Thursday, September 29, 2011

Good Dogs Bite, Too: Why You Need to Understand the Bite Threshold Model

There is a strange belief in our culture that says only bad dogs bite. Of course, most people believe that their dogs are “good,” and therefore, that must mean that their dog won't bite. While I really do believe that most dogs are good, I also believe that all dogs are capable of biting. It's just that it takes a lot to push most dogs to the point where they might bite.

In her book The Culture Clash, author Jean Donaldson introduces something called the Bite Threshold Model to help explain why a “good dog” might bite. This model states that each dog has a threshold at which he will bite. It looks something like this:

 Each line indicates how much stress a dog can endure before he displays silent stress signals (like freezing, licking his lips, tucking his tail, etc.), before he growls, before he snaps, and ultimately, before he bites. Of course, each dog is different, so the lines on each dog's graph will be at a different height. For example, as a reactive dog, Maisy's growl threshold is pretty low in general, and especially if we were to compare her to a more stable dog. Interestingly, Maisy's snap threshold is quite high (it takes a lot of stress before she will snap at someone), and while I've drawn a line for where I think Maisy's bite threshold might be, I honestly don't know where it actually is since she's never bitten anyone.

Donaldson also says that each dog has “risk factors” that will cause the dog to feel uncomfortable or stressed. These risk factors, taken individually, may or may not cause the dog to display any symptoms. The so-called “good dogs” will usually have risk factors that are quite low- they may not even reach the first line. Others do, but whether the owner notices that their dog is feeling uncomfortable is another matter. The symptoms are so subtle that they are often easy to miss. Here's Maisy's graph, with some of her risk factors added:

As you can see, while crowds of strangers might make her feel uncomfortable, she probably won't show any signs to indicate that. Meanwhile, she will definitely display stress if her head is touched, and the presence of children pushes her right up against her growl threshold- she doesn't always growl at them, but she might.

Most dogs- like most people- don't really want to hurt others. But given the right situation, any dog- and any person- is capable of defending himself or his loved ones. That situation happens when multiple “risk factors” converge into one single incident.

This recently happened with Maisy. Although she's quick to display stress, and even quick to growl, she very rarely snaps. Still, it happens when her triggers “stack” into one unfortunate situation. In this case, I had taken her to a group gathering. What I didn't know was that she wasn't feeling so hot (she had a bit of an ear infection starting), nor did I know that there would be a child there. So when the little one reached out to pet Maisy's head...

Yup, she snapped at the little girl. It all happened so fast that I didn't get a chance to stop the child that had approached. I felt horrible, of course. I'm always sad when I can't protect Maisy, and I hate that others saw her as a “bad dog” that night. I also want to be a good dog owner and keep others safe, and while the child (and her parents) weren't upset by the incident, I felt bad that the girl had a bad experience with my dog.

It's important to note that while the graph presents a logical, orderly progression of behaviors, that's not always the way things play out in real life. Although Maisy did stiffen briefly as the child reached for her, she did not growl. There wasn't time; the triggers stacked too quickly. Behavior also isn't linear. Our dogs are individuals, and so is the way they respond. Not only are each of their thresholds at different levels, but sometimes they will be missing a threshold entirely. For example, people sometimes punish growling, which can result in the loss of that particular line. That means that a dog could go from freezing slightly to biting without ever growling- the so-called bite without provocation.

Perhaps Maisy isn't the best example- although she's never bitten anyone, I'm not entirely sure that others would call her a “good dog.” (I, of course, think she's amazing.) The point remains, though: a series of relatively small things can stack up to the point that even the best of dogs will bite. In fact, sometimes I think these “good dogs” are the most dangerous. Because Maisy has been “bad” so frequently, I have a pretty good idea where her thresholds are, and so I can pretty accurately predict when she's more likely to snap or bite. People with “good dogs” don't have this advantage, and if and when things stack up in just the right way, they will be surprised by their dog's behavior.

If you have a good dog, I urge you to think about situations where your dog's behavior has surprised you. Think about how high each of his thresholds might be, and what types of things are likely to push him to each one. Do thunderstorms unnerve him? What about someone reaching for his rawhide or food bowl? How does he feel about children, other dogs, or men in hats? Pay attention to the times he stiffens up, freezes, tucks his tail, ducks his head, or licks his lips. These are all signs that he is feeling uncomfortable, and that situation should be put on your graph.

I hope that your dog never encounters a situation where all of those risk factors pile up into one big, scary stack, but if he does, the bite threshold model will help you understand why your good dog ended up biting. If you want to avoid such an incident- and who wouldn't?- I encourage you to be proactive. Being aware of your dog's stressors is a great start. If you see things beginning to stack,  avoid a possible incident by simply putting your dog somewhere safe, like in a crate or another room.

More ambitious dog owners might consult with an experienced dog trainer or undertake a counter-conditioning program in order to help reduce each stressor. If you lower the height of each risk factor, then when they begin to stack, the overall effect will be lower as well. Perhaps the dog will only snap instead of bite. And while a snap is still scary and something I take seriously, it is far preferable to having your dog bite.

So don't believe the cultural lie that good dogs don't bite. As the bite threshold model demonstrates, it's not bad dogs that bite, it's stressed ones... and good dogs get stressed, too.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Training Tuesday: The Joy of Training

Maisy and I continue to work hard. Well, "work" is probably the wrong word. Maisy actually stands by the front door (we only use that door to go to the park across the street from our house) and whines if I haven't trained with her yet that day; she loves the heeling game we play. For my part, I feel exhilarated after training sessions. Although I expend a lot of energy during our training sessions, they are so much fun that it doesn't seem like a chore.

