A question of ethics – part 1

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I was at the office today (our local park) doing a consultation with a man and his Labrador, working on recall and loose lead walking (connection). We have a really nice community at the park on weekday mornings, the professional dog walkers, the power walkers without dogs, the recreational cyclists and the dog people walking their own dogs.

There is a fella who I see who has two GSDs who he has trained to a high level from the brief glimpses I get of him (I see him several times over the month). He appears to use positive trainng methods from what I can see. He uses food to reinforce the behaviour which he likes and I’ve never seen him physically correct his dogs. When he asks the dogs to do something though, he’s not really asking, he’s telling.

This fella knows I’m a dog trainer and from reading his body language (he never says hello to anyone etc) I get the impression that’s he is trying to show me how it’s really done. Today (and every other dog he sees me), he put his dogs in a sit stay in the middle of the path and walked away. There were other dogs and people around walking past his dogs. The dogs were transfixed by him and then he called them, they raced towards him and then held a heel position targeting his hands for about 50m or so. They were then reinforced with food. Impressive? Yes, maybe. Ethical? I’m not so sure. If this had been in competition for a dog sport, then yes, it’s impressive. If it had been in preparation for that dog sport competition, then yes, cool also. My issues is that it’s done for the benefit of all those watching and at the dogs’ expense to boot.

For me it would be far more impressive if his dogs were walking with him off lead, moving forward in front of him, sniffing, moving with him when he walked on and behaving in an appropriate social manner with dogs and people. But they’re not. The appear to be automatons, with little choice and not allow ot behave like dogs (I’ve never seen them sniff when out)

Training with positive methods isn’t enough. We need to train with an ethical mindset too. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Until next time, have a great Christmas.

John and the Glasgow Dog Trainer Team

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Positively Excellent Dog Training Part 2 – Reinforcement Part 1

Positively excellent dog training. We continued today, Saturday 27th February 2016, looking at reinforcement. Reinforcement is such a huge topic that we have split it into 2 workshops, the next one being in the 19th March. Even then, 4 hours of learning can be only an introduction to the topic, which, as positive reinforcment trainers, sits at the very heart of what we do.

After introductions, Clare presented a short input on reinforcement, mainly to get the students thinking about what reinforcement is. What is reinforcement and how does it differ from rewards and treats? Is there a difference? These are not semantics, if we don’t know the difference, how can we expect to apply it to our dogs?

PEDT2

We divided the reinforcement into three categories; food reinforcers, toy/play reinforcers and life reinforcers.As modern dog trainers, we looked at positve reinforcement, rather than negative reinforcement.

Each of the categories was divided further to identify the pros and cons of each of them, when they could be used, and what behaviours they could be used to reinforce.

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Toy reinforcers pictured above. Divided into chase, retrieve and tug toys. Remember, it’s what the dog gets to do with the toy which is reinforcing rather than the toy itself!

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PEDT2d

After discussion on the merits and disadvantages of each, the groups the devised training plans to test the value of various reinforcers.

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Building on the work done in the last workshop, ethical considerations were taken into account for both the handler and the dog, with welfare of the dog being at foremost in our minds. The attendees showed real thoughfulness in their design.


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Homework assignments were given with ongoing support between workshops. If you are interested in attending these, or are interested in hosting us to run these workshops in your area, please contact me at glasgowdogtrainer@hotmail.co.uk.

Part 2 of the reinforcment workshop is on the 19th March 2016 in East Kilbride.

Recall and respect

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One of the most important duties, if not the most important one, of living with a dog is keeping our dog safe. That means, keeping our dog safe from other people, keeping our dog safe from other dogs, and keeping other people and other dogs safe from our dog (which is ultimaltely keeping our dog safe if we extrapolate the consequences of not doing it).

Dog ownership is a privilege, not a right. Having your dog off lead in public is definitely a privilege but more and more I’m seeing people who view it as a right. Unless you spend time and effort consistently training a recall, it is very unlikely that it will happen on it’s own. No recall can be 100% as our dogs are living, breathing beings with their own minds and desires, not washing machines. This however is not an excuse. For me, I try to play the probablilty game. The question I ask is “Do I have a 95%+ chance my dog will come back to me right now?”.

The thing we need to remember is that “right now” changes and the “right now” of right now, is different from the “right now” of 30 seconds ago or last week. Things can change in a very short space of time and we owe it to our dogs and the other people sharing public spaces to have our dog under control.

Questions I ask myself when out with Watson

  1. If she appraoches another dog, can I recall her?
  2. If another dog approaches her, can I recall her?
  3. If she gets spooked by something (not an issue with her fortunately), can I recall her?
  4. If a dog gets in her face and acts aggressively, can I recall her?
  5. If she sees a running dog, squirrel or rabbit, or a cyclist or jogger can I recall her?
  6. Can she greet another dog civilly?
  7. Can she greet a person civilly?

