Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Reinforcement Training

Jane Killion is a reinforcement trainer.

Notice the words I chose there, because she doesn't call herself a positive trainer. Why? Well, in behavior science, all “positive” means is “add.” You add something in order to manipulate future behavior. Sometimes you add something in order to increase a behavior, and sometimes you add something in order to decrease a behavior. Technically speaking, this label can easily refer to some wildly divergent training methods. But Jane also feels the term “positive” can be divisive. Since so many people misunderstand it to mean upbeat, kind, or virtuous, it implies that people use use other methods aren't. What's more, it also implies that anyone who is nice must automatically be positive, which is misleading.

As a result, Jane favors the term “reinforcement training.” Her methods are based on providing reinforcement to the dog, whether that's by adding something desirable to increase a behavior (positive reinforcement), or by removing something unpleasant in order to increase a behavior (negative reinforcement). What she avoids whenever possible is the use of punishment, as all that does is suppress behavior, not teach the dog what you want him to do.

Training under the umbrella of reinforcement gives a trainer a variety of things to use to create behavior. Without a doubt, the most popular- and Jane's favorite- is to use food. Not only is it a primary reinforcer, but it's also easy to dispense, easy to control, and it tends to tap into the “thinking” part of the dog's brain.

Of course, any one who has worked with dogs knows that sometimes training with treats just doesn't work. Jane identified two main reasons this happens: emotional interference (ie, stress), or competing reinforcers that are more relevant or interesting. After all, when it comes down to a choice between eating a bit of hot dog and chasing a squirrel, most dogs will choose the squirrel. And if you're working with a “Pigs Fly” dog, the chances that he will choose the environment over you is large.

That doesn't mean that you can't use positive reinforcement with a dog who isn't interested in food. You can, it just takes a bit of creativity. Enter Premack, a principle which states that a high probability behavior can be used to reinforce a low probability behavior. If your eyes just glazed over, don't worry; Jane has come up with a very clever way of describing the Premack principle. She calls it ICE: Identify “hot” reinforcers (anything your dog wants, which might include sniffing the ground, rolling in something stinky, or peeing on a bush), Control them, and then Exchange a behavior for the hot reinforcer.

Jane showed us an excellent video of her working with a very distracted young dog that really wanted to do was explore and sniff, which was incompatible with his owner's desire that he walk nicely on the leash. In the video, Jane identified the hot reinforcer (sniffing), controlled that reinforcer by shortening the leash so he couldn't sniff, and then waited for an opportunity to exchange a behavior for sniffing. As soon as the dog looked at her, she let out the slack in the leash and told him to go sniff. After a few moments, she shortened the leash again, and the process repeated. Soon, he was willingly paying attention to her while they walked through the field together. Pretty cool.

As the video demonstrated, Premack is a powerful thing, and I wish she would have demonstrated it live during the seminar. I can understand why she didn't- we had limited time, and Premack takes longer than handing out a cookie- but I was still a bit disappointed. There was even a great opportunity to demonstrate Premack/her ICE system since one of the working dogs had a medical problem that made it difficult to use food for training, but instead Jane had that handler switch out for a different dog.

Another way to train with reinforcement is through negative reinforcement. This often ignored method has us remove something aversive in order to provide relief to the dog. This is a powerful thing, and dogs and people alike will perform behaviors that bring them relief. Jane was clear that she will not add the aversive herself, but that she will use unpleasant things that are already present; a shiny floor, perhaps, or the presence of the judge leaning over the dog to do the stand for the exam. And, Jane said, often the equipment in agility is a stressful thing for dogs.

To that end, she showed us another excellent video demonstrating how reward placement can provide negative reinforcement. On screen, we saw a dog who was hesitant to jump on the table, an agility obstacle that requires the dog to stay on a platform for several seconds before moving on to the next obstacle. The dog in question was slow and reluctant to get on it and lie down. Jane shaped the dog in several steps to move towards, get on, and then lie down on the table, each time throwing the treat away from the table, which allowed the dog relief from the piece of equipment he found unpleasant. Soon, she had a dog eagerly offering the desired behavior.

Again, I was disappointed that she didn't demonstrate the use of negative reinforcement during the seminar, even though there was actually a training problem that could have been set up to take advantage of it. One of the working dogs was having trouble performing recalls in the presence of other people. Jane chose to have people stand in two rows, then instructed the handler to call the dog to run between them. I would have loved to see Jane use some negative reinforcement in this situation through the relief of social pressure by having the people move back when the dog responded. This could have been a powerful reward for this dog, but instead, the dog got a treat when she came.