Of course, it certainly helps that I see measurable progress every time. Part of that is because I've taken Denise Fenzi's advice to challenge my dog: I have raised criteria fast and furious since I've begun working on Maisy's heeling. Okay, it wasn't really me raising the criteria- Denise has coached me through each step. I'll admit, I was initially skeptical with how far and how high she wanted me to raise criteria. I really didn't think we could do it. Maisy has proved me wrong, though. This dog is capable of amazing things!

Take a look at this video. I've posted it before, less than two months ago, in fact. Then watch this:

Amazing, no? As the video says, my task was to vary my pace and direction frequently. I was striving for some kind of change roughly every three seconds. At the same time, I drastically reduced the frequency of ball-reward, and used verbal praise in its place. This was to teach Maisy that my changing speed and direction is the reason to pay attention, not just the ball. It totally worked, too. She went for almost 90 seconds without a ball throw, and she doesn't show any dampening of enthusiasm!

I've also started adding in some non-toy play, which you can see it at the beginning of the video. This wasn't something Denise suggested (although I don't think she disapproved), but I wanted to start building some reinforcers that were based on me, not an external object. Right now, this really only works before we start training- she's so amped up then that she'll play back. If I try to do it during a session, she will sometimes play back, but usually she licks her lips, or shows me some other stress signal. We'll keep working on it.

Another area where I've been raising criteria like crazy is with Maisy's dumbbell retrieve. As you may remember, we were stuck at the stage where Maisy would pick it up and hand it to me. Click here to see our last retrieve video.

A couple weeks ago, feeling empowered by our success with heeling, I decided to get out the dumbbell again. I started easy, asking Maisy to just pick it up off the floor. Then I moved it about a foot away. Then another. I kept tossing it further and further until she was retrieving it from six to ten feet away. The video below was taken at my aunt and uncle's cabin- a new environment- and Maisy absolutely rocked it.

But I don't think that simply asking more from Maisy was the key to our success here. In watching the two videos, the part that struck me most was how much I was talking to her, encouraging her, and praising her. In the first video, I was doing "proper" clicker training- being silent and letting the dog think. That works for many things, but it didn't work here. Once I started helping her with my voice, though, things just took off.

Yes, I broke the rules and repeated my cue. So what. She wasn't going to respond to the cue anyway (she was too distracted by those treats on the counter), and by gently reminding her what I wanted, she was able to be successful. I praised when she got close, and celebrated when she grabbed it. In the video, you can see her whole demeanor change when I do. You can also see that in each successive retrieve, she trots out to the dumbbell more confidently. She understands what she's supposed to do now, thanks to a little verbal support. 

Finally, I'm going to leave you with one last video. If you follow us on Facebook, you've already seen it, so I'll just link to it. Click here if you want to see what happens when the training session is over and we're just screwing around. That's right- she can do a drop on recall! What an awesome dog! Training is truly a time of joy for us both. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Top 5 Pet Products I Couldn't Live Without

Walk in to any pet store, and you’re likely to be overwhelmed with the dizzying array of stuff available for sale. From toys to food to grooming implements to clothes to gadgets of all sorts, it’s no wonder that the pet industry is booming. Despite the overabundance of stuff on the shelves (and in my living room), I could probably do without a lot of it. Still, there are some really cool pet products that I absolutely love, to the point that I can’t believe there was a time I didn’t have them. Today I’m going to tell you about five such items.

1. Kongs (or other stuffables)
This one is kind of basic; many dog owners have a Kong or two. I own a dozen. Even though Maisy isn't really a chewer, hands down, I think the Kong is the best way to feed a dog her meals. I’m a huge fan of food-dispensing toys, but the thing I love about the Kong is that it isn’t limited to kibble like so many of the other toys are. Sure, you can stuff some moistened kibble (or kibble mixed with a bit of peanut butter) in there, but canned food and even raw meat is just as easy to shove in a Kong. And, hands down, a Kong filled with frozen raw chicken lasts longer than any other toy I own.

2. A pet water fountain
For a long time, I filled my pets’ need for fresh water with a bowl, but when my cat Nicky (at left) needed surgery to remove bladder stones, I knew that I needed to increase his water intake. After some research on the internet, I learned that fountains, with their constant circulation, can effectively tempt picky kitties to drink more. Well. All three of my pets seem to prefer the fountain, Maisy included. I have the PetMate FreshFlow, and it’s really easy to take apart and clean. Despite the copious amounts of pet hair in my life, the filter doesn’t clog very often, and after two years, it’s still going strong! I love it.

3. Pill Pockets
 The first time I saw these in the store, I thought they were silly. Why not put the pill in a treat or use some peanut butter? Yeah, that was before Maisy started taking daily medication. Apparently paroxetine tastes yucky, because I struggled to get it in her. And I tried everything- regular treats, peanut butter, bits of cheese or ham, even canned cat food!- none of it worked for more than a few days.

The Pill Pockets do. I have no idea why. They’re really just a funny shaped treat, after all. Maybe it’s the consistency- something like marzipan or fondant, for any bakers out there- it’s incredibly moldable and completely wraps around the pill. I break them in half, wrap it around the pill, and then just toss it to her. She thinks it's a treat. I think it's amazing.

4. The Dog-Safe Hands-Free Leash
I never thought that having my hands free was that big of a deal. I don’t run with Maisy, she’s not hard to control, and… well, it just seemed extravagant when I have a six footer that does the job just fine. Then I bought a hands free leash at the Sarah Kalnajs seminar, and oh my gosh, I love it. I can’t tense up on the leash, thus inciting a reactive moment. I can carry items in the pet store more easily. If she lunges at something (or startles and runs), the leash can’t be accidentally pulled from my hands (Okay, it only happened once, but it was still scary!). And when I work with shelter dogs, it’s much easier to manage the treat and a clicker if I don’t need to hang on to the leash, too.

