Thursday, March 27, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Suzanne Hetts on Punishment, Part 2

Punishment should rarely, if ever, be a trainer’s first choice. But Suzanne argues that it’s something we shouldn’t completely dismiss, either. By applying critical thinking skills instead of emotions, we can make better training decisions. And, though it makes me a tad uncomfortable to say it, sometimes those decisions will include punishment.

So how do we decide if punishment should be used? This flow chart, included in our handouts, and available online at this link (on page 19) is very helpful.

Punishment can only be used to eliminate a behavior you don’t like. That said, it’s best to create a reinforcement-based program to create a behavior you do like instead. However, when behaviors are dangerous, they need to be addressed immediately, and the benefits outweigh the risks of using punishment (and make no mistake- there are risks), a punishment-based program may be needed.

If you’ve found yourself in such a situation, Suzanne provided some criteria to ensure that the punishment is effective. The more of these conditions you meet, the more humane the punishment will be. It will still be punishment, of course, but it will reduce the risks of fallout.

Start with Response Prevention
“Response prevention” is where you prevent the unwanted behavior from happening. This is an excellent first step: if you can completely prevent a behavior by changing something, you may not even need a punishment-based solution. However, if you do need to use punishment, response prevention is equally important because…

Punishment Must Be Consistent
When it’s not, the dog may decide that the behavior is worth the risk. For example, if I got a ticket every time I was speeding, I probably would stay within the speed limit. As it stands, though, I’ve had one speeding ticket in the past ten years. Considering the frequency of speeding to being ticketed ratio, it seems worth it. To be effective, the dog must believe that the behavior will automatically trigger the punishment. This is why Suzanne says that…

Remote Punishment is Better Than Interactive Punishment
Dogs are excellent at picking up on discriminative cues that predict events. If you are always the one that delivers punishment, the dog will begin to associate you with the feeling of being punished. For this reason, “booby traps” that appear unrelated to your proximity or presence are preferable to punishments that involve you directly.

It Must Be Immediate
Punishment also must be immediate, and definitely no more than three seconds after the behavior happens. If it’s not, punishment simply becomes aversive: an unpleasant thing that happens randomly with no effect on the behavior.

Dogs Must be Able to “Turn Off” the Punishment
If the punishment must start immediately upon the behavior happening, it must also cease as soon as the behavior stops happening. If the punisher continues to happen after the behavior stops, it will be affecting all those subsequent behaviors. This unnecessarily muddies the waters, making it much harder for the dog to understand what he should and shouldn’t do.

Choose the Correct Intensity
Finally, punishment must be severe enough that it will stop the behavior within 3 to 5 applications, but not so strong that it creates unwanted side effects of fear or aggression. This is probably the hardest criteria to implement, since it requires some guesswork.

If it’s not clear by now, using punishment effectively and humanely requires quite a bit of knowledge, skill, and prior planning. It’s not something to be undertaken in the heat of the moment. The vast majority of the time, there are solutions other than punishment that will be equally effective if you take the time to figure it out.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Project Gratitude: Team Katie and Steve, Walking for Susquehanna Service Dogs

Okay gang, this one is important to me.

During the two-year period that my marriage fell apart, Maisy was my lifeline. She kept me sane during a very crazy time, and I honestly don't know how I would have made it through without her. I know I'm not alone in finding comfort in an animal; I have friends who also depend on their dogs for a variety of things.

My friend Katie is one of those friends. Although I've never met her in person, I consider her a kindred spirit. Like me, she has a dog who has helped her. Unlike me, she has a service dog. Steve helps Katie navigate the world by performing very specific tasks for her, and this has made a world of difference for her.

Steve gives her the gift of independence, and Katie wants to share this gift. Service dogs are notoriously expensive, and organizations that train them often depend on donations and fundraising. This is why Katie is raising money for Susquehanna Service Dogs.

So in honor of Maisy, I'm donating money to Team Katie and Steve's as they walk for Susquehanna Service Dogs. I really hope some of you will join me in supporting them. CLICK HERE to donate!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Napi's Second Reactive Dog Class: So Much Better!

Napi's second reactive dog class went much, much better than the first one did.

As before, when we entered the building, he piloerected and barked all the way to our station, and it was impossible to distract him with food. Once we got into our little corner, he barked a little, but quieted down much faster and was overall quieter than he'd been the week before. He also started eating much sooner, although he did "run out of stomach" (got full) about 45 minutes into class. Small dogs are so hard that way. After that point, he found petting and close contact to be very soothing, which makes me think he might benefit from a Thunder Shirt. Although Napi spent most of his time pacing at the end of his leash, I was very excited that he was willing to sit this week! It wasn't relaxed, and calling it "settled" would be a stretch, but definitely an improvement.