Now, there's nothing wrong with this. The approach worked; the dog was able to improve her ability to come despite the presence of people, but it was stressful for the dog. Jane was okay with this; learning is stressful, she said. She's right, of course, but after my experiences with Maisy- a dog with clinical anxiety- I have far less tolerance for stress during training. As a result, I just wasn't comfortable watching the amount of stress the working dog endured- especially when Jane could have used negative reinforcement to relieve the dog's stress while still accomplishing her goal.

As these two examples demonstrate, most of what Jane showed us over the course of the weekend was straight positive-reinforcement-with-food. More to the point, Jane has a tendency to shape everything. At times, it felt like this the only tool she has, but then, she's so good at it, she doesn't really need anything else.

I doubt that I will ever attain her level of skill in observation, setting criteria, and timing, but I am hopeful that having the chance to watch her will improve my own abilities. I look forward to telling you about some of what I learned... But it will have to be in the next post, as this one has gotten far too long already.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Introduction

Jane Killion is a clicker trainer best known for her book When Pigs Fly: Training Success with Impossible Dogs. Her breed is the Bull Terrier, and based on the stories my former boss told me about her own Bull Terriers, Jane named the book well. In fact, they are so notoriously difficult that many believe they can only be trained when… well, you know.

Jane calls any dog that is challenging or difficult a “Pigs Fly” dog. Typically, Pigs Fly dogs are terriers or sighthounds- ones who have been selectively bred to work independently of their handler. That said, a Pigs Fly dog is not determined by breed. Any dog can seem impossible to train, and when I talked to Jane about Maisy, she described my seriously biddable dog as a Pigs Fly dog, too. And I suppose it’s true; Maisy may be eager to please, but she hasn’t been easy.

Jane has a training system that she claims will work with any dog, even the ones who aren’t all that interested in pleasing their humans. This system isn’t necessarily new (it’s all based on operant conditioning, and relies heavily on positive reinforcement), but she’s coined some new terminology and phrases that are easier to understand for those who just don’t want to bother with all the scientific terminology (which is probably most people). This makes the Pigs Fly system easily accessible to a wide audience.

Poor lighting+cheap camera=subpar photos.
Over the course of two days, Jane lectured on things like shaping, using reinforcement effectively, getting attention from our dogs, and solving training challenges… and she demonstrated these concepts with the working dogs, too. It was very interesting to watch her work with the dogs, because she is very, very good at what she does. Her timing is impeccable, and her ability to split behavior into the tiniest pieces is impressive.

She is also very much a behaviorist. I don’t mean that in the sense that she works with troubled dogs (although she has). No, I mean that she operates from the standpoint that we can’t know what our dogs are thinking or feeling, and that while it’s fun to try and guess, we need to train based on the behavior we see in front of us. She’s not wrong, and while I agree with her to a certain extent, she takes it further than I do. Perhaps I tend to be too anthropomorphic, but I’ll admit that I don’t care for this approach.

In fact, that was very much my feeling on the whole weekend: while she’s not wrong, she also doesn’t resonate with me. The fact of the matter is that she’s a far better mechanical trainer that I will ever be. But her style struck me as cold, sterile, and lacking in heart or soul. And frankly, I was outright uncomfortable with the way this played out at times.

That’s not to say that I didn’t learn anything; on the contrary, I picked up some great tips. Still, the stylistic differences challenged my beliefs and philosophies on training. They forced me to think about who I am as a trainer, as a person, and how my personality influences the way I interact with dogs. In fact, I suspect that I will be reflecting on the weekend for a long time to come, even after I’ve finished blogging about the seminar proper.

But for now, we must focus on the task at hand. Over the next several weeks, I will be bringing you posts covering what I learned. So sit back, relax, and get ready to enjoy Jane Killion in all her brilliance.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is a Flexi Leash Right for You?

There are a lot of horror stories out there about Flexis (and other brands of retractable leashes). Many of them are about irresponsible owners, which isn’t surprising; who hasn’t seen a dog on a Flexi in a different pet store aisle than their inattentive person? But others are about injuries like cuts and burns, or even more serious incidents like fractures and amputations. Despite this, Flexis remain wildly popular, and I even know of some responsible pet owners who really like them. So when I was contacted by a Flexi company rep with an offer to test one out for free, I welcomed the opportunity to decide for myself.

The Good
I can totally understand why people like retractable leashes. As someone with a short dog with even shorter legs, it’s not uncommon for her to step over the leash. In fact, it happens so often, that I taught her to lift her foot up on cue so that I could untangle her without having to bend over. Since Flexis retract into the handle, there is no slack for the dog to get tangled in.

I also really liked the length. The model I tested was 16 feet long (and they come up to 26 feet long). This meant my dog could move around more than a regular leash would allow her. When combined with the retractable feature, the result is something far more manageable to use than a long line, making Flexis an easy way to give significantly more freedom to dogs who aren’t reliable off-leash.