5. The Ruff Tough Kennel
Car safety has always been important to me; Maisy wore a seat belt in the car for years. But I was injured in a car accident last summer, and almost a year later, I still have pain directly related to injuries I sustained (one of which was from the seat belt). Considering Maisy’s regrettable shoulder structure and her back issues… well, I freaked out.

I freaked out so much, in fact, that I bought the sturdiest crate I could, the Ruff Tough Kennel. It’s molded out of one piece of plastic, and their very unscientific (but incredibly convincing) testing video sold me on it. I tied that sucker down with ratchet straps in the back of my car, padded the sides, and quit worrying so much.

These are my five favorite pet products. I purchased them all- even that seriously expensive kennel- with my own money. The companies involved have not solicited my opinion. I just love their products. But what about you guys? Which products do you find indispensable?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Do Reactive Dogs Suffer from Decision Fatigue?

I recently read an article about a concept called decision fatigue. Basically, scientists have found that making decisions requires the brain to pay a “biological price.” The more decisions a person makes throughout the course of the day, the harder it becomes. Ultimately, the result of making many decisions is a decrease in the person’s ability to exhibit self-control. The brain begins to look for shortcuts: to either act recklessly and impulsively, or to do nothing at all by making no decisions.

Brain scans support this finding. Researchers have found that the process of making decisions increases activity in the nucleus accumbens (the “reward center” of the brain), and decreased activity in the amygdala (the area that helps with self-control). The conclusion was that the process of making decisions results in a “propensity to experience everything more intensely.” Interestingly, both the feelings and the changes in the brain could be reversed by giving the subject sugar (glucose).

So what does this have to do with dogs? Well, when I first read this, I immediately thought of Maisy. I’ve known for awhile that prolonged exposure to stress makes it more likely that she’ll have a reactive episode. I thought it had to do with stress hormones in the body (and it probably does to some degree), but could it also be decision fatigue? It certainly seems possible- a reactive dog who must make dozens or even hundreds of decisions throughout the course of a day. The dog sees or hears something, must decide if it is a threat, and then decide how to react.

 Maisy has a lot of decisions to make in this situation!

As it turns out, I wasn't alone in wondering about this, because researchers at the University of Kentucky studied the phenomenon in dogs. They found that dogs who were subjected to 10 minutes of sit and stay commands performed worse on self-control tests than the control group. As with humans, a dose of glucose restored their willpower.

The article concludes by stating that the people who are best at self-control share several traits in common: they do not schedule back-to-back meetings, which allows them to rest and recover after a bout of decision-making. They create routines and habits so that they can reduce the number of decisions they must make. They avoid going places that will test their willpower, such as all-you-can-eat buffets. And they always make important decisions after being well-rested and well-fed.

The implications for our reactive dogs seem clear. I’ve written before about how important routines and downtime are for Maisy’s sanity. I am incredibly careful to make sure Maisy gets plenty of time to rest, and especially to recover after a stressful event. For example, we didn’t enter the last trial because she’d spent the weekend before at a boarding kennel. I’m not as strict about routines, though like any household, there is an expected order of events throughout the day.

It also strikes me that the ultimate goal of training reactive dogs is to create new reflexes so that the dog doesn’t need to make decisions. This is the goal of counter-conditioning, and Leslie McDevitt talks about “environmental cues,” where the trigger itself becomes the cue for Look at That. Trained well, the dog shouldn’t even need to think about what he’ll do- he’ll simply do it, hopefully reducing his decision burden.

And then there is the matter of how we handle trials with our reactive dogs. The dog study cited in the article indicated that after 10 minutes of obedience, the dogs lost much of their ability to exert self-control. Now, granted, we are never in the ring for a full ten minutes, but still: our dogs need to be given the chance to rest after a performance. For some dogs, simply being in their crate is good enough. This has never been the case for Maisy, who finds that stressful, too. Before we quit trialing, I had been experimenting with going to the car for a break or taking “awareness walks.”

I also wonder about the glucose aspect in all this. I've never really paid attention to how treats do or do not affect my dog. I know one of my trainer friends recommends cutting out all sugar. She claims this helps, but it seems like this study suggests otherwise. (Then again, I am not good enough with chemistry to state that outright.) I also have never really trained without food- our recent forays into heeling-for-a-ball notwithstanding- so I have no real basis for comparison.

What do you guys think? Have you noticed a change in your dog’s behavior based on whether or not he’s eaten recently? Does the type of food make a difference? Do you have routines you follow with your dog? What are they like? How much downtime does your dog need? I’d love to hear from my fellow reactive dog owners.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Harassing the Neighbors

Maisy has begun to do a very peculiar thing this summer. She has begun to harass our neighbors.

Now, normally this would be cause for concern. No one wants to have a bad relationship with their neighbors, and I’ve heard enough crazy stories on the internet to be very, very careful to be a good doggy neighbor. In this case, however, the neighbors not only don’t mind, but they have been encouraging Maisy’s behavior.

It started like this: Maisy’s ball ended up in their yard. Whether it got there accidentally or whether Maisy put it there on purpose (she has a habit of entertaining herself), I’ll never know, but she has learned that being cute will usually get Those With Opposable Thumbs to do her bidding... so she got the neighbor’s attention.

The moment the neighbor made eye contact, she smiled and waggled her entire body. This, of course, drew the neighbor nearer, at which point that bright orange ball was noticed. “Oh, poor Maisy!” our neighbor undoubtedly exclaimed. “Your ball is in our yard!” And it was tossed back over the fence.

Well. Maisy’s no fool. She quickly realized she’d doubled her army of ball-throwers, and made a habit of grabbing the ball and pushing it between the picket slats any time she saw our neighbors. Of course, it didn’t hurt that 1. our neighbor’s garden is right next to the fence (making them readily accessible), and that 2. they have consistently thrown the ball every single time. Even after I told them they didn’t have to. Even after I explained that if they got tired of the game, they should simply quit throwing it. Their response? “But she’s so cute!”