This is not exhaustive but you get the idea. If the answer to these questions is no, then your dog does not have good enough behaviour off lead to be off lead. Your puppy, who trotted along next to you, whose recall you didn’t reinforce when she was doing it naturally, who you let have unlimited off lead play with other dogs in order to “socialise her” a few short weeks later is a teeneged monster with no reinforcement history of  recall who is now exploring the world and ignoring you. Being on lead and off lead or not the only options. Long lines, being off lead when safe and on lead when not are perfect alternatives.

A few stories from my own experience to share with you. I advocate the use of long lines. As you can see from my videos, Watson is always wearing the long line at the moment when I’m working in public parks. I ask clients to use the long line because it prevents the dog being reinforced for unwanted behaviour and makes it easier to reinforce wanted ones. So, some examples (details changed ot protect the innocent and the guilty)

  1. Client comes to me with a large, aggressive dog. We work successfully and put together a protocol for training. He comes back to me a week later, his dog had jumped on (although thankfully not injured) another dog. The dog was off lead in a public place and he had come off the trails and “thought it would be ok” as it was quiet. There was another dog in the car park and the client’s dog jumped on the other dog and pinned it. All avoidable if the dog had been on lead or line.
  2. I’m working with client A who has a large reactive dog. A previous client. client B, who uses the same park (we had worked the previous week doing recall with her dog) walks along past us. Myself, client A and her dog are at a very safe distance working with her dog. Client B’s dog sees me, and breaks away from client B and runs towards us. Client B laughs and shouts “it’s because he hears the clicker”, while we are trying to manage the situation and prevent B’s dog from being jumped on. No, dummy, it’s not because he hears the clicker, it’s because you’ve done no recall work over the last week as I see you every day, and your dog is off lead (this was internal dialogue as there is a time and place to address this)
  3. This one is a personal favourite. I’ll call the ower Big M. Big M has a 6 month old large breed working dog who would be a dream to train if he actually bothered. Big M uses his phone a lot when out with the dog and doesn’t pay attention to his dog. Big M’s dog, let’s call him Houston, is a really cool dog. He is super friendly but doesn’t always read what the other dog is telling him very well and this can lead to bother. I’ve seen more than one dog telling him off for being too pushy. Incident 1 – I’m working with a client and his Labrador for manners training. Big M comes along with Houston, and I swear, kicks the football directly towards us. Houston runs past the ball and then tries to engage our dog in play, which we shut down as our dog in on a long line. Big M shouts “Houston noshnosh” (possibly Houston’s cue for dinner time in the house) for at least 40 seconds in a valiant attempt to recall Houston. Houston ignores him. I eventually ask Big M to come and get his dog. He takes Houston by the collar, walks 10 feet way then lets him go. Yes, you guessed it, Houston comes running back in. This time I ask him to  take Houston and put him on the lead. We walk away to give him more space. Incident 2 – the very next week, I see a guy at the park who has a dog aggressive terrier. This fellow does an absolutely admiral job keeping out of every one’s way and trying to improve his dog’s behaviour. Houston comes running over and there is a big stramash with lunging, barking and shouting. This happened because Big M thinks he has an absolute right to have his dog off lead and not do anything to train Houston to come back and has little consideration for others using the park.

Now, I know I work in public and accept that these things can happen and also dealing with it is a necessary part of my job. But what if I was I regular joe out with his dog, doing his best to train and keep his dog under control and one of these incidents happens. Is that fair? All of the above examples could have been prevented if the the dogs had been either recall trained or on lead.

We are fortunate in Scotland to have off lead parks. I know many other places don’t. Please have respect for your dog and the others using public spaces and either recall train your dog appropriately for those circumstances or keep your dog on a lead.

Happy training.

Future posts – what would you like to see?

Firstly, apologies for not blogging for a few weeks, I’ve been crazy busy. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to blog about the following

1. Preparing your dog for the arrival of a new baby

2. Nothing in Life is Free Protocol versus using your dog’s food and toys for training and classical conditioning

3.Building a truly meaningful bond with your dog through positive reinforcement

4. Forging a new behavioural path and letting the “bad” ones overgrow.

If there is anything at all you’d like me to write about, please comment below, If you are having a problem with your dog’s training or behaviour, write a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it in a future blog.

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Labeling your dog and self limiting beliefs

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“He’s stubborn. She’s disobedient. He’s aggressive. She doesn’t do as she’s told. He’s an Akita. She’s a Shiba Inu. I have to use a prong collar because he is X Y or Z or because he is a (fill in the blank) breed/type of dog. Postive reinforcement training doesn’t work because he is a dominant breed.”

