide, and I stop dead a couple of times, plus I do this weird foot thing sometimes, but it doesn't really matter. We're working hard and having tons of fun in the process. So thank you, Denise. It feels so great to actually enjoy training my dog again.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Seven Links

I don't normally do these chain-letter type of things, but it's been so fun to read others' trips down memory lane that I was considering it. And then, when Success Just Clicks tagged me, I decided to go for it.

 A favorite photo: my two most favorite people in the world.

1. My most beautiful post... In Praise of the Abnormal Dog
Maisy's getting to be so normal these days that I'm not sure it's accurate anymore, but the sentiment remains: I love my dog despite her flaws. Because of her flaws, even.

2. My most popular post... Supplements for Reactive Dogs, Part 2: Melatonin and L-theanine
According to blogger's stats, this post has received a total of 1173 page views at the time of this writing. My second most popular post (also from the supplement series, on tryptophan and 5HTP), has had only 529 page views. I always find this slightly ironic, given that I ultimately put Maisy on medication instead of using supplements. I always wonder what those people must think if they click through to the rest of my blog.

3. My most controversial post... Is it ever necessary to use pain or fear in training?
Actually a spin-off of the post We Have Cookies, this post garnered me a ton of comments and disagreement. This was great, because while I really prefer to avoid controversy, it really challenged me to think through my beliefs. While I still think it's possible to avoid pain and fear in training in theory, these two posts really helped me understand that it might not be possible in a given situation.

4. My most helpful post... Meds and Your Dog, Part I: Should You Consider Meds?
This was the hardest category to choose a post for. I couldn't decide if I should pick on of my informative posts- I've written many posts about training concepts like thresholds and counter-conditioning, and while I think those things are valuable, they aren't terribly unique.

What I think is unique about my blog is how much I've written about the use of behavioral medications. There seems to be a lot of resistance to using drugs, and the meanest comments and emails I've received have been on this topic. Still, I continue to write about our experiences openly and honestly because I want to help remove some of the stigma surrounding the use of medication. I chose this particular post because I think it is representative of the issue as a whole.

5. A post whose success surprised me... Training Plans and Training Logs
I have no idea where or how people are finding this, but it's my fourth-most viewed post. And... it's an okay post, but not one that I'd put in my personal top ten. It also reminds me that I really need to get back to tracking my training a bit more. It's easier for me to raise criteria appropriately when I've got it all on paper in front of me.

6. A post that didn't get the attention I thought it deserved... Positive Training: More Than Just Ignoring the Bad
I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but I really wish the message that positive does not mean permissive would get out to the wider world. More than that, I think describing clicker training as "rewarding the good, ignoring the bad" is not only inaccurate but also damaging.

7. The post I'm most proud of... Hey Baby, What's Your Sign: On Labels and Perceptions
I think this is one of my best posts. Not only do I think it's well-written, but I also think it's a message that needs to get out there. The way we describe ourselves, our dogs, and other people change the way we interact with them. Words have power, and we would do well to recognize that.

I won't tag anyone, but feel free to do it yourself- it's kind of fun, and I'd love to read yours!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Meds and Your Dog, Part III: The Prescribing Professional

So you've thought it through and come to a decision: your dog might benefit from medicine as a tool to treat his behavior problems. Now you will need to see a vet, since (in the United States, anyway) only vets can legally prescribe medication for a dog. Don't make that appointment yet, though! Just like with humans, you have options. Today, I'm going to outline what some of your choices are.

A board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
A board-certified veterinary behaviorist is much like a psychiatrist in humans: they are vets who have gone through a rigorous certification process in animal behavior. Identifiable by the initials DACVB after their names, these vets have three years of post-vet school education. They complete a residency, conduct and publish original research, submit case reports, and pass a two day exam. In other words: they are highly educated, and highly experienced.

I personally think that veterinary behaviorists are the gold-standard, and when Maisy and I pursued medication, we saw one. Unfortunately, they can be hard to find, as there's only around fifty in the US and Canada. (Check to see if you have one near you here.)

A vet who is not board-certified, but does have some credentials in animal behavior.
There are several other organizations that certify animal professionals in some way, although they accept any qualified person, not just vets. One such organization is the Animal Behavior Society, which requires its behaviorists to have completed either a Master's degree or a PhD in behavior or ethology, pass oral and written exams, publish articles in scientific journals, and complete supervised experience. Once these criteria have been met, the professional can designate themselves as a CAAB- but remember, they may or may not be a vet, so check their credentials carefully. (You can find one near you here.)

There are other certifications out there, as well (and feel free to comment if you know of some). In addition to assuring that your chosen professional can prescribe meds, you should find out just what vet had to do to obtain the certification they have, and then decide if that means they have the knowledge and experience you want your behaviorist to have.