Yeah, I know, neighbor. Maisy has trained me to do a thing or two, as well.

(Want to see Maisy's harassment in action? Check out the rather long video.)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Kathy Sdao Seminar: Some Frequently Asked Questions about Classical or Counter-Conditioning

What is the difference between desensitization and counter-conditioning?While the concepts of desensitization and counter-conditioning are often discussed as if they are the same thing, they're not. Kathy defined desensitization as lowering the intensity of a stimuli enough to enable the dog to eat or play in its presence. This basically changes the trigger from an overwhelmingly aversive stimuli into something closer to neutral. Desensitization is also about exposure only- it does not seek to change associations. Sometimes careful desensitization alone can help a dog learn that there is nothing to fear, but often, you need to add in counter-conditioning (which is about pairing the scary stimuli with something awesome) in order to achieve the results you want.

I’ve decided to start a counter-conditioning program for my reactive dog. Where should I go to do this?
One of the biggest factors that influences the success of a counter-conditioning program is the trainer’s ability to set up the environment for optimal learning. Kathy recommends scouting out a location in advance. You want to find a place where you can easily adjust the intensity of the dog’s triggers. If possible, you want to find a location where the triggers approach from only one or two directions, such as alongside a walking path. This can help prevent the dog from having to worry about what’s behind him. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a location with “protected contact”- that is, having the trigger behind a fence or other barrier in order to ensure your everyone’s safety. Finally, there should always be an escape route available. You absolutely do not want to get stuck in a corner!

How long should my counter-conditioning sessions be?
Since conditioning does require repeated pairings, you need to get quite a few trials of see trigger-get treat in order to obtain the desired response. However, Kathy cautioned against having too many trials in a row. During a counter-conditioning session, your dog needs some downtime between pairings to relax. Ideally, your dog will alternate between feeling relaxed and a bit concerned (when he sees the trigger). He should not be feeling general nervousness when no trigger is around punctuated with periods of increased fear when the trigger appears. For that reason, Kathy recommends having 12-15 pairings over a 30 minute period of time.

My dog is afraid of men. Should I find men and ask them to feed my dog?
Although people often have the trigger person feed the dog treats, Kathy prefers not to take this approach. She said that dogs who have been treated this way learn to run to the scary person, hoping for food. Worst case scenario, if the person doesn’t have any, the dog can become frustrated, which increases the likelihood of a bite. But even in the best cases, the foodless person will inevitably touch the dog, possibly scaring him, which would be counter-productive. For that reason, Kathy really thinks it’s best for a dog to seek out his person, not strangers, when a trigger appears. And anyway- ultimately, the source of food is not as important as the timing of the food.

I want to start a counter-conditioning program, but my dog won’t take treats! What should I do?
If your dog won't eat, it's because he's stressed and you need to lower the intensity of whatever is going on around your dog. Increasing distance is the most common way to do this, but there are other options. You might start by working with just sounds (the jingling of tags, without a dog attached, for example). You can use stuffed/toy dogs for a dog who is scared of other dogs. Changing the direction that the trigger is facing can help (have that scary man face the other way). Your goal is to work at the edge of your dog’s comfort zone, wherever that might be, and to slowly make it bigger.

What should I do if my dog goes over threshold?
Get him out of the situation. A dog who has gone into the fight-or-flight mode really doesn’t have the ability to think and learn, so there’s no point in training through it. If you need to, you can use some food to lure the dog away from whatever is upsetting him. Then, take note of the situation and do your best to avoid it in the future! While you’ll still want to work on counter-conditioning him, you’ll need to work at a much lower intensity. Kathy said you should avoid exposing your dog to things he can’t handle.

But won’t that reinforce the reactive or fearful behavior?
No. The dog is in a brain state that is not conducive to learning. That said, if you repeatedly expose your dog to situations that are too intense for him, resulting in repeated reactive outbursts, you may get a dog who learns that such outbursts work to get him what he wants. This is not something you want your dog to learn, so it’s really in your best interest to prevent the outbursts in the first place, while gradually working to increase the intensity.

Doesn’t giving my dog food or comforting him when he’s scared tell him that being scared is okay?
Yes and no. You can’t reinforce a feeling, but you can facilitate it. If you are acting panicked or scared, your dog may take that as an indication that he should be upset, too. Kathy also told us about something called “limbic resonance,” which is the ability of mammals to ascertain another’s emotions by looking in their eyes. If you know that you can’t control your own feelings, Kathy recommended against teaching your dog to make eye contact with you in response to scary events. That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with some calm, quiet petting or gentle verbal reassurances. So take a deep breath, relax, and tell him that you're going to protect him. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kathy Sdao Seminar: Why That "Treat Thing" Doesn't Always Work

Classical counter conditioning is a great foundation for working with a reactive dog. It's also very easy to do: a scary thing happens, and then you give the dog a treat. Over time, the dog learns that the scary thing predicts good things, which changes his feelings. He's no longer scared, which will hopefully mean that the fear-based behavior will disappear. Still, sometimes you'll hear someone say “I tried that whole treat thing, and it just didn't work...”

And you know what? I believe those people. Classical conditioning, while pretty straightforward, does require that you get some of the details straight. Kathy shared the errors that people commonly make that can prevent progress, or even worse, create even more problems. If you're struggling with that “whole treat thing,” here are eight things you should check.

(If you aren't familiar with the basics of classical conditioning, check out this post, and then this one. Today's entry will make a lot more sense if you do.)