I’ve heard loads of these comments from clients and dog people over the years and read more of them online. One of the most memorable was a guy who described his pitbull as a “cunning, conniving cur” which then gave him authority to treat him as such. One of the reasons for his description was that pitbulls are bred to fight, so they have to use “every trick” they can to win. As opposed to the reality of the matter, which is the dog is fighting for his life to entertain sick humans.

I’ve heard arguments or excuses from people on a number of topics –  that bull breeds fight with other dogs because they are bull breeds. Hounds and Spitz breeds cannot be let off leash because a recall is impossible because their desire to hunt is too high. Mastiff and livestock guardians can’t be trained because they don’t have the brain for it (whatever that means). One of my favourites was a client who owned a border collie who read on an online collie forum that you can’t expect collies not to chase cars, which was the problem she was having. We managed to train her dog not to chase cars in the space of an hour, using a ball, not to mention the hundreds of collies I’ve seen in my lifetime happily walking down the street as cars drive by.

Yes, certain breeds do have tendencies to do things more than other breeds. But they don’t do them because of that. They do these things because they find it reinforcing (a different thing from enjoying something) and because they have been allowed to be reinforced for doing it. I know I am not the best dog trainer in the world. I know I’m pretty good at it and I know that I will never stop trying to be better than I am just now. I say this because I know it’s possible to retrain dog aggressive bull breeds. I know it’s possible to train a husky or a Shiba Inu to recall. I know it’s possible to do these things without resorting to aversive training methods. The reason I know these things is because I’ve done them. I know there are loads of other things you can train a dog to do, without having done them myself because I’ve seen others do it.

If you think you can’t train your beagle to come back to you because she’s a beagle, you won’t do it and you’ll never let her off leash. If you think your Akita is unfriendly to people because he’s an Akita, it gives you the excuse not to do anything about it (although with any work with dogs who react aggressively we need to always be aware of safety issues).

Rather than attaching a label to your dog, think in terms of “If (a certain sequence of events or situation occurs) then (my dog reacts in a certain way)”. If my dog is off leash and catches an interesting smell then she won’t come back when I call her (prudent use of a long line and reinforcers is how I would go about changing this). If my dog is on leash and there is another dog within 15 feet, he will react aggressively (here you could alter the  distance and use classical conditioning). If you need to label anything, label behaviours, which we can change.

If you believe that you need to use aversive training methods (prong or shock collars, rattle cans, ear pinches, leash corrections, spray bottles), than you will be closed to other possibilities and you will never learn them. I don’t think that every dog issue can be solved but most of them can and the rest of them can be managed. I know that not every dog issue can be solved with force free techniques but that shouldn’t stop us from constantly trying to find behaviour modification solutions which are the least aversive. When we have exhausted all of these options we have a decision to make. How we make that decision will depend on our own ethics. A more aversive approach might work, but do we really need to use it? Is it worth inflicting pain in order to achieve our goal? If the answer is yes, then it’s a matter for your own conscience. Having tried all available force free alternatives to get your reactive dog safe around strange dogs or people, can we justify using a shock collar rather than getting up earlier in the morning and taking him out when it’s quiet and not exposing him to situations which will make him react. Is the reason for you wanting to take him out where there are other dogs or people around for him or for you?

I believe that force free methods can impact the vast majority of cases. Of all the dogs I’ve worked with, there is only one which I didn’t know how to help. Aversive techniques may have changed her behaviour, but there is always a high risk of fallout and I don’t use those techniques in any case. I haven’t stopped thinking of a solution for this dog and still ask other trainers their opinions. So in my own experience, I don’t know of a force free technique which hasn’t worked in 0.002% of cases and I work with dogs other trainers have tried to help and haven’t been able to or that other trainers won’t work with so it’s not as if I’m handpicking my clients.

“Let’s push beyond old limitations and see what’s truly possible for dogs, and their trainers” – Eric Brad, Canine Nation

A difficult case

I’ve decided to give an account of a very difficult case I was involved with last year. I’ve changed the names and breed involved in the case in fairness to the owner and his family.

Jim is in his late 50s and lives in an area which is not the greatest place to live. He has also had serious life threatening health issues which are exacerbated by stress, and a very stressful family life. His daughter contacted me last year. Jim had bought three puppies, two girls and a boy from the same litter from a cowboy breeder who would appear to have bred his dog in order to make some quick cash. The breed was a large breed, similar in size to a Dobermann. Jim took the boy, called Buster, and gave the two girls to his daughters as gifts. Buster’s two sisters didn’t develop any behaviour problems.