The Bad
Maisy didn’t like the Flexi. Since it’s a retractable leash, the dog does need to pull a bit to extend the length, something Maisy refused to do. While she usually roams and explores on her regular six-foot leash, with the Flexi, she ended up next to me, her movements slow and hesitant. The moment I put her regular leash back on, her normal behavior returned. I think this was because the Flexi puts a fair amount of pressure on the dog’s neck, which I assume she found uncomfortable. Take a look at these pictures to see just how much tension was put on her collar:

On the Flexi, her collar pulled away from her neck due to 
the pressure of the leash. Click to enlarge.

On the six-foot leash, you can barely see her collar
because there's no tension in the leash.

The Ugly
This tension in the leash actually increased Maisy’s reactivity on walks- not surprising considering that trainers often discuss how tightening up on the leash can cause a reactive outburst. Maisy was able to walk past a barking, snarling dog with barely a second glance while on her six-foot leash, but when on the Flexi, her body language became tighter and quicker. She fixated on some people she saw in the distance, her tail was high and tight, and she got taller and leaned forward- all signs that she’s about to react imminently.

Worse, I had far less control over her while she was on the Flexi. Although I was able to verbally call Maisy back, the increased freedom meant she could have gotten closer to the trigger than I would have liked. The Flexi does come with a braking mechanism, and I found it easy to use, but frankly my dog is much faster than I am. I would not have been able to use the brake fast enough to keep her within six feet of me. And if she’d hit the end of the leash, she would have had enough increased force that I could have either fallen or dropped the leash (and then retracting towards her, which would probably scare her, making the problem worse).

Is a Flexi Right for You?
Since many of my readers have reactive dogs, the answer is probably no. Although there may be some reactive dogs who do okay on a retractable leash, I would advise extreme caution. If you have a stable dog, the answer is maybe. The Flexi company itself recommends they only be used with obedient, controllable dogs.

If you choose to try one out, you need to be thoughtful about when and where you use it. I do not think they are appropriate for crowded or busy areas. Pet stores, popular walking paths, and crowded city streets all call for a six-foot leash; there are plenty of people and dogs alike that do not want your dog to approach them, and while the Flexi does have a braking mechanism, it’s not foolproof. Instead, use it only low-traffic areas where you expect to see very few (if any!) dogs and people. 

As an aside, before using the brake on the Flexi, I really think you should give your dog a warning. With a regular leash, your dog knows how much room he has before he hits the end of the leash, and can avoid the collar pressure if he wants. With a retractable, your dog has no idea where the end of the leash is because it keeps changing. This seems unfair to me.

I would also recommend attaching the Flexi to a back-attach harness in order to minimize any discomfort on the neck. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t use a prong or slip/choke collar, a head halter, or a front-attach harness with a Flexi. These devices are meant to stop a dog from pulling, and using a leash that by its very design requires the dog to pull seems counter-productive. The dog will also essentially self-correct with every step, running the risk that you will desensitize him to the collar/harness, making it less effective even when the dog is on a regular leash.

Some Notes on the Company
Despite the fact that the Flexi was not right for me or Maisy, I have nothing bad to say about the company itself. While there are some dangers inherent in the use of retractable leashes, the company is very upfront about this. Every leash comes with a safety guide (which is also available online by clicking here), and they have a very nice instructional video (available here).

Flexi also has a new product called the MyFlexi, which is a personalized retractable leash. You can choose the size and color, as well as a picture of your own for the housing. This was very easy to do, although it does require a high speed connection. You can even add words or phrases! I ended up choosing a stock design because I wasn’t sure if I would keep the leash (I won't- I plan to donate it). The result is very pretty, and while I haven’t used it enough to know for sure, it seems very durable. My leash also came very fast- within a week, which was impressive. I very much enjoyed the experience, even if I didn’t enjoy the product.

Finally, I do need to give the following FTC disclosure: I did receive a free product from Flexi in order to facilitate this review, but was not otherwise compensated for this review. My opinions are mine alone, and were not influenced by the company.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Training Tuesday: Trick 2

Here's our second trick of the year, "Splat!"

Maisy learned to offer lying on her side during our several years in reactive dog classes; I just never bothered to name it before. The naming has actually taken a lot of work. She is much better at visual hand signals, and this trick only has a verbal. We have spent literally hundreds of repetitions working on this, and it is still shaky. Still, she's getting it, and I wanted to show you the result before the month was over!

Any suggestions for next month's trick?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Maisy's Brothers

Although I vaguely reference Maisy's “brothers” from time to time, I realized that I've never directly posted about them. This makes sense, of course; the focus of this blog has always been dog-related, and Maisy's brothers are decidedly feline. Still, they are an important part of my life, and Maisy's as well, so I thought today I'd take the time to formally introduce them.

Nicholas J. Cat
Or Nicky for short.

