Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jane Killion Seminar: Random Thoughts on Reactivity

Reactivity was not one of the topics of the seminar. There was no power-point presentation, nor was there an official outline on the matter. Despite that, I'm still going to write about Jane's comments on reactivity. The reader should understand that this is not a comprehensive training plan. Although I have some ideas of how Jane approaches reactive dogs based on what she said, this cannot be taken as her entire method. This post is being put together based on off-hand comments and responses to audience questions, so please, take it as such.

With all that said, my impression was that Jane does not alter her approach to reactive dogs that much. It appeared that her work with all dogs- reactive or not- is based on getting the dog operant, teaching stellar attention skills, and then expanding the dog's “envelope.” Again, maybe this was because of the constraints of the seminar, but I was disappointed and uncomfortable with her approach. Let me explain why:

Get the Dog Operant
According to Jane, reactive dogs (and their aggressive counterparts) need to be operant, maybe even more so than “normal” dogs. She said this is true because reactivity and aggression come from the same area of the brain as frustration, and frustration results from not knowing how to solve problems. By creating an operant dog, you get a dog who understands how to solve problems, which will reduce his frustration levels. In turn, Jane told us, you will reduce reactivity. At the same time, getting an operant dog is vital because it helps the dog and human learn how to communicate with one another. Of course, you'll still need to work on what, exactly, you communicate, but having an operant dog who understands how to communicate with you will go a long way towards reducing reactivity.

I can certainly see the value in this. Having a dog who understands he can control his environment with his behavior is a beautiful thing, and is at the heart of many of the training protocols available- like CAT, BAT, Control Unleashed, etc. Of course, the great challenge is harnessing that ability in a way you like. Early on in my work with Maisy, I inadvertently taught her that she could offer the behavior of barking and lunging at other dogs. This was the exact opposite of what I wanted her to learn, and indeed, was the fault of my own poor training. Getting an operant dog will not solve a behavior problem; it only gives you a chance to solve it.

But this emphasis on operancy also overlooks a huge area of training: classical counter-conditioning. I firmly believe that counter-conditioning is very important when working with reactive or aggressive dogs because it gives us a solid foundation upon which to build. Classical conditioning cannot be the sole answer- there will come a point where it's impossible to maintain, requiring you to switch to an operant technique- but I think it is often overlooked all the same. Now, Jane did recognize that “Pavlov is always on your shoulder” (that is, that classical conditioning always takes place alongside operant conditioning), but I felt she gave short shrift to the power in classical conditioning. Again, this was probably because it was outside the scope of the seminar, but if she uses it in her work with reactive dogs, I wish she would have at least mentioned it.

Teach Stellar Attention Skills
I've already alluded to the fact that Jane believes strong attention skills are vital for dogs. She stated that pretty much every problem you have with your dog is because he doesn't understand the concept of attention, and what's more, that reactive/aggressive dogs “need to have unbroken attention on me.”

To this end, she showed us a video of her then-18-week-old cattle dog, who was very sensitive to the environment. In the case of this video, the environment in question was a dog show; Jane was there to film a specialty, and during one of the down-times, she let her puppy come out to explore. The video showed the dog entering an area, straining at the end of the leash and scanning. The dog's tail was straight, vertical, and stiff as it stared. At one point, the dog erupted into barking. Throughout this, Jane's only response was to capture and click/treat eye contact. In the next segment, taken after some time had elapsed (but no further training had occurred), Jane and the dog entered the area. The dog immediately reoriented to her, and gave her some excellent eye contact, virtually ignoring what was going on around them.

The video was impressive. The change in the dog was dramatic. And yet... I didn't buy it. Not that I don't believe the events occurred as she said they did- I'm sure they did- but I don't believe this would work with every reactive dog. At any rate, I know this would not have worked for Maisy, because I have tried similar things. I figured this must be because Jane's dog was simply environmentally sensitive, while Maisy has a diagnosed anxiety disorder that required medication to resolve. Convinced this was the case, I approached her after the seminar to inquire if she would do things differently with a dog like mine. No. She would not. The technique probably didn't work for me because my skills are not as good as hers.