A vet with a special interest in behavior, but no particular certifications.
Don't let the lack of a certification dissuade you- there are definitely vets out there that really enjoy doing behavior work. They likely have obtained continuing education credits in animal behavior and read journal articles. They might even have a specialty practice in behavioral medicine.

Unfortunately, without any certifications, they can be hard to find. I googled up a few in my area, but it took a lot of work to sort through the results to find actual vets. And even once I found them, it was hard to know what, exactly, qualified them to do behavior work.

Any general practice vet.
Any vet can prescribe medication, so you certainly can make an appointment and request behavioral drugs. Unfortunately, their knowledge of behavioral drugs might be rather limited... and it's possible they are even lacking in general behavior knowledge, too (vet schools generally require little in the way of behavior coursework).

While they may not have the same breadth of experience and knowledge that vets specializing in behavior do, they can certainly be an affordable option- and if you live in a rural area, this may be your only option. It's also more likely that you'll have developed a relationship with this person, which can go a long way to helping you feel at ease.

Distance consultations.
Finally, you can do distance consultations by phone, fax, or email. Many veterinary behaviorists will consult with your regular veterinarian regarding medications, while others, like Tufts, offer a remote consulting service that allows you to cut out the middleman and communicate with them directly.

So which option should you choose? Well, a large part of your decision will likely be a function of your location and budget. Board-certified behaviorists can be expensive, and they're certainly not common, so it can be hard to find one nearby.

But you should also consider your dog's needs; some dogs are pretty straightforward and will do just fine with a general practice vet, while others have much more complicated behaviors and might need a highly skilled clinician to parse out the issues. I believe that if your dog falls into one of those proceed with caution categories, you'll want to hire the most experienced and knowledgeable person you can find.

Finally, no matter who you're inclined to go with, you need to do your research. Find out how much experience your intended professional has. Get some recommendations. Educate yourself, and be your dog's advocate. Ask questions during the appointment, and make sure you have a plan for follow-up.

Does your dog take medication? What type of vet did you see? Why? Were you happy with the results?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Meds and Your Dog, Part II: Proceed with Caution

In my last post, I shared some situations that I think merit a consultation with a professional about whether or not your dog would benefit from behavioral drugs. As I said then, I am neither a vet nor a trainer, and the ultimate decision lies with you. Today's topic is the flip side- times that I think you should either avoid the use of medication, or that you should approach the subject very cautiously.

You haven't had a thorough veterinary exam done.
Before you initiate behavioral medications, it is vital that you have a full physical work-up done. I'm not talking about the garden-variety wellness check, either: you want an in-depth medical consultation, especially if the behavior has a sudden onset. This is important because there is a wide variety of health conditions that can impact a dog's behavior. I cannot even begin to ennumerate them all- that's why you need the checkup, after all- but things as common as unaddressed pain or an out-of-whack thyroid level all the way down to rare neurological problems like brain tumors or epilepsy can cause behavioral concerns. Don't jump to meds unless you've treated any medical needs your dog might have.

There are underlying health conditions that contraindicate the use of medication.
Again, I can't possibly talk you through all of the conditions that might impact your dog's ability to take behavioral drugs. Some things are obvious, though: if your dog has a serious liver or kidney issue, for example, adding more strain to those already taxed organs may not be wise. Likewise, if your dog is already taking medication for a health issue, you will need to make sure that there are no drug interactions. Maisy's medicine will even interact with certain flea treatments and some supplements, so I have to be very careful about what I use with her!

You don't plan to do any training with your dog.
I truly hope none of my readers fall into this category, but just in case, I need to emphasize this point. First and foremost, you have to understand that there is no silver bullet. A pill is just that- a pill. It is not a magical cure, and when it comes to behavioral issues, there is no easy way out. Whether a dog is on medication or not, you still need to put in the work. It's true- medication alone will cause a certain level improvement in your dog. However, you will see more progress if you combine it with behavior modification.

However, that's not the most important matter at hand. It is my very strong opinion that using medication alone is dangerous. This is because some medications have a disinhibiting side effect. If you are not working to teach your dog what he ought to do, should he experience a loss of inhibition, it's likely he will fall back on old coping mechanisms. And he'll probably take them further than before, leading you into very dangerous territory.

This happened to Maisy. She was doing amazing on medication. Her fear and anxiety had reduced, and I could tell she was feeling more confident. Unfortunately, this newfound bravery meant that when she saw a strange man in a winter hat come shuffling down our alley last winter, she took off in his direction instead of running away. We came very, very close to having a bite incident, which could have had disastrous consequences. Because I was actively working with Maisy, I was able to redouble my desensitization and counter-conditioning efforts around men, and got her through this scary time.