Nicky is an 11 year old orangish-beige tabby cat that I got from the humane society as a kitten. He lived with my parents for awhile when I lived somewhere that didn't allow cats, but he gladly gave up life as a farm cat to return to the city when we bought our house in 2007.

Nicky struggles to get along with Maisy, although I'm not sure whose issue this is. Nicky breaks a lot of Maisy's rules- no staring, no scratching, no jumping on the counter- so their relationship is definitely tense. She snarks at him in situations that she'd completely ignore from her other brother.

Nicky has a recurrent skin issue (eosinophilic granuloma complex), and has had recurrent urinary blockages, requiring major surgery. He spent two years as part of a diet-trial study at the University of Minnesota. That was very interesting, as his food was labeled “Investigational Cat Food- Green.” It was a double-blind study, and neither I nor the researchers know if he was on the placebo or not. I'm looking forward to reading the study when it's completed (the clinical phase will last at least another year).

Nicky is a very friendly kitty. He sleeps on my head most nights, which is terribly uncomfortable for me as he also drools. A lot. I hate waking up with an earful of kitty spit in the middle of the night. I love my Nicky kitty, even if he is kind of a pain.

Malcolm J. Cat
I have no idea why they have the same middle initial.
Photo by Robin Sallie.

Malcolm is somewhere between 5 and 8 years old. We adopted him as an adult from the humane society in 2007, and his age is a guess since he'd been a stray prior to that. He had already been neutered and was in good shape, so he probably escaped (he's an accomplished door-darter) and was never found by his people. I feel kind of bad about that, actually, since he's a really cool cat.

Malcolm is definitely my husband's cat, and I often see him curled up in his lap. Malcolm also gets along with Maisy very well, and although they don't play together as often as they did when they were younger, he can still be seen chasing Maisy through the house. She loves that!

Malcolm, too, has some health problems. During a wellness exam, the vet discovered a heart murmur. Subsequent ultrasound by a kitty cardiologist showed aortic insufficiency- some of the blood slips backwards, and it has to be pumped twice, leaving him at risk of cardiomyopathy.

Malcolm is my clicker cat. Although I haven't spent much time at it, I have done some targeting with him, and successfully shaped him to enter a carrier on his own. It's so different from training with Maisy, but very fun! I would love to teach him some basic obedience stuff and a few tricks, but I never seem to have the time.

Anyway, those are Maisy's brothers. How about all of you? Does your dog have any feline friends?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Do Methods Matter?

As a dog trainer, I think often about how and why I train the way I do. Lately, I’ve been especially interested in what makes for good training. What skills do I need to have to help a dog learn efficiently? What factors contribute to the end result/behavior I’m looking for? In an effort to figure it out, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and I have been asking others for their insight, too. In the process, I’ve discovered that good trainers:
  • Have excellent timing, which allows them to communicate their expectations to their dogs clearly.
  • Are consistent and predictable in their actions.
  • Have good observation skills, which allow them to see both the dog’s behavior as well as his emotional state.
  • Keep their rate of feedback high, which helps the dog understand what is wanted of him.
  • Can adjust the lesson plan, asking for more when the dog is ready, and balancing the current level of learning with appropriate distractions.
  • Are patient and calm during training.
  • Are capable of being creative in their approach, and are always learning new ways of doing things.
  • Definitely have a good sense of humor and a healthy dose of humility; things never seem to go the way we expect in training!
What’s missing in this list, though, is how the training is done. In fact, in my research, I found that people very rarely specify that a good trainer avoids corrections and focuses on positive reinforcement. Which leads me to wonder… do methods matter?
This is what I want. How do I get it?
Long-time readers know that I feel quite strongly about using positive methods; I do not use pain or fear when I work with a dog. I’ve even gone so far as to say that it’s perfectly possible to train without physical corrections. But for all that, I don’t think that people who train differently than I do are bad trainers. In fact, it would seem that “traditional trainers” are just as capable of demonstrating the skills needed to be good trainers as “positive trainers” are. Good timing, consistency, and observational skills are important whether you’re using a choke chain or a clicker. High feedback rates? Creativity? Adjusting criteria effectively? Ability to remain calm? Yup, all are possible, no matter how you train.

In short, good training is good training, no matter how you do it. So, again, I must ask: do methods matter?

Well, they do for me. I'm a process-oriented person who is interested in more than just the end result. I enjoy teaching my dog how to think and offer behaviors. I think it is fun to watch her figure out the problems I present her. I want a relationship built on feelings of trust and safety, and I think this is easier to do when the dog doesn't need to worry about being hurt or scared.