Expand the Dog's Envelope
Environmentally sensitive dogs, Jane told us, must be trained to work despite the spider (or whatever) in the room. They need to learn to ignore those distractions. Basically, reactivity is one big “proofing” exercise (except Jane doesn't call it that because she thinks proofing implies correction). As a result, she works with a reactive dog the same way she works with any other dog in this regard: she finds the envelope and gradually increases it.

The only difference is that she said with a reactive dog, you much work much slower, and push on the envelope much more gently. If you allow your dog to go over threshold (a word she does not use, because she said everyone understands it differently), you have made a mechanical error. Dogs who go “outside the envelope” end up with a cascade of chemicals releasing in the brain, which sidelines your training as the dog recovers from the stress.

I agree that you should not let a dog go over threshold; the resultant cortisol release means that you're stuck with an edgier dog for the next 72 hours (or longer- pre-medication, Maisy often needed up to a week to recover). But I am confused by Jane's idea of what going over threshold looks like; in the video of her cattle dog, the tight, tense body language and eruption of barking seemed like a reactive response to me. When I asked her about it, though, she said the barking was an alert barking, not reactive barking. Certainly, she knows her dog better than I, but I was uncomfortable with this response.

What about Stress?
Many seminar participants noted that some of the dogs looked stressed while working. Jane's response to this was that you don't know what your dog is thinking or feeling, so it doesn't really matter. She encouraged people to let dogs think through their stress (probably okay with a “normal” dog, but a bit worrisome for me with a reactive dog). For the more stressed dogs, she encouraged the handlers to select and reinforce relaxed body language (looking at ears, mouths, etc.).

Again, I was uncomfortable with this. Although she did adjust criteria/the environment for some of the dogs, for the most part, she pushed them far beyond their comfort zone- as demonstrated by body language- than I would do with my own dog. She believes this is where learning occurs. I agree that stress is inevitable in life, and that we need to help our dogs learn how to think through stress. At the same time, if a dog is too stressed, he cannot learn. Jane did emphasize that you need to skim the edges of stress for reactive dogs, but it seemed we had different ideas of where that edge is.

So is Jane wrong? No. Her techniques are clearly successful; she has a dog-aggressive dog of her own, and that dog was nationally ranked in APDT rally. But I don't think that means I am wrong, either. I, too, have a dog who was nationally ranked in APDT rally. And while my skills aren't even close to Jane's, I am proud of my accomplishments with Maisy, and I believe that in time, I will develop better training abilities.

In the end, I think there is enough room in the world for people to train in different ways, and to have different beliefs about how to approach the same problem. Jane has chosen a strict behavioral view. She trains the dog and the behavior she sees in front of her. I have chosen to follow a more emotional, relationship-focused method. Neither of us are wrong, even if we are uncomfortable with the other's views. Indeed, it is in these areas of discomfort that the most learning takes place.

Jane's seminar forced me to confront my own views and to examine them. Although this post concludes the official seminar recap, you can be assured that there will be many posts to come exploring my own thoughts and ideas on reactivity, training, and dogs in general. And perhaps that is the most important thing I took away from this seminar. Even if I didn't agree with everything I saw, I sure did learn a lot.


Sara Reusche said...

Okay, as someone who's seen you train and also seen Jane train, you're giving yourself WAY too little credit in this post. You know that I agree with you about Jane's feelings on reactivity and training. However, I disagree that Jane is a more skilled trainer than you. Jane has fantastic mechanical skills, but you also have a very advanced skill set, especially for someone who hasn't been training for decades. Your ability to read dogs in the moment and adjust your criteria for the individual dog is phenomenal.

And now I'm going to do everything short of sacrificing a chicken in hopes that blogger accepts this comment. If not, I suppose it will go on Facebook instead. :-/

Andreja said...

For my dog there are two sides to his reactivity: what happens during work and what happens when not working (on walks). During work I keep his arousal up with a lot of movement and chasing and as long as I give him 100% he will nearly always gives me 100% back.