There is a heightened risk of aggression, or other liability concerns exist.
As my story with Maisy indicates, the use of medication can lead to problems, even when you are being diligent. You need to be very, very careful, and if you let down your guard even slightly, like I did (I was letting her go from the car to the house off leash), you could be setting yourself up for heartbreak. Find an expert in pharmacology and behavior, and rely on her ability to prescribe a medication with the smallest likelihood of such side effects, as well as to advise you on how to manage or prevent any issues.

You want to isolate the factors of success.
This isn't so much about avoiding the use of treatment altogether, but rather, about delaying it. The fact is, if you implement multiple treatment approaches at once, you'll never know which worked and which didn't. If you're short on time, this won't matter, of course- you want to throw everything you've got at the problem- but if you're like me, you probably want to measure how each variable impacts your dog's behavior. I recommend that you set clear goals and time limits if you go this route, though. If a certain treatment isn't helping within 8-12 weeks, you should try another. It's not fair to let your dog suffer in the name of intellectual curiousity.

These are just some of the situations that I think should cause you to approach the use of medication very carefully. It's possible that your dog might still benefit from medication even if he fits in one of these categories, so I urge you to find the best educated, most experienced professional you can. There are lots of options out there, and my next post will discuss some of the various people you might consult with as you weigh the risks and benefits of behavior modifying drugs.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Meds and Your Dog, Part I: Should You Consider Meds?

Ever since I put Maisy on paroxetine last fall, I've gotten regular emails from readers asking if I think they should consider behavioral drugs for their dogs. The truth is, I don't know. I've never met their dog, and even if I had, I'm neither a vet nor a trainer. Still, I know from personal experience that the decision whether or not to put your dog on medication is a difficult one, and that sometimes a bit of hand-holding is needed. After all, the reason I chose to pursue it is because a friend was kind enough to share her experiences.

While I welcome emails from my readers- I always feel honored that people want my opinion- I figure there's probably a number of others who haven't emailed but are wondering the same thing: should they consider meds? That's why I'm going to devote this week to the topic of behavioral drugs for dogs. Today I'll discuss when you should consider meds. Later this week, I'll write about times I think you should not use meds, or that you should use them cautiously. And finally, I have a post about the different professionals you might consult with in your search.

So. Should you use medication for your dog's behavior problems? Generally speaking, I've come to the conclusion that if you're asking the question, then the answer is probably yes. This doesn't mean that you'll ultimately decide to use them, but I think if you're wondering, you should probably consult with a professional who can guide you in making your decision.

Still, that's awfully vague, so here are five situations that I think merit a consultation with a professional:

You have been following a good behavior modification program for 3-6 months and have seen very little or no progress.
Note the key phrase here- “a good behavior modification plan.” While it is beyond the scope of today's article to discuss what this means in detail, I broadly define it as one that has been designed by a professional trainer, and that includes a desensitization and classical counter-conditioning component. It does not include the use of pain or intimidation techniques.

I also specify allowing up to half a year because behavior modification takes time. Despite our society's penchant for quick fixes, you can't rush good training. While three to six months is probably not going to cure your dog- and depending on the issue, a cure may not ever come- you should see measurable progress in that amount of time. If you don't, it's possible that medication could help your dog be more receptive to training.

You initially saw progress, but it has since stalled.
Maisy and I fell in this category. While training made a huge difference for her initially, it eventually plateaued. Even though she was doing much better, there was still a lot of problematic behavior. Despite my best efforts, we just couldn't get unstuck. After several months, I began to consider adding meds to the mix. As it turned out, this was exactly what we needed to continue making progress.

You have been doing behavior modification training and your dog has gotten worse.
First, it needs to be said that a certain amount of regression is normal during the course of training, so if you have a temporary setback, don't go rushing for the chemicals. However, if your dog demonstrates serious or sustained backsliding, it's a cause for concern. If you haven't already, a vet check is in order- a variety of medical maladies can cause behavior changes.

It's also time to consult with a professional trainer if you've been trying to go it alone, and if you've already got one, you may want to seek a second opinion. A poorly designed or a poorly executed behavior modification plan can be worse than none at all. You need a trainer who can both design a great plan and coach you through it. However, if you're quite sure your plan is solid and that you're implementing it well, it's time to have a consult for medication.

Your dog has difficulty sleeping, can't relax even in familiar environments, you can't identify his triggers, is globally fearful, or just seems on edge all the time.
When dogs have predictable behavioral problems, they tend to respond to training alone beautifully. But for other dogs- the ones you just can't quite figure out- medication may be warranted. Anxiety and fearfulness often have a genetic component, and you can't train away a brain chemistry problem.