Once again this week, we worked primarily on classical counter-conditioning. In my opinion, this is the most powerful tool a dog trainer has for behavior modification. It's not a "sexy" technique, and to those not in the know, it doesn't look like much. Sitting somewhere and just feeding a dog, regardless of his behavior, seems strange and even counter-intuitive. I sometimes have trouble getting my students on board with this, but creating positive feelings about being in a new environment around new people and new dogs will allow a dog to calm down enough to begin thinking and not simply reacting.

This paid off for us in spades because not only was the class better overall, we also had a nice five minute stretch where Napi was able to "become operant" - by which I mean, we were able to work on actively teaching a skill. While classical conditioning is simply about creating an association regardless of the dog's behavior (“being here means I get yummy food no matter what I do”), operant conditioning requires the dog to do something specific in order to get the food (“now I have to earn my cookies”).

People new to training think that it's all about getting the dog to do something, so I often see my students ask their dogs for operant behavior before the dog is ready – and able - to offer it. The truth is, in the first week of a reactive dog class, most dogs are either at or over their threshold. Although not ideal, it's nearly impossible to avoid. When a dog is in this state, he simply cannot think well enough to perform behaviors. He's too busy freaking out about what's going on in his environment. He has to be emotionally comfortable before he can learn anything, and classical counter-conditioning is the key to this. This is why I encourage my students to simply feed the dog. It doesn't matter if he's sitting or standing, barking or quiet, or even if he's responding to cues. Just feed the dog.

Some dogs can move to operant skills work in the first week. Others, like Napi, can't. This is okay. Behavior modification is not a race against others. Napi is definitely a turtle in that respect; he will not overcome his past quickly. This is why I spent the entire first class just feeding him. And it's why I spent most of the second class (55 minutes) just feeding him. But we were able to do a bit of doing this week. Although it's not something we typically teach in reactive dog class, I worked on teaching Napi to make eye contact. I chose this task because I wanted to reward him for coming in and looking to me instead of roaming around at the end of his leash. Bonus: he learned what the clicker means!

I have to admit, I really did not want to take on another reactive dog. And I wouldn't have, had it not been for the fact that he came as a package deal with my fiance. But I'm actually kind of enjoying it. I'm already really pleased with Napi's progress, and I'm very excited to see what happens when the meds kick in. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Suzanne Hetts on Punishment, Part 1

Punishment is not the problem. So says Suzanne Hetts, PhD, CAAB, CVJ, who elaborates that it is the mis-use of punishment that is a problem. Well, that, and the way we talk about it, which is the subject of today’s post.

Anyone who has been around the dog world for more than, oh, five minutes knows that discussing punishment is “politically sensitive.” Some people refuse to talk about it. Others refuse to listen to people talk about it. Some label anyone who talks about the topic as an animal abuser (or worse- comparing folks to Nazis or child molesters).

There are two big problems with a categorical refusal to discuss punishment. First, Suzanne says that we undermine the profession when we do so. If we don’t talk about it, we lose credibility. Whether we like it or not, punishment exists, and the general public knows that. Refusing to acknowledge that makes us appear willfully ignorant. Worse yet, some trainers don’t talk about punishment accurately or scientifically. For example, some will state that punishment doesn’t work. That’s just a blatant lie. Punishment can and does suppress behavior (that’s sort of the definition of punishment in operant conditioning).

The second problem that Suzanne identifies is that when we refuse to discuss or consider punishment, we miss out on possibly useful options. While Suzanne would rarely use punishment as a first resort, she says there are times it can be helpful. And even if a trainer doesn’t use punishment, she does need to understand it.

A big reason for this is the fact that the general public often defaults to punishment-based solutions. I can’t imagine there are any dog trainers out there that haven’t had a client ask, “How can I get my dog to stop…” Scientifically, stopping behavior requires punishment. Of course, most of us know that the best solution is to reframe the question in terms of what the client wants the dog to do.

And anyway, even if we are opposed to punishment in theory, Suzanne argues that many of the solutions that positive trainers use or recommend are punishing or aversive. For example, the use of a head collars or body blocks are punishing to some dogs, while withholding reinforcement can cause frustration. Still, these are commonly used techniques.

In the end, what it seems to come down to is that humans (trainers and clients alike) have a negative reaction just to the word “punishment.” Think about it; the words “corrections” or “discipline” are far more pervasive, and pack a much smaller emotional punch. Semantics aside, Suzanne encouraged us to consider if we’re really opposed to punishment in and of itself, or if we are actually opposed to confrontational methods.