However in places where I can't use his top rewards and have to rely on food instead, we are much more limited in what we can do around other dogs. I assume the cattle dog in the video was crazy about food rewards, because if I give a mediocre reward in a stimulating environment my dog barely takes notice.
Also, from what I understand from my friends a lot of their dogs will start alert barking but then calm down on their own after a while (for example if they take them to the zoo, which is popular here). The cattle dog's description fits such a dog quite nicely. My dog on the other hand will not stop. He will get increasingly worked up and if he does stop for a few moments it's not because he calmed down. He will just be waiting for the smallest signal from the environment to start barking and lounging.

Let's discuss fear for a second. I love agility, but am afraid of trials. That doesn't keep me from going, it just shuts down 3/4 of my brain functions so that I have very little to work with. I am "operant", I can problem solve, but not even half as good as in training (which unfortunately fuels my fears). If I have a choice I would prefer to have 100% of brain functions from me and from my dog, thank you very much :)

What I'm trying to say is that brain cannot function the same when experiencing fear even though it is possible to increase its functions in both humans and dogs. This gets me to my second point: I would like to have a dog who can go for a walk in a new location and stays relaxed i.e. not go over the top because he sees a person in the distance (which he has no problem with in familiar environments). Yes, I can do the operant things with him - play, ask him to heel, do tricks etc... but all I want to do is walk. Peacefully. Without barking. Since we determined last time that attention that Jane teaches is only used while dog is working I don't see how it would help me with this. Unless she turns it into a form of Look At That, so that every scary object is a cue for attention.

Crystal Thompson said...

SARA- Thanks. That's very nice of you to say. I guess it's all in the skill you practice... I've had to learn to read dogs and adjust criteria, so I've learned that one. It also helps that for the six years before I got Maisy, I worked with people who were nonverbal, so I'm quite good at observation in general. :)

ANDREJA- A food motivated dog definitely helps with the things Jane showed us, but even food motivated dogs will stop eating if they are too stressed. Add to that the fact that the cattle dog in the video was both young (18 weeks) and (I assume) had had a lot of foundation attention work... well, those factors probably contributed to their success.

The cattle dog also seems to be a dog who has an easier time modulating its own arousal levels. There are definitely dogs out there (like yours, and mine) who struggle to calm down after a stressful event, and even stress up more.

I also suspect the cattle dog in the video was more environmentally interested/sensitive than fearful or even anxious. Like you note, fear and anxiety reduce the brain's ability to function. Dogs can and do learn to think through that, but being able to work through stress is not the same not experiencing it. I think perhaps this was the biggest place Jane and I differ: she was happy with a dog who could work with stress, while I care deeply about the dog's emotional state, even if I am guessing at what that state is.

Ninso said...

I bet Elo was probably once just like Jane's cattle dog, but allowed to practice bad behavior far too long. I think her method would work pretty well for him and most other dogs who aren't necessarily fearful, but just don't know how to handle themselves. However, I don't think it would be the complete solution. Elo can keep his attention on me when he desperately wants to look around, due to a ton of training and being VERY food motivated. But this is not the end behavior I am looking for. I don't want a dog who can hold it together as long as his eyes are glued to mine. I want a dog who can chill around his triggers, even if he is not giving me his full attention. This seems to be accomplished through counter-conditioning more than anything.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

As I mentioned earlier, I think Jane's distraction=attention method is great for most dogs. I wouldn't have pushed quiet so hard, but that general method is one I've used with all my dogs and one I will use again.

But what is key for me is whether the reactivity stems from excitement/frustration or from anxiety/fear. I would worry that with the later, while you can likely get that full attention on you despite the presence of former triggers, it could blow up in your face if pushed. I worry the dog being more easily surprised by triggers until they are too close and suddenly he can't handle it.

And to me that video clip wasn't demonstrating her method as it was with a baby, who likely just felt more relaxed being out in an environment the second time as well as more time in the crate to get used to it. The difference between over aroused leading to reactivity vs being scared.

Crystal Thompson said...

NINSO- Completely agree. I also want a dog who is chill around triggers. I care much more about her emotional state than her behavior. (Which is probably why I let her be a little obnoxious in greeting- I'm just so happy to see her interested in interacting with people!)

LAURA- Well said, thank you. I meant to touch on causes of reactivity, and really didn't. I think that matters, like you point out. I also think you're right about the video; that was an interested/excited dog who habituated to the environment and then remembered what its job was. Very different than a dog who is scared/freaking out. Maisy knows her job, but sometimes there's too much anxiety to do it.