Maisy and I had this working against us, too. One of the great difficulties I had was that her triggers seemed to change a lot. She also had many of them- joggers, bikes, garbage trucks, ballons, things out of the place in the house. But they also fluctuated a lot- one day she'd lose her mind over a doberman and the next she'd barely blink. It was frustrating, and I never knew what to expect. It also made it very difficult to effectively do desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Worse, Maisy seemed incapable of relaxing. She was constantly moving. She rarely laid down, and when she did, she startled easily, jumping up to bark or growl at things that I couldn't even perceive. For a long time, I thought this was just who she was- which, I guess it was, but still- it wasn't normal dog behavior. Once I realized that she was probably suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I knew it was time to consider meds.

You're short on time.
In a presentation given at the 2010 APDT conference (I buy the CD-ROMs, which, while expensive, are absolutely worth the money), Dr. Barbara Sherman shared that her research has shown that the combination of behavior modification and medication works faster than behavior modification alone. Her study (Treatment of separation anxiety in dogs with clomipramine, authored by King, Simpson, and Overall, and published in Applied Animal Behavior Science in 2000) found that 51% of the dogs receiving behavior modification alone improved in 8 weeks, as compared to 73% of dogs who received behavior modification in combination with clomipramine.

While this study is talking about a specific medication and a specific diagnosis, in her presentation, Dr. Sherman mentioned several other studies that showed similar results for different medications and conditions. Therefore, I must conclude that if your dog has a behavior problem and you're faced with an “it's me or the dog” situation, you should consider the addition of medication to increase your chances of quicker improvement.

As I said in the beginning, I am not a professional. I have no idea if medication is right for your dog- I'm simply trying to share times that I think it makes sense to sit down with an expert to find out what they think. And anyway, it's ultimately your decision. I also know it's not an easy decision. I had wondered if meds might help Maisy for 8 or 9 months before I finally made the appointment, but I was worried about the cost, the side effects, and the perception that I was “taking the easy way out.”

Still, I'm glad I made the decision that I did in the end. Maisy is so much happier these days, and for the first time in her life, she seems comfortable in her own skin. If you're asking the same question, I hope that your decision- whether it's for meds or not- has an equally good outcome for your dog, too.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Maisy and the Scamp

Maisy has never been what you'd call a “dog park dog.” Back when we still went to the dog park, she was more interested in getting people to throw her ball than in socializing with other dogs, and she definitely didn't play with them. Even with dogs she knows well, it's rare for her to want to play with them.

So, imagine my surprise when she not only solicited play, but she also engaged in play with a dog she'd only met a few hours prior (the action starts around fifty seconds in):

Her playmate is Scamp, a friend's foster dog who was being “cat tested” at my house. Scamp is a really cool dog- he's funny, likes to play, and quite smart. He's also snack-pack sized and has great structure (or so I'm told- I'm rubbish at figuring that out), so he'd make a great height dog in flyball. I really, really liked him, but unfortunately, I didn't feel a “spark” with him (plus I honestly can't afford another pet right now anyway). But if you're in Minnesota and are in the market, you should totally check him out here. His Petfinder is here, and he's with the Southern Star Min Pin Rescue.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Maisy's New Ability to Recover from Stress

Recently, I found myself without a dog sitter. We have always left Maisy with a trusted family member (and Maisy adores them, so we know they're doing it right), but unfortunately, we had plans the same weekend they did! None of my friends can take Maisy for a variety of reasons (mostly because they all have crazy dogs, too), so we were stuck.

 Maisy loves Uncle Jim. Too bad he couldn't take her this time.

Then someone told me about A Dog Spot, a boarding facility about two hours away, run by some mutual friends of ours. They started A Dog Spot because they hated leaving their own "crazy" dogs with people, and I went to Clicker Expo with one of them, so I figured it would be okay.

Okay? It was amazing. They talked to me on the phone every day, telling me what Maisy was up to, and how much they loved her (well, how could they not?). When they noticed that Maisy winced every time the metal door shut, they padded it for her. They spent tons of one-on-one time with her. I was very pleased.

Maisy spent four days there, so I expected her to come home and be a bit stressed out. I took behavior logs since I'm still interested on how quickly she bounces back from stress, after all. And here's the absolutely awesome part: I wrote nothing down. Nothing for an entire week!

I am so, so excited. One of my huge goals for when I chose to put Maisy on medication was for her to be able to recover from stress quicker, and I'd say we've met that goal now. I also cannot say how pleased I was with the staff at A Dog Spot. Seriously, if you live in northern Iowa, southern Minnesota, or southwest Wisconsin- check them out.