In addition, I much prefer the end result that comes from a dog who is a willing, cooperative partner that isn’t afraid to try new things. In my experience, dogs who have been trained with positive methods tend to have happier, more enthusiastic performances than those who have been trained with corrections. Of course, I must point out that I have seen very flashy performances come from dogs owned by traditional trainers, and it would be unfair to say that all dogs trained with corrections are miserable. What's more, I've seen some pretty stressed positively trained dogs.

Again, good training is good training. But here's the thing: it’s hard to be good.

If we're honest, most of us probably fall in the mediocre range of training skills. If we keep working at it, we will improve, but in the meantime, we make mistakes. And this is where I see the biggest difference between methods. For example, poor timing plagues many of us, and it leads to confusion because the dog isn’t sure what’s expected of him. The result will be hesitant responses and sloppy behaviors, no matter how you train. But where an uncertain, clicker trained dog will probably continue to keep working, the uncertain, traditionally trained dog is more likely to display signs of avoidance and stop trying entirely.

Certainly, the dog himself influences this a great deal. The “harder” dog- the one who isn’t terribly sensitive either physically or emotionally- will probably be able to sort through inconsistent and confusing messages. The “softer” dog probably doesn’t have that same stamina and persistence, and as a result, tends to shut down much sooner and more often. Unfortunately, it seems that many people vastly underestimate how sensitive their dogs are. The dog is labeled as “stupid” or “untrainable,” and everyone’s quality of life goes down.

I also think it’s easier to become a good trainer when you use positive methods. Take, for example, the skill of adjusting criteria. Ideally, regardless of our training style, we will work to set our dogs up for success. Whether we're clicking or correcting, we want to balance the dog's current level of learning with distractions. With traditional training, the temptation to wait for the dog to make a mistake so we can correct him is strong. Some folks will even purposely set their dogs up to be wrong. Compare this to positive training, where the entire goal is to break the behavior down into small, attainable pieces, which makes it easier to take distractions into account.

I also think positive methods make it easier for the trainer to control her emotions. I know that when I'm focused on seeing mistakes, agitation and frustration tend to creep in. I struggle to remain calm and patient when all I see is wrong behavior. This could just be a quirk of my personality, but I don't think so. I know enough other people who share it to believe this is just the way we are. We humans tend to see what we focus on, and we react to what we see. Reframing the training experience so that we’re focusing on the positive instead of the negative radically changes our emotional reactions.

Again, good trainers have learned to master these skills regardless of their methods, and they can get spectacular performances from their dogs as a result. But for the rest of us? Well, I think the methods do matter. The average person will find it easier to get the results they want using a positive reinforcement-based approach.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. And no matter how you choose to train, strive to be good at it. Your dog will thank you.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

With Apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love your furry face and mismatched ears,
And the way you bravely face all your fears.
Your enthusiasm and joyful displays
Warm my heart and bring sweetness to my days.
I love the way you fill my life with light,
I love the sheen in your eyes when you’re right,
I love your tail wag when I give you praise;
You make me proud, pup- I’m your biggest fan.
It may sound silly and it may sound trite,
But I love you more since I first began.
Oh, please believe that I’m glad when you’re near,
For I love thee truly, and if I can,
I shall love thee better each passing year.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review: Control Unleashed The Puppy Program, by Leslie McDevitt

No, I don't have a puppy, and no, I'm not planning to get one. But I was excited for this book anyway because the original Control Unleashed is one of my five favorite dog books. Well, it was, because The Puppy Program has totally taken its place. Let me tell you why.

While the original CU was targeted towards distractible and reactive dogs, CU Puppy is written as more of a prevention manual. It's meant to help you give your puppy a foundation of coping skills by teaching him confidence, relaxation, and trust in you to deal with things that might concern him. It does this by systematically teaching attention skills, self-control skills, and arousal regulation skills. In the process, it also creates rule structures that will help your dog make sense of an often chaotic world by letting him know what to expect, and what is expected of him.

Many of the key concepts and exercises from the original book are present in this one, although they've obviously been rewritten with puppies in mind. There are also some new concepts and training exercises. Perhaps my favorite chapter was the one on social pressure. Whenever you ask your dog to do something, Leslie says, you put pressure on him. This is true of all dogs, but some will be more sensitive to it than others. A wise trainer will not only recognize how social pressure is affecting her dog, but will also find ways to relieve the social pressure, and incorporate it into the reinforcement process.

I also really liked the chapters on the economy of energy and the bite threshold model. “Everything affects everything,” Leslie writes, and it's so true. I have experienced this time and time again- and it's why I've been so slow and methodical about reintroducing Maisy to trials. I've tried to write about some of these concepts here, but Leslie does it much better than I have. In fact, she does such a lovely job that everyone with a reactive dog should buy this book simply for the first 100 pages.