Susanna said...

Have been mulling this over since it was posted but with zero time to respond. :-( My malamute is reactive. Like other diagnosis words, "reactivity" is a short-cut term that leaves a lot out. Trav at 1YO had a high prey drive, low impulse control, low tolerance for frustration, and high anxiety (my word) when on-leash in close proximity to other dogs.

"Threshold" was probably the most important concept I learned in our early weeks of training. Call it what you will: it was the point beyond which Travvy literally couldn't hear me, the point at which instinct overwhelmed all his learned behavior. Past that point he wasn't operant, and counter-conditioning was a key tool to keep him under it. So I'm not seeing any contradiction between the two. "Operant" is a state (readiness to learn), and "counter-conditioning" is one way of getting there.

Btw, Trav went over threshold often in those early months, and it never took him anything like 72 hours to get over the "edginess." An hour or two max, and it's much less now.

Another key concept for us was "distance, duration, and distraction." You increase each one gradually, and when you increase one, it's usually best to decrease the others: e.g., if you increase the distraction, you decrease your distance from the dog and the duration you expect him to do the behavior (as in a stay).

My trainer says, and Jane does too, that a dog can't be doing two things at once. This was another key: give Trav something else to focus on besides the anxiety-producing situation over there. And make it easy for Trav to make the right choice.

Yeah, I'd love to go to trials and not even think about how close other dogs are to my dog. I can't. I do have a dog who can now function in high-stress situations, and I'm pretty good at reading his behavior: I figure that if I'm going to take him into those situations, which he'd never choose on his own, it's my job to help him manage his anxiety.

Crystal Thompson said...

Susanna, I'm jealous. An over-threshold moment used to put Maisy on edge for up to a week. Thankfully, she does much, much better with medication- closer to an hour or so.

Dizzy said...

Busy week at work, a little behind on my blog posts.

I'm constantly impressed by the differences between Rubi and Maus, even through they're both reactive. Rubi picks up new behaviors faster, recovers more quickly, and is generally easier to work with. I did with Rubi in one month things that I have yet to accomplish with Maus in four years. There's huge difference between fear-based reactivity and frustration-based reactivity. It's amazing.

I don't think, though, that concern for behavior and concern for emotions are mutually exclusive or even opposite poles on the same scale. Ideally, I believe that they should be mutually inclusive. It is of huge importance to me that Maus not bite anyone; it's also incredibly important that he be as comfortable and anxiety-free as possible. By teaching Maus coping skills (behaviors), I can help reduce his anxiety. By reducing his anxiety, I reduce the need for specialized behaviors. Emotions and behaviors are both part of the big picture: a happy, well-mannered dog.

Andreja said...

I feel like I need to add recent developments to my previous comment. Perhaps they will help somebody.

I used Jane's method of ignoring distractions (click for looking away) to help Ruby ignore food that he finds outside. We worked on Leave It before and on Susan Garrett's It's Your Choice, but Jane's addition of not looking at the food at all made a huge difference for us - and not just in the food department!

After just one session with food Ruby could look away from a big, scary dog without any prompting from me. At first I thought it was a coincidence. But then we didn't use Jane's method for a week and he got a bit more reactive again. After two more sessions with food he got better around dogs again and I think he really does transfer the self control from that game into every day life. He even calms down after seeing a cat, which is huge improvement cosidering he once snapped a leather leash when he took off after a cat. Unbelievable!

We worked on his reactivity before using some CU work and BAT and it helped him deal with the environment, but this just took it one step further.
I think his problem is mainly that he starts to stare at dogs and can't bring himself break the stare on his own, so he gets more and more worked up. That's why working on just that part of the issue had such a big impact.

Thanks for writing about Jane Killion seminar. Without this blog I wouldn't have tried yet another way of teaching Ruby to leave food alone :)

Crystal Thompson said...

Andreja- I'm glad to hear the update! Sounds like this has worked really well for you, which is awesome!

I do think Jane's method is awfully clever, and while I don't think it will work for every single dog (reactivity is a spectrum and all that), it's definitely something worth trying. I'm really glad you tried it, it worked, and you reported back. :)