Make Sure Your Timing is Right
This is perhaps the area you can screw up the most. In classical conditioning, the second thing that happens is the most important because it is the one that will determine what kind of association is formed. If that second thing is positive, the association will become positive. If the second thing is scary, though, then the association will become scary, too. In other words, when you give the treat matters, and it matters a lot.

There are four basic ways to pair stimuli. Trace conditioning happens when there is a 1-2 second delay between the two stimuli. For example, if you want the dog to learn that a bell ringing predicts that food is coming, in trace conditioning, you would ring the bell, wait 1-2 seconds, and then give the dog the treat. Delayed conditioning occurs when the first stimuli is presented continuously for several seconds (the bell rings several times in a row), and then food is presented immediately. Simultaneous conditioning means that both stimuli are presented at the same time; you ring the bell and give the food at the same time. Finally, backward conditioning, like the name implies, is when you reverse the stimuli. You give the food and then ring the bell.

Although there are scientific uses for all of these, when it comes to training a reactive or fearful dog, both simultaneous and backward conditioning is basically useless. Simultaneous conditioning will simply have little to no result. Backward conditioning, however, is much worse. Instead of the bell predicting the treat, the treat predicts the bell. This can have devastating consequences. If a scary happens after the food does, then the food predicts the scary thing, and thus becomes associated with fear. When this happens, the mere presence of food can cause a dog to shut down or react. Not a good thing.

Most people don't set out to get this order wrong. We understand how it should work, but where we go astray is in assuming that the dog sees the scary thing at the same time we do. Therefore, you should be sure to give the treat only after the dog has perceived the stimuli/scary thing.

Make Sure You Avoid Rhythmic Trials
We humans are creatures of habit- when we set up training experiences, we tend to fall into patterns. Unfortunately, dogs are very talented at discerning patterns, so we need to make sure that our trials are not rhythmic. Kathy gave the example of working with a dog who is afraid of men. If she were to enlist a male friend and directed him to walk in and out of eyesight, it's likely that he would begin doing so at regular intervals. Unfortunately, what the dogs often learn in these scenarios is not that the presence of men predicts steak, but rather, that steak happens every 20 seconds or so, and if you get a positive association, it's very weak. You will get a far better result if you make sure that your trials are random and varied.

Make Sure There Are No Competing Stimuli
Since the second event matters most, we need to make sure that we know what it is. Sure, we might think the pairing is simple- see scary thing, get a treat- but dogs are highly observant. Does he know he's getting a treat as a result of the scary thing, or is something happening in between those two events? Common pitfalls include reaching in a pocket, or crinkling a treat bag as we get the snack out. Again, associations can and do happen in these situations, but they are weaker than if it was direct, with no middleman. Try to set up the situation to reduce as many competing stimuli as possible.

Make Sure You're Using a High Value Treat
Kathy advises that you use the absolute best thing you can in order to create the most intense response possible. Classical conditioning follows a pretty steep curve, which means that you'll get the strongest response possible fairly early on in training. Don't squander this opportunity by using kibble. Sure, the dog will learn that scary things predict food, and that's good... but it's not awesome. Think about it: do you want an, “Oh, yes, kibble, thank you” response, or do you want the “HOLY COW I JUST GOT RAW TRIPE” response?

Make Sure Your Treat Remains Special
Classical conditioning works best when the contingency is strong. In non-science speak, this means that it works best when the awesome thing that follows the trigger happens only when the trigger does. No matter how much your dog loves cheese, if cheese happens all the time, it becomes meaningless. For that reason, Kathy recommended that you have a treat that you use only for counter-conditioning. Actually, she said that it would be best if all food happened only as a direct result of the scary thing, but since that's pretty much impossible, practically speaking, she recommended reserving the high value treat for your counter-conditioning work.

Make Sure You Aren't Lumping Criteria
Remember what I said about competing stimuli? Well, that counts for the first stimuli as well as the second. Make sure you aren't trying to counter-condition against too many things at once. It really works best to tackle one scary thing at a time. So, if your dog is afraid of men, and he's afraid of people riding bikes, men riding bikes might be too much. Try breaking it down more if you can.

Make Sure the Trigger Always Predicts Good Stuff
Classical conditioning is not operant conditioning. As such, it is not maintained by intermittent reinforcement, and is much more prone to extinction as a result. Instead, for classical conditioning to work, the scary thing pretty much always needs to be followed by the treat. Every time the dog sees a scary toddler, a piece of chicken should follow. Every time. If toddlers appear and chicken doesn't, then the dog learns that toddlers are not a very reliable predictor. If you're lucky, the dog will still develop a lukewarm response. If you're not, though, the dog will not make an association at all, meaning that you're doing all that work for nothing.

Your job is to find a way to avoid the trigger when you're not training. This means either carrying chicken and going everywhere with your dog, or not doing certain things with your dog. And yes, this includes walks and going potty. Speaking of which...

Make Sure You Switch to an Operant Technique
Since classical conditioning requires a near 100% trigger-treat response, it simply cannot be considered a long-term strategy. At some point, Kathy said, you just have to switch to an operant training strategy. This might be something like auto-watches or emergency U-turns, or it might be something “fancier” like BAT or Look at That. The technique you choose doesn't matter as much as the fact that you choose an operant behavior for your dog to perform at some point since that can be reinforced intermittently, allowing you the ability to just relax and enjoy your dog sometimes.

As you can see, there are plenty of opportunities for you to undermine the work you're doing. This is just part of the reason I advocate working with an experienced trainer when you're trying to modify your dog's behavior. I know I certainly made plenty of mistakes along the way- I never did reserve the absolute best treat possible solely for counter-conditioning, and so of course, those treats happened all the time. I'm also often guilty of lumping criteria, and I'm sure I screwed up my timing now and then. Still, we muddled through, and while my efforts could have been better had I understood this information then, we did okay. But what about you guys? Any memorable mistakes? I'd love to know that I'm not alone in my training shortcomings...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Training Tuesday: CDSP Novice Requirements

Since we’ve decided to make our obedience debut in December, I’ve been reading up on what our chosen venue, CDSP, requires in the novice class. Here is an overview of what’s required, and what our progress looks like so far.