I find this distinction to be a useful one. I will not use pain or fear to train my dog, but I have no problem telling her she can’t do something, or enforcing a time-out if needed. I will not engage in power struggles, especially with larger, stronger dogs, but I sure will use tools like head halters that give me an advantage. While punishment can become confrontational, it doesn’t have to be. Punishment is not one-dimensional. It’s not all-or-nothing, and our conversations about it shouldn’t be, either.

So what should we discuss when talking about punishment? Ah, you’ll have to tune in next week to find out.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Napi Joins the Cool Dogs

All the cool dogs take drugs. And now Napi is one of the cool dogs.

I took Napi to the vet today to discuss the possibility of behavioral medication for his extreme fear. First, I'm just gonna say it: I love my vet clinic. I chose Lake Harriet Vet in Minneapolis because I liked their mix of holistic and western medicine. I was thrilled to find out that across the board, their staff are really good at handling dogs with special needs. Today was no exception.

I called when I arrived to let the staff know that we needed to go straight into a room. They were more than willing to do this for us. We were a bit early, so we waited about 10 minutes before the tech came in. Napi was quite reactive during this time; he barked every time he heard a noise or someone walked past the door and refused to eat any of the yummy foods I'd brought with.

Here's a video of Napi before the tech came in. I did edit it lightly to remove stuff when he was off camera. He did start eating just at the end of the video; most of that is off camera, of course!

Napi finally started eating just before the tech came in. Naturally, her presence freaked him out a bit, so he stopped eating and started barking. She very wisely completely ignored him, and he quieted within a few minutes and was willing to eat peanut butter again.

When the vet came in, Napi had decided that peanut butter is better than barking, and he just made a little wuff and went back to the food. Yay! He did bark once in awhile during the exam, but overall, was very good. This gives me a lot of hope for his future progress.

For her part, the vet didn't push Napi for the sake of the exam; instead we agreed to try 5mg of fluoxetine daily, with the possibility of moving up to 10mg daily if needed. The vet also suggested a situational med - trazodone, up to 25mg every 12-24 hours - and I was thrilled that she suggested both the as-needed med and that it wasn't ace.

So. Fingers crossed this is the right med for Napi! I am super excited to see how much progress he can make between meds and training.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Worse Than I Expected: Napi's First Reactive Dog Class

Friday night, I took Napi to his first reactive dog class. I knew going into it that Napi is reactive; I've seen him bark and lunge at people. I've also suspected that he might be a bit anxious, as he seems to have trouble settling. When he and Pyg play together, Pyg will want to take breaks. Napi doesn't. More than that, it seems like he can't. My overall goal for the entire session is to evaluate if he would benefit from medication.

For the first night of class, my goal was to get him settled on a mat – even briefly- and to teach him about the clicker. We did not accomplish these goals. Instead, I had to revise them to simply eating treats in class.

Napi is a lot more fearful than I thought. Upon entering the building, he immediately piloerected (hair on his back stood up), and tucked his tail. As soon as he saw the instructor, he started barking and growling. I scooped him up, stuck him behind a barrier, and started offering him bits of bacon and turkey. It was a no go. He was not interested in eating.

Hiding behind me, but eating!
I switched to using soft praise and petting. Napi liked this, and for the rest of the hour, whenever something scared him, he would hide behind me and press up against me. I was really happy to see this because I believe reactive dogs need to see their person as safe. Since we don't live together yet, I wasn't expecting to see this.

Napi did eventually start eating treats, although he would occasionally refuse them if things got too overwhelming. He never did go on his mat (he seemed scared of it, actually), and he never really did settle. In fact, it might not even sound like we did anything. It's true that I didn't teach him any exercises or introduce him to the clicker. But we actually accomplished a lot. I began the long process of counter-conditioning. I established myself as a safe person. I learned about the kinds of foods Napi likes and doesn't like – info that will be invaluable in coming weeks.

I also learned that although he could make a lot of progress with just training, it will not only be easier but also be more humane to start him on medications. Napi's fear response was extreme, far worse than I remember from Maisy. He was louder and more intense in his reactions. He was difficult to distract, even with food. He was slow and stiff in his body movements, and there were times he just shook from head to toe.

It's true that these reactions appeared worse because I took him out of his comfort zone. It's also true that this could be avoided by not “forcing” him to go to class. But the truth is that simply being in a new place does not change a dog's underlying personality and response to the world. The fact that he was terrified says a lot about what he's experienced and who he's become as a result.

That is no way to live. Even if Napi has carved out a little part of the world where he feels (mostly) safe, all of that anxiety and fear are still underneath. Leaving a living being to suffer like this is not kind, not when I can do something to help.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Aditi Terpstra on Canine Body Language

Aditi’s second presentation of the day was on canine body language. Most of this was review for me, but there were two things that I really liked about this presentation.