Finally, I really enjoy Leslie's repeated emphasis on treating your dog like an individual. You cannot get bogged down in who you think your dog should be, whether that's based on his breed type, your past experiences, or your own desires. When things happen, when your dog behaves in a way you don't expect (or don't like!), that should be seen as information. Your dog is telling you what he needs to be successful. Address those things, not by mindlessly following some pre-determined training method, but by really paying attention to who your dog is. Like Leslie says, “We can spend so much of our time wishing that our dogs were different, rather than appreciating who they are and just working with what we've got.”

There is so much more to this book- I didn't even tell you about the new exercises and games!- but suffice it to say that I really liked this book. In fact, I think everyone with a dog should read it. If you have a puppy, performance prospect or not, this book will give you the tools you need to raise a well-adjusted adult. And although this book is geared towards puppies, that doesn't mean it can't be applied to our adult dogs- especially nervous, worried or even reactive ones.

In fact, I much prefer the organization style in the puppy book; it covers one concept or exercise per chapter, and does a much better job of explaining how they each build on one another. To me, this makes the book far more user-friendly, especially for novice handlers.The only downside is that its natural focus on puppies means that it doesn't explain how and why each exercise is so good for treating reactivity. Still, the book is absolutely amazing, and I think pretty much anyone reading this blog would find it helpful.

So what are you waiting for? Go buy it already!

For the record, I was not paid or compensated in any way for this review. I even bought my own copy of the book!

Thursday, February 9, 2012


to crystal
crys-tal [kris-tl], verb, -talled, -talling.
To worry excessively over a minor ailment, typically pet-related. 

Maisy, bored stiff at the vet clinic.

I am a terribly worrier. About everything, really, but things tend to intensify when it’s pet-related. It’s so bad that a good friend actually created a word to describe the condition.

To be honest, I think my vet might think I’m a hypochondriac-by-proxy. Not long ago, I took Maisy in for an appointment, convinced that she needed a dental. She didn’t; in fact, the vet was actually impressed with the condition of her mouth- and by how cooperative she was (good girl, Maisy!).

A few months ago, orange kitty was limping. I took him in, and the x-rays (of course I did x-rays) showed that he has some arthritis- shocking, I know, in an 11-year-old cat. I did the same thing with Maisy not long after- she’s had an intermittent limp for years. It goes away with chiropractic and massage, but I wanted x-rays to check things out. Thankfully, there was nothing.

I’ve spent money on urologists and ultrasounds. I’ve hired cardiologists to do echocardiograms. I know where the three closest animal emergency clinics are, and I’ve spent more money than I knew was possible on lab work.

Most of the time, I don’t feel bad about this. I love my pets, and I prefer to take care of issues when they’re still small. I was recently seriously embarrassed, though, when I scheduled a behavior consult for the cats. They were fighting all the time, and I felt bad that they were obviously so miserable. I took behavior logs and about a billion videos. And as it turns out… they were playing. I cannot even begin to describe how mortified I was. Here I was, making a complete fool out of myself to a woman I really admire. Thankfully, she was really nice about it, saying that she respected how much I care about my pets.

Heaven help me if I ever have children, though.

Today’s post was inspired by Rescued Insanity.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why You Need a Trainer (Even If You Can't Afford One)

I love the internet for the quick access it gives me to a wide variety of topics, including all things dog. Many training questions are easily answered online, which is great because plenty of people live in areas where they can’t find a trainer they like, or because they can’t afford one. Unfortunately, if your dog has a behavior problem, you need to find the time or money to hire a professional.

You can try to go it alone, of course, and you’ll probably make some progress. But I believe that you’ll get far better results if you hire a professional to help you. I know that might sound odd- after all, I write a blog with lots of “how tos” about reactivity- but my intention has always been that this information would supplement services from a professional trainer, not replace them. Here’s why:

Working with professionals gave me this: a dog who can relax .
1. You need a trainer for her knowledge.
The fact of the matter is, if you knew how to handle your dog’s behavior problem, you would have already fixed it. You need someone who understands the complexity of behavior. A good professional will understand things like psychology, ethology, pharmacology, and epidemiology, and how that applies specifically to your dog.

2. You need a trainer for her experience.
Being book smart is great, but if you can’t implement what you’ve learned, it won’t do you much good. You need someone who has worked with other dogs like yours, and who knows what worked (and what didn’t).

3. You need a trainer for her skills.
Good training requires some very specific skills, such as observation, timing, and ability to adjust criteria. These are things that are crucial to a dog’s success, and while you can (and will!) learn them, you need someone who can help you until you do.

4. You need a trainer for her fresh perspective.
Even if you are well-educated, experienced, and have developed excellent skills, you will still probably benefit from consulting with a professional. Sometimes all you need to break through a particular problem is a new way of looking at things. While you might be able to do this online, it’s much easier to do when you have a second set of eyes on your dog.