On Lead Heeling
This is your typical obedience heeling pattern, including pace changes, left and right turns, and an about turn. It also includes a distraction in the form of a steward walking towards you and your dog about 8 feet away.

Although we aren’t anywhere near a heeling pattern yet, our heeling is coming along nicely. I’m pleased to announce that we’ve really solidified the criteria of close. Maybe too close- although she still makes the occasional mistake and goes wide, most of the time she’s so close that I’m afraid I’m going to trip over her! She’s also started to “wrap” around to look at me, something I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, I’m thrilled with the amount of attention she’s giving me, but on the other… well, to wrap, she must forge!

I’ve been working on reducing the forging by following Denise Fenzi’s suggestion of slowing down every time she forges. In order to receive the reward, Maisy must slow down enough to be in correct position. I would have never tried this on my own, but it's working. Maisy is quickly falling back into position, and is even offering the correct position during normal pace! In our last session, I began using the slow pace to correct and then returned to normal pace before rewarding. We will continue to do this until Maisy’s position is good.

We’ve continued to struggle with reward placement. Throwing the ball forward is easiest, but it is undoubtedly contributing to Maisy’s forging problem. Dropping it straight down doesn’t seem to be very reinforcing for her (she wants to chase). The obvious solution is to throw the ball behind us, but that’s been difficult. Every time I did, Maisy would shoot forward before circling back, making the whole thing counter-productive. Thankfully, an awesome friend saw what we were doing and then demonstrated how I should use my body to be more successful. It was a frustrating learning curve for both of us, but we’ve finally started to get it!

Here is this week's video. I'm really pleased with Maisy's progress, but feel like I'm really lacking in energy and enthusiasm.

Off Lead Figure 8
Two people stand as “posts,” and you and your dog must heel in a figure 8 pattern around them. You will be asked to halt twice. Maisy and I haven’t practiced this at all, but I assume that all of our heeling work will transfer over and create nice results here. At least, I hope so! I’m more worried about who the posts are… if they are friends, Maisy will be much more likely to approach them than if they are strangers.

Moving Stand for Exam
You and your dog heel approximately 10 feet, and when directed by the judge, you both stop. The dog must remain standing instead of sitting. You then leave the dog and move six feet away so the judge can briefly examine your dog before you return to heel position.

Maisy has actually done a stand for exam in competition- way back when this exercise was still an APDT bonus exercise. She didn’t love it, but she did it. I have been practicing the exercise with my husband, and had a friend do it as well. The moving stand part is fine, though we do need to keep working on it to minimize paw movement, but the stay part is hard. I thought she was going to dance with excitement towards our friend the other day… it was pretty cute, actually, and I will never, ever be upset if she NQs this exercise because she’s being friendly!

Recall over Bar Jump
In this exercise, you position your dog at least 8 feet from a jump, then move to the other side of the jump. Your dog should come over the jump when you call, sitting in front of you.

I was initially quite worried about this exercise, and indeed, the first couple of times, she came around the jump instead of going over it. We’ve been working on it almost every day, and she’s now pretty solid at 10-15 feet on either side. It’s a bit tougher with distractions of course, but we’re getting there.

The type of jump doesn’t seem to matter, either. In practice, I use a homemade PVC jump, so I wasn’t sure what she would do when she saw a real bar jump. Thankfully, when we tried it with proper, legal equipment last week, Maisy did just fine. So fine, in fact, that she anticipated my call front… that brat! I couldn't help but laugh I was so pleased that she knew what she was supposed to do (we can always work on the waiting part).

Honor Stay
CDSP does not do group stays. Instead, your dog can sit or lie (your choice) in heel position while another dog completes the on-lead heeling pattern.

Because of Maisy’s reactivity, this is the hardest exercise of them all. She’s motion reactive, and the other dog will be running at one point (during the fast pace). I’m also not good at stays, but we’ve been practicing tons of distance stays (that’s more interesting to me), and I’ve done some baby honors with other dogs. She’s doing quite well, and we honored a fast-moving toller the other night.

Anyway, that’s what we need to do, and where we’re at. I’m pretty pleased with my little pup. I know we won’t be perfect, but then, I don’t really care about the Q at this point. What I want is a dog who goes into the ring happy and connected with me. I’m training with that in my mind foremost, and assuming that everything else will follow…

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Compassion Fatigue and You: Tips for Caring for Yourself so You Can Care for Your Difficult Dog

In the human world, there is a phenomenon called caregiver or compassion fatigue. It is the result of stress on either a professional or a family caregiver who feels her life has become out of balance; caring for others has taken too much of her time and energy. Compassion fatigue is also recognized in the animal world, most notably among those who work in shelters or rescues. But the symptoms of compassion fatigue- exhaustion, frustration, irritability, hypervigilance, hopelessness, isolation, feelings of incompetency or self-doubt, or a pervasive negative attitude- are possible for those of us who own difficult dogs, too.

We all know that living with dogs with behavior issues- whether that’s reactivity, anxiety, fearfulness, or aggression- is hard. As wonderful as we know our dogs are, their behavior can be perplexing and embarrassing. The resultant feelings of frustration, exhaustion, or hopelessness can even lead people to give up their dogs. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation for either the dog or the human. So, what can we do to help protect both ourselves and our canine companions? In today’s post, I have taken some of the common suggestions for coping with compassion fatigue, and adapted them to fit our unique situation.