Buster had been kept by the breeder until he was 16 weeks old and had been kept in a run outside with little or no interaction with the outside world. After Jim brought him home, he became seriously ill and had to be kept inside for another 4 weeks. By this time, 20 weeks old, he had missed out on the sensitive period for socialisation, which is up to 16 weeks, and was now terrified of everything in the environment so much so that he would react intensely to anything he saw, people, dogs, buggies, cars etc. He did receive plenty of physical exercise, with long off leash outings to local parks and common ground either very early in the morning or very late at night when no one else was around. This went on for about a year until he was a year and a half old when Jim’s daughter, Emma, phoned me for help.

I spent some time on the phone with both Emma and Jim and agreed to come out and work with them. Buster now weighed about 45-50 kg, was incredibly well muscled and was a huge bundle of uncontrollable, nervous, terrified energy. I explained to Jim and his adult family that it was likely to be a long road ahead, and they would all need to get on board with his programme of desensitisation (DS) and counter-conditioning (CC). All were in agreement. When visitors cam into the house, Buster would lunge, bark and snap at them and, as you could guess, visitors to the house were becoming fewer and fewer and when they did visit, Buster was locked in another room where he would bark constantly. When Jim brought Buster out, he was wearing a muzzle, and lunged and barked at me. Jim’s response was to try to physically control Buster, pin him down and shout at him. I explained these things were adding to his anxiety.

The first session went well. We were able to use a local church hall and over the next hour, I managed to get Buster eating pieces of hotdog which was about 2 feet away from me without reacting. This was a reduction in distance of about 30 feet from the beginning of the session, so a good result. The homework I gave to Jim and his family, was to start to hand feed Buster a huge proportion of his daily food allowance while using the words “Good Boy” in a calm voice. This would serve to associate the words with the feel good feelings of the food through classical conditioning, which would allow them to give Buster feedback when he was doing the right things and increase Buster’s confidence.I also said they should feed Buster the remainder of his daily food from a Kong. This would help reduce his anxiety levels by increasing his serotonin and give him something constructive to do. I told them to continue to walk him late at night and early mornings as usual until we could work on what to do with him on walks.

I came back a week later. Jim was very agitated as there had been no change in Buster’s behaviour. I explained again that it would take time but he didn’t seem to understand or accept that Buster would react badly to everything as before, including me but no matter how I explained, nothing seemed to get through. He also said he wasn’t able to do any of the hand feeding I had asked for and hadn’t attempted the feeding from the Kong. I told him if he wasn’t going to implement the programme I had come up with, Buster would not change his behaviour.

We then went outside and tried to do some basic work of DS and CC, working Buster at a safe distance using high value treats. We made a little progress, trying to teach Jim how to handle Buster in and easy way to reduce anxiety for both of them. The session was satisfactory but not great. I told Jim he needed to walk Buster a couple of times a day for the next week until I came back out to see him, doing the same protocol we had been working on, always working Buster at a safe distance and concentrate on keeping as calm as he could himself.

Session 3. One week later. I arrived as usual and asked Jim how he was getting on. Jim reported no progress and very little work. I could see from the last session he was already giving up. Jim had also paid the first three sessions in advance as per our agreement. I again told Jim that Buster wasn’t going to improve on his own. Again it seemed to fall on deaf ears. By this time, I was able to handle Buster a little but he was still very flighty around me and we didn’t have a great session despite my best efforts. I left Jim at the end of the session with the same homework.

Initially Jim had asked for six session but after I attended for my fourth time, which was a couple of weeks later. Again I found Jim had not done the work and poor Buster had not improved. I think the task at hand was more than Jim could do. Jim had not prepared any high value treats, despite my repeated instructions and went through the motions during the session. At the end of the session, I told Jim I wasn’t able to work with him any more as it wouldn’t have been ethical for me to continue to take his money if he wasn’t going to do the work.

The whole case was difficult to deal with for a number of reasons. Jim and Buster have been the only case I’ve had, before or since, where the owner wasn’t at least partly on board. I’ve dealt with clients who have been contrary, argumentative, emotional and stubborn, but the common theme was that they absolutely recognised that their dogs needed help and they weren’t in the position to help them without professional assistance. Dealing with Jim and Buster was difficult because Jim was totally unwilling and/or unable to do the work i was asking him to do no matter how much I stripped the exercises back to the bare bones. I think Jim knew at some level the task at hand was more than he could manage and he somehow needed to rationalise to himself that he had done everything he could to help Buster.

Cases like this one can cause trainers/behaviourists to become burnt out because most of us have the interests of both the dogs and owners at heart. The can also cause damage to our reputations because if Jim is asked about me, my feeling is that he would give a less than positive review despite my best efforts.

Since this case, I’m more forthright to potential clients about their expectations and make it clear to them that the work is their’s to do and the responsibility of putting the training hours in lies with them.

Comments are always welcome.