5. You need a trainer for her consistency.
Despite what television might lead you to believe, there are rarely quick fixes when it comes to behavior problems. In addition, there are so many competing ideas on the internet that do-it-yourselfers often jump from technique to technique and never give any one of them a chance to work. A trainer will encourage you to stick with a plan long enough for you to see results.

6. You need a trainer for her ability to adjust the plan.
At the same time, sometimes the particular approach you’ve chosen just isn’t a good fit for you or your dog. Stubbornly sticking with a poor training plan is just as bad as being inconsistent, so you need someone who is skilled enough to decide when you need to change the plan of attack… and what to change it to.

7. You need a trainer for her ability to set up effective sessions.
Anyone doing behavior modification knows how hard it can be to set up a good training session. Preventing a reactive dog from going over threshold can be difficult at the best of times; from loose dogs to sudden environmental changes to people who just can’t follow instructions, the real world is rarely ideal. Worse, it can set your training back. A professional trainer can help you manage all these variables so you can focus on your dog.

8. You need a trainer for her feedback.
Most people are incredibly unaware of what they’re doing with their bodies. A skilled trainer will not only notice what you’re doing, but how it’s affecting your dog. Having an external observer who can tell you about both your dog’s behavior and your own will allow you to be far more efficient with your training.

9. You need a trainer for her objectivity.
Whether you’re an eternal optimist or a terrible pessimist, you have an emotional attachment to your dog. I have been guilty of believing my dog is doing better than she is simply because I wanted so desperately for her to improve. I know others who feel so hopeless that they can’t see how much better their dog is doing. A good professional can help you see your dog as he is right now, not colored by your own dreams, expectations, or history.

10. You need a trainer for her encouragement.
This is possibly the most important reason of all. Having a dog with a behavior problem is hard. It can be frustrating and disappointing when things don’t go the way you hope. Having someone to cheer you on when it goes well and to commiserate with when it doesn’t provides you with the support system you need to keep working with your dog.

What do you think? How has working with a professional helped you with your dog? Share your comments below!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Dentist's Gift

I am a dentalphobe. For as long as I can remember, I have hated going to the dentist. I know, I know- everyone says that. But I mean it. The dentist terrifies me, so much so that once I left home after high school, I did not go to the dentist again for ten years. (Side note: this is a seriously bad plan that will likely end up requiring scary things like root canals, which will take three years to pay off. Thank god for sedation dentistry and Care Credit, that’s all I have to say.)

I have been going to the dentist regularly again, and despite the fact that my dentist is a fabulously kind and gentle man who makes every effort to help me feel comfortable, I’m still kind of scared. Even though he offers me anti-anxiety medications, this post is not about how wonderful drugs can be when dealing with fear. No, this post is about my dentist’s best quality: he tells me what he is going to do in advance.

The fear of the unknown is really the scariest part of the dentist for me. I know something unpleasant is going to happen, but I don’t know when. By telling me what he’s about to do, my dentist removes the startle factor. I’m not taken by surprise, and let’s face it: things are much scarier when you don’t expect them.

We really ought to extend this same kindness to our dogs. All of them would probably benefit from a little warning, but for the ones who are generally fearful or anxious, this is doubly important. These dogs already view the world as an unpredictable place. Scary things happen without warning all the time for them.

By warning our dogs before something scary happens, we can reduce the unpredictability of their lives. This has the added benefit of lowering the intensity of the trigger by removing the startle effect- that sudden rush of adrenaline that your body releases when confronted with a fear-inducing event.

Plus, by giving them some advance notice, they have the opportunity to make a choice on how to behave instead of simply reacting in panic. This is useful not only for teaching them appropriate responses, but it also gives them a sense of control. In turn, this leads to increased confidence, which further reduces their fear and anxiety.

Debbie Jacobs wrote about this recently in a blog post about putting distance seeking behavior on cue. Since fearful dogs often try to get away when humans move, she has found that telling them to move away in advance results in less stress for the dogs. This allows her to practice more effective behavior modification.

Another great tool for this is Look at That, introduced by trainer Leslie McDevitt in Control Unleashed. There are many benefits to playing Look at That, and one of them is the warning system it provides. When a handler sees a potential trigger before the dog does, she can cue him to Look! This helps prevent the dog from being taken by surprise, while simultaneously giving the dog information on how he should act.

I have taught my dog that certain words mean something unpleasant is going to happen so that she can prepare herself. The one I use the most is probably “up!” which means that I’m going to pick her up. Considering how short she is, a sudden lift into the air would be very scary if it happened without warning.

In this same vein, a trainer friend of mine has a dog who hates having his nails done, so she uses context clues (specifically, a sheet on the ground) to let him know when it’s going to happen. This prevents him from having to worry about a random clipper attack, and contains his general anxiety.