First, I really liked that Aditi put body language under the broader category of behavior, which she defines as “the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus.” Body language falls very neatly under that. Aditi also emphasized that behavior is a pretty broad spectrum, dependent on the individual animal. Obviously, genetics, previous experiences, and the current environment will all influence a dog’s behavior- and in this case, body language.

Second, I appreciated her emphasis on describing behavior (and body language) in objective terms. This means describing something without allowing it to be influenced by your own thoughts, feelings, prejudices, or interpretations. In other words, describing it so that a person could create an accurate mental picture of what happened. So, an objective description of a dog might say that the dog’s eyes were soft, his mouth was open, his tail down and wagging slowly, and his ears back. A subjective description- one in which we allow our own perceptions or opinions influence the words we use- might say the dog is happy.

Of course, we all know this is harder than it sounds. Saying a dog is happy is quicker and easier than describing all his body parts. Often, the subjective interpretation is enough, but there are times where we need to be objective. I would argue that as an instructor, I need to be especially mindful of this. After all, my job is to educate, and shorthand doesn’t do that very well.

The great thing about Aditi’s presentation was that she broke everything down into individual body parts and then gave us words we could use to describe each one. 

Eyes can be described by shape: are they soft? round? almond shaped? hard? Is there white showing? Are the muscles around the eyes relaxed or tense? The pupils can be described as normal (for the light conditions) or dilated. The movement of the eye can also be described: are the eyes fixed, direct, or staring? Are they darting back and forth?

The dog’s mouth can likewise be described. It could be open with relaxed muscles. The lip may be “long” or curved up in a “smile.” Or, it may be drawn forward or curled back, possibly exposing teeth and gums. There may be tension or wrinkles around the mouth. A dog can yawn or lick his lips.

Ears change quickly and can be difficult to read because there are so many sizes and shapes of a dog’s ears. Because of that, Aditi advised that we look at the base of the ears to determine if the ears are forward, back, or off to the side. They may be tense or relaxed.

Tails are likewise difficult. Again, looking at the base can be helpful. Is the tail still or wagging? Is it held in a neutral position (at spine level), held high, or low and tucked? The wag could be slow and loose, or tight and fast.

Finally, you have to put all of this together and take in the full picture. Is the dog’s overall movement slow and “sleepy” looking? Is he moving quickly and appearing frantic? Is his posture upright? Forward? Back? Are his paws all on the ground? Are they sweating? Is the dog avoiding you? Is he sniffing the ground, shaking his full body, or rolling over to expose his belling? Is the hair flat on his back or the hackles up? Does he look away from other dogs or offer play bows?

Sometimes, body language can be conflicted. This makes things a bit more difficult to read, but keep in mind that body language is fluid and can change moment to moment, so keep watching and describing. It is likely that things will come together and make more sense as you do. 

Okay, gang... here's a (hilarious) action shot of Pyg and Napi. What do you see?


Thursday, March 6, 2014

I believe my response to the vet would be an inappropriate post title

I took Maisy in for a just-being-super-cautious bladder ultrasound on Monday. It’s been six months since her huge bladder stones (and subsequent removal). Since that time, all of her UAs have come back great, and she continues to be on the prescription diet to help prevent a recurrence, so I figured it would be a pretty quick and easy appointment.
It’s like I don’t even know my own dog.
Of course she has bladder stones. Five or six, actually. All small enough to pass, but still. Wasn’t the diet supposed to prevent this? Yes, it should have, but… well, we’ve cheated. Oh, sure, her main meals have been the prescription diet, but she has still gotten the occasional bully stick and we definitely feed her off our plates… The vet didn’t think that would be enough to cause stone formation, but that’s what I’m going with because the alternative is more frustrating.
See, there are two main types of stones: struvite and calcium oxalate. Struvites can be dissolved by diet and are therefore the better kind to have. This is what Maisy had last fall. Calcium oxalate, on the other hand, have to be removed surgically. We don’t know which kind Maisy has now, so I’m going with the diet-needs-to-be-stricter theory.
The plan right now is to switch from the stone-prevention diet to the stone-dissolution diet and then do a recheck ultrasound in 6-8 weeks. If the stones go away, we’re all good. If they don’t… well, we’ll figure it out then. The good news is that the stone-dissolution diet can also be used for maintenance. The bad news is that every. single. dissolution diet on the market has eggs in them. Maisy is allergic to eggs. But hey, she’s already on steroids, so hopefully that will prevent any allergy issues.
Fingers crossed! On all fronts!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

La Casa del Cuatro

Observant folks may have noticed some changes around the blog. The “About Me” section, the sidebar, the header, and a recent post have all indicated some pretty big changes happening I have four dogs now.

