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.
Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF), Learn to Earn. You may be familiar with these terms. They were devised, probably by well intention people, to allow you to use what your dog routinely gets in his life as ways to train him. The other thing some NILIF advocates is that your dog is behaving in a poor manner because he has unlimited access to resources, is spoiled or thinks he’s the “boss” or you are not the “pack leader”.
Now, some of what I say in this blog may seem contradictory as you read it, but it’s the reason why we are doing it, and the scientific reasons for it’s success/effectiveness which are important.
Following on from last week’s blog, I’ll define a couple of terms again, in simple terms (very simple)
1. Classical conditioning – learning by association.
2. Operant conditioning – learning by trial and error
3. Reinforcement – anything which causes the increase in the duration/frequency/intensity of a behaviour
4. Punishment – anything which causes the decrease in the duration/frequency/intensity of a behaviour
5. Positive/negative – adding(+)/subtracting(-) something from the dog’s environment. In training/learning, it doesn’t mean good or bad. We have positive and negative punishment and positve and negative reinforcement.
Proper understanding of the terms is important, because it allows us to have a greater understanding of what we are doing during training and why we are doing it.
So, to get back on topic. NILIF protocols advocate taking everything away from your dog if he isn’t behaving the way you want him to behave. The dog has no free access to food, toys or people for petting, playing etc. Further, every time your dog wants something, he has to earn it. You can’t just give your dog something, like a rub on the ear, just because he’s your pal and you want to. He has no access to toys he can play with himself, like chewing on a nylabone or kong, or playing with a squeaky plush toy to keep himself amused. Every morsel of food, every game you play with your dog, every time you want to pet her depends on her doing something you want her to do like sitting politely or coming when called.
The NILIF protocol says that when you decide you want to, you give the dog all the good things, and don’t when you don’t want to. What can happen here, is that if owners can’t be bothered or don’t have the time to interact with their dogs, they now have permission not to. It further recommends that if your dog approaches you for attention, ignore him, but when he walks away, then call him back and pet him then. That way, you are dictating access to you, not the other way around.
Now, if you haven’t already thought about this, this can lead to a very sad and frustrated dog. The day before you instigated this programme, your dog was fed regularly, had toys to play with, could come and say hi when he wanted to and you’d say hi back. Now his whole life has been changed, and as far as he’s concerned, not for the better and he can become depressed. The dog can also become demanding if this happens as he is trying desperately to get attention.
The other side of this, is that we can do very similar things to NILIF, but for different reasons and obtain hugely different results. These are all training programmes I’ve learned from the best trainers in the world such as Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, Ken Ramirez and Kathy Sdao, among many others. Your dog has to eat. Hopefully, you like going out for walks, playing with your dog and giving them attention and petting. Your dog likes, and needs, these things too. So let’s use them for training. This is where it does become different.
1. Your dog’s food – food is a primary reinforcer. So let’s use it to train our dog. It reinforces behaviour, so when your dog sits, give him a piece of kibble so he’s more likely to do it again. Take your dog’s food out on a walk with you. Sit on a park bench and every time a person or dog walks past, give him a piece of food. This way he learns dogs and people means food comes out which makes him feel good and with enough practice, dog’s and people