Although we should always do our best to protect our dogs, the world can be a scary place. Just as I couldn’t avoid going to the dentist forever, we’ll never be able to completely prevent scary things from happening to them. When I go to the dentist now, I know that he will help me through the experience by giving me warnings and allowing me to take breaks when needed. This lets me face my fears with courage. I still don’t love going, but it’s tolerable now. And honestly, I think my dentist is a pretty great guy for it.

Will you do the same for your dog?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

You Can't Fix It All... But You Do Need To Manage It

I recently wrote a post asserting that you can’t fix everything that is “wrong” with your dog. In it, I said that sometimes, the expectations people have for their dogs are unfair, and I urged readers to accept their dogs as they are. I encouraged them not to worry about what others think.

Except sometimes, we need to. When a dog displays behaviors that might be dangerous, we need to protect everyone involved: other people from injury, the owner from a lawsuit, and the dog from himself. We can’t just sit idly by, thinking to ourselves that his behavior is okay because he’s an individual. We must implement a behavior modification plan.

Unfortunately, we can’t always fix it all. Even the best-designed behavior modification plans sometimes fail. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, but the truth is that there are dogs who, due to genetics or past experiences or both, simply cannot be safe in all situations. No matter how much we love them, or how much training and socialization we give them, there are some dogs who will always have issues.

What’s more, even dogs who have recovered or been rehabilitated are at risk. While I don’t believe my own dog, Maisy, is dangerous, I know that there are no guarantees in training- nor in the use of medication, for that matter. Neither have made her forget how to lunge and growl and bark. Those coping mechanisms will always be a part of her, and there is always the risk that she might fall back on them.

I don’t say this to be depressing or discouraging, because I believe that all dogs can make a great deal of progress. Many can even live quite normal lives, and we won’t know if a particular dog is one of them until we try. But anyone who lives with a dog with behavior problems, past or present, needs to be skilled at management.

Management is the act of passively preventing a dog from engaging in a behavior, and it is a critical component to keeping everyone safe. Since it doesn’t require the dog’s owner to actively work with the dog, it is one of the quickest and easiest ways to address problem behaviors. Management is also highly individual; the specifics of what is done to prevent a dog’s behavior will depend on the dog and the behavior itself. Still, there are some general categories for management.

One method is to manipulate or set up the environment in ways that make the behavior unlikely. This is done often with puppies. We use crates to prevent house training mistakes, we pick our clothes up off the floor to prevent holes in our socks, and sometimes, we put the garbage can in a cupboard to prevent puppy from knocking it over.

For dogs with behavior problems, we can do a lot with his environment to set him up for success. Baby gates and crates can keep visitors to the home safe. Blocking a dog’s access to windows- or covering them with cardboard- can prevent a dog from barking all day at passing people or cars. Draping tarps over fences can reduce barrier frustration and fence fighting.

Avoidance is another way to stop behavior problems before they start. If we simply avoid going somewhere or doing something that we know will cause the problem, it won’t happen. For example, if we know our dog will lunge and bark at horses, we can avoid going to farms. If we know that our dog will bite when we pat him on the head, we can stop touching him there.

Obviously, avoidance isn’t always possible. It really only works when a dog has a very specific triggers; if he has more generalized fears, it can be hard to figure out what we can and cannot do. It’s also tricky because we can’t always predict where a horse might show up, and strangers don’t always listen when we say they can’t pet our dogs. Still, there’s no point in tempting fate, and so the wise owner will avoid as many of the triggers as is possible.

Finally, there are many safety items we can use that will help prevent more dangerous behaviors. Muzzles are an obvious choice for dogs with a bite history, especially during stressful situations like vet visits. Dogs who lunge or pull on leash might benefit from an anti-pull body or head harness, and clipping it to the dog’s leash with a coupler will provide for some extra security in case the harness breaks or the dog slips out of it. A waist leash can help prevent owners from dropping the leash.

As you can see, management is a great way to prevent behavior with very little effort on our part. That said, it isn’t foolproof. As I already noted, it’s not always possible to manage everything, and even when something can be managed, it can impose some pretty big restrictions on the lives of the dog and person alike. It also has the potential to fail. The crate door may not get latched correctly, or the muzzle might break.

Therefore, a wise owner will use management in conjunction with a good behavior modification plan. If no further progress with training is possible, or if the risks of the dog falling back on old ways are too great, multiple forms of management should be used.

Management does require us to be creative since it often needs to be designed in a way that works for the dog, the owner, and their environment. Still, it’s worth it. In cases where we can’t fix something, it can mean the difference between giving up the dog or euthanizing him or keeping him in his home.

I'd love to hear about your situation: what problems have you faced, and how have you used management in order to prevent them? Are you currently stumped on how to prevent something from happening? Ask away. Maybe if we put our heads together, we can come up with a great solution.