Understand and accept your dog’s limitations.
Your dog’s behavior problems are not his fault. There is mounting scientific evidence that behavior in both humans and animals has a strong genetic component. Dogs also suffer when they don’t experience a wide variety of people, places, and things during the critical socialization period. And, of course, bad experiences, trauma, and health problems can influence your dog’s behavior throughout his life. This does not mean that his behavior is unchangeable, but making progress requires you to educate yourself on your dog’s issues.

More importantly, you need to develop reasonable expectations based on that knowledge. The dog who is terrified of people may not be a good therapy dog candidate. The dog who hates the sight of other pups may never go to a dog park. Be willing to accept what your dog is capable of, and what he’s not, even if it means letting go of some of your idealized notions of who you want your dog to be.

Understand and accept your own limitations, too.
Your dog’s behavior is not your fault, either. Yes, we can make problems worse through our mistakes, but they are just that- mistakes. Acknowledge areas where you may have fallen short, then resolve to do better. My general experience has been that dogs are incredibly resilient, and I believe that people should extend themselves as much forgiveness as their dog does.

Remember, too, that none of us are born trainers. Even those who have natural talent must develop those skills. Some of us don’t even want to undertake what might become a multi-year project, and that is okay. Figure out how much you can do, and how much you’re willing to do. Even the smallest amount of effort can improve your dog’s life, and by extension, your own.

Ask for help and create a support system.
I am a firm believer that everyone with a difficult dog should enlist the assistance of a professional trainer or behaviorist, even if it’s just for the occasional consultation. It is very hard to be able to step outside of your relationship with your dog and make an objective assessment of how things are going. Having a professional that you trust give you the feedback on what you need to improve, and what you’re doing well can prevent you from feeling stuck or hopeless.

You can also benefit from having an informal support system. I have several other friends with reactive dogs, and it’s really nice to be able to commiserate with them at times. Unlike my co-workers or even my family, these people know what it’s like to live with a dog with issues, and understand how hard it can be. From friends to email lists to other blogs, just knowing that I’m not alone in this is comforting.

Relax, play, and laugh with your dog.
The phrase “pick your battles” comes to mind here- not that I think you should be fighting with your dog, of course. The truth is, though, when you have a dog with problem behaviors, even a simple walk through the neighborhood can feel like war. Sometimes, you just need to find a way to enjoy some worry-free time with your dog.

In other words, not everything needs to be a training session. Take a day off and enjoy a romp in a secluded meadow or hike a quiet trail. Play tug or throw that ball. Or simply sit and pet your dog for awhile (assuming he likes that, of course). You both need some stress-free time to reconnect and remember why you chose one another in the first place.

Take time for yourself.
Finally, you need to make sure you take care of yourself, too. I know this isn't easy; I often feel guilty when I’m not spending time with my dog. And vacations? Forget it- even a long weekend feels impossible when you don’t know where to leave your dog.

Still, it is vital that you have some outside interests. I know, I know- your dog is the most interesting thing you can imagine. Mine too. But having some hobbies that aren’t dog related, and some friends that can talk about something other than what Fido did last night, can help you maintain the balance in your life that you need to prevent compassion fatigue.

These are just some of the suggestions that make sense to me… but what about you guys? What would you tell someone who has a dog with issues? What would you suggest they do to prevent burnout? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Information for this post was taken from:
The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
Animals in Our Hearts

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Relationship Matters for the Dog, Too

In my last post, I explored the concept that having a relationship with a dog makes it easier for the human part of the equation to cope with his issues. But as several commenters pointed out, relationship matters at the other end of the leash, too. While that wasn’t the focus of my post, I have to agree. In fact, I agree so much that I decided to write about it today.

The little shelter dog I was working with came to the rescue as a stray. We don’t know his breed, his age, or anything about his history. We have some guesses, sure, but they're just that. Where was he born? To whom? What were his early experiences with humans like? Why is he so suspicious of us? How did he learn to use his mouth?

I have so many questions, but I will never know the answers. And just as I don’t know anything about him, he doesn’t know anything about me. Am I trustworthy? Will I listen to his warnings? Can I even see them? How far does he need to go to make sure I understand he’s uncomfortable? Are all my clicks and treats an indication of my character, or are they simply empty promises?

He has no way to answer his questions about me, either; he has no history upon which to draw. Complicating matters, in the last month or so, he has had contact with so many strangers- from his caretakers at the pound, to the two separate foster homes he’s been in, to me, the unknown trainer- well, it’s been a jumbled mix of interactions that probably contributes to his overall confusion and distrust.

Contrast this to Maisy, who, despite her rocky beginnings, has learned that humans are generally okay. Certainly she knows that I, as her person, will do my best to protect her. Sure, I make mistakes. I get frustrated sometimes, and occasionally I miscalculate how stressful a given situation may be for her. Despite my failings, she seems to understand that I have the best of intentions. Just as I have developed a relationship with her, she’s developed one with me.

This relationship- that is, the dog’s relationship to the human- is clearly important. It allows him to know what to expect from the person holding his leash. Not having any history with me means my little shelter dog needs to constantly evaluate my role in his safety (or lack thereof). While Maisy has learned that I do not pose a threat, my little shelter dog has not. As a result, it is clear that, just as it matters to me, relationship matters for the dog, too.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Relationship Matters

The last few Sundays, I've been volunteering with a really cool shelter-training program. Dogs who are in a shelter or foster home can come to a free training class, where they learn basic skills like walking nicely on a leash, settling on a mat, and being comfortable with handling. Most of the dogs come with their foster-person, but since some have more than one foster dog, I've been acting as an extra handler.

The dog I've been working with is very cute. He loves to play, and he's pretty smart. However, he is not without his issues. He is fearful of new people, and while he has great bite inhibition, he's not afraid to use his mouth to get his point across. He also has an incredibly short attention span, and he's very environmentally aware, tipping quickly into reactivity.

He reminds me a lot of Maisy, to be honest. From the way he whips his head around, checking for threats, to his eagerness to earn a click, he shares many traits with her (though, thankfully, she's never been a biter). You'd think that this would endear him to me. You'd think that I'd be brimming with understanding and compassion. Instead, I find him frustrating. Despite his small size, he's a lot of dog. Like the old days with Maisy, it takes a ton of energy to manage him in order to prevent reactive outbursts, and even so, he goes over threshold quickly and frequently.

So what's the difference? My only explanation can be summed up in one word: relationship.

Photo by Sara Reusche

Maisy has always been my dog. From that first inexplicable moment when I laid eyes on her, I've known that. I didn't even really like dogs, yet I was ready to sacrifice my home in order to have her in my life, and I've never looked back. Oh, sure, we struggled during those early months. After the third time she peed on my carpet in as many hours on the day she came home, I'll admit to wondering if I'd made a mistake. But as the months went on, I learned how to potty-train a puppy, and she learned how to go outside.

Time only seems to strengthen our bond. By the time I realized that Maisy's temperament left something to be desired, I was so completely in love with her that I knew the only option was to get through it together. Our relationship meant that I wouldn't give up on her. It gave me the ability to empathize with her anxiety. It allowed me to see her as more than just her bad behavior. It somehow gave me the strength to continue on despite the embarrassment and the exhaustion.

And let's be honest: working with a reactive dog is exhausting. The constant management, vigilance, and training takes a toll on the human trainer. Although I can handle it for the hour that I'm working with my Sunday shelter dog, I'm left feeling much more tired than I ever remember feeling with Maisy. I can't even imagine fostering- let alone living with this dog.

Perhaps things would change as I got to know him better. Perhaps the benefit of proximity and time would help abate some of that fatigue. But the one thing I've learned is that- for me anyway- relationship matters.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Kathy Sdao Seminar: Good Foundations

Pretty much all dog training is based on some form of conditioning, either operant or classical. Since classical techniques tend to be less flashy (read: tedious and boring), most trainers choose to focus on operant ones. Kathy even admitted that while classical conditioning is a bit like watching paint dry, it's so incredibly powerful that it deserves to be the star once in awhile. And of course, Kathy did an amazing job giving classical conditioning the billing it deserves.

Both types of conditioning are built up over repetitions. The difference is that operant conditioning is about consequences, while classical conditioning is not. Operant conditioning seeks to influence the dog's behavior by pairing his actions with rewards like food. The dog only gets the food if he behaves in a certain way. By contrast, classical conditioning doesn't care about what the dog is doing at all- its only goal is to create a direct association between two stimuli. There is no behavioral criteria, and the dog gets the food no matter what he does or doesn't do.

Instead, classical conditioning focuses on the dog's feelings and his reflexes by repeatedly pairing a neutral stimulus with something that elicits a strong reaction from the dog. For example, if everytime a dog hears a bell he gets some food, he'll soon learn to expect some food whenever he hears a ringing sound. Classical conditioning can also be used to change a previously learned association, typically from bad to good. This is called counter-conditioning.

This form of conditioning is incredibly useful when working with fearful, reactive, anxious, or aggressive dogs, but is often poorly understood or glossed over. It does take a bit of time to do it right, and people often try to cut corners, or skip over it entirely. It's a shame, really, because if you can change a dog's feelings about something, the behavior will often change as a result. After all, if children are no longer scary, there's no need to lunge and growl at them, right?

The problem with classical conditioning is that it really doesn't hold up well for the long-term. Yes, you can create associations pretty easily, and you can even change associations with a bit more work, but classical conditioning is incredibly fickle. Unlike operant conditioning, where behavior can be maintained with intermittment rewards, classical conditioning can extinguish quickly if the association is not maintained.

This means that classical conditioning is not a holistic plan. It's simply too exhausting to continually maintain the pairing of scary thing=good thing. The person will get tired, or will screw up. It's also impractical to constantly have treats (or other good things) on you. Ultimately, Kathy said, you'll need to switch to an operant technique, whether that's CAT or BAT or Control Unleashed or whatever.

So why bother with classical conditioning at all? Why not just cut straight to the chase and use an operant strategy from the start? The biggest reason to do this is because most dogs with fear/reactivity/anxiety/aggression issues are okay... until they're not. And usually, once they're “not,” they've gone over threshold, and are now in that fight-or-flight mode where they can no longer think. Then it's too late. You can't teach the dog anything. You can't reinforce an acceptable behavior because the dog isn't physiologically capable of learning anymore. Operant conditioning becomes impossible.

So, you start at the beginning. You pair the sight of a trigger with good things, over and over again, no matter what the dog is doing, so that the dog no longer sees the trigger as a scary thing, but rather, as a thing which results in chicken. You'll know this association has happened when the dog gets demanding- he'll see the trigger, and instead of reacting, he'll be obnoxiously nudging your hand or staring at your chicken pocket. And since he wants that chicken so badly, it's pretty easy to ask him to do something to earn it.

In other words, what classical conditioning does is give you the foundation on which to build those operant behaviors. It helps your dog relax enough to think. It gives you enough time to intervene. It gives you the space you need to begin training the behaviors you want instead of constantly focusing on the ones you don't.

Of course, it's not as easy as I make it sound. If it was, Kathy wouldn't have been able to spend a full day discussing classical conditioning. Indeed, Kathy shared some really interesting- and important- tips to make the most of classical conditioning. If you're going to go through all that work, you might as well do it right! I'll share that info with you in the next post.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from other people with reactive dogs. Did you do classical conditioning as a foundation? What was your experience like?