The two new kids on the block are inherited dogs, not chosen dogs; they belong to my fiance. We don't all live together just yet, but the plan is to merge households in June. There's a bit of work to be done before this happens, which is good news for you, my dear readers, as it gives me blog fodder.

Like an angel.
Lola is a three-and-a-half-year-old basset hound. She is as sweet as the day is long, and I'm simply enamored of her. She's a special dog, holding a place in my fiance's heart the way Maisy does in mine; she carried him through a cross-country move and some lonely times.

Although Lola hasn't had much training, she doesn't need much, either. She's a very typical pet dog without a lot of issues. Except she's afraid of cats. And I have a cat. This, of course, is a pretty big barrier to us all living together, so it's something I've had to start working on. But more on this soon.

Cats love boxes. Napi loves boxes. Therefore, Napi is a cat?
Napi (short for Napoleon) is an almost two-year-old chihuahua (mix?). My fiance rescued him in the most literal way possible: he saw the neighbors beating Napi, so he went over to them and said, “You don't like your dog. Either give him to me and I'll find him a home, or I'm calling the police.” They gave him the dog, and my fiance found him a home... at his house. That wasn't the plan, but I guess foster failing runs in the family.

Napi is reactive, especially towards men, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to surmise why. So far, we've started working on some management (Napi doesn't get to go to the dog park with the rest of us anymore), but soon I'll begin training him in earnest. I can't say that I was eager to have another reactive dog, but Napi is sweet and funny, and I'm glad to have him in my life.

I'm sure future posts will discuss how we've been integrating the family in preparation for living together, but I'll address the burning question now: how does everyone get along? The answer is: surprisingly well. Pyg and Napi are actually really well matched. They have similar play styles, and it's been a relief to be able to get the boys together to play during this long winter. Lola enjoys playing too, although due to her size, she finds it hard to keep up with the younger, more agile boys.

And Maisy? Well, Maisy will forever be the socially awkward only child that she's always been. She tolerates the other dogs just fine, but given a choice, she will play ball with one of the humans. For the most part, she ignores the others and does her own thing, but since it's working for everyone, I've got no complaints.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Aditi Terpstra on Food Guarding and Adoption Outcomes

In *cough*May*cough*, I attended the 12th Annual Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference, which was focused on behavior. It was a great day of speakers and info, and I’m really glad I went. Today’s post is a summary of Aditi Terpstra’s presentation on food guarding. Aditi is a CPDT-KA who runs Urbane Animal. She is also the dog program director for the Winona Animal Humane Society, a back-up animal control officer for Winona, MN, and an independent contractor for the ASPCA. She’s also a really cool person.

Zombie Dog resource guards caffeine. That's okay, he's probably still adoptable.
Aditi introduced the ASPCA SAFER assessment in her presentation, which was geared towards shelter workers. The SAFER is not a temperament test; it’s not a pass/fail exam, but rather a snapshot of current behavior, focusing on aggression. Each dog is assessed and assigned a score ranging from 1 to 5, and these scores help shelter workers determine the resources needed in order to place the dog safely. Food guarding is just one area on the SAFER, but it’s an important area to single out as a survey of shelters showed that food guarding is one of the top reasons dogs were deemed not eligible for adoption. Only 34% of the shelters responding to the survey attempted behavior modification for this behavior problem.

What I found very interesting was that the Wisconsin Human Society (2004) did research that suggests that behavior mod in the shelter setting wasn’t even necessary in some cases! In this research, 96 dogs had scores of 3-5 (indicating stiffening, freezing, gulping, growling, or biting a fake hand) on the food aggression section of the SAFER assessment. These dogs were sent home on a “food program” for the new adopters to follow. This program includes advice to avoid conflict around the food bowl, to make mealtime a non-event, and to require a sit (or other simple behavior) before the bowl is put on the floor. They had adopters put small amounts in the bowl at first, and then adding more gradually. Dropping high value food treats was also recommended, in addition to providing a “foraging device” (ie, Kong or other food toy) to the dogs. Only six adopters (out of 96!) reported guarding behaviors in the first 3 weeks. The dogs were followed for three months, and in that time, only one dog was returned. This means that 95 “unadoptable” animals were successful placed!

I’ll admit, I have concerns about liability, but the researchers did not. They were very transparent about the dog’s issues, and provided pre-adoption education and follow-up support. Definitely an interesting presentation. If you’d like more information, you can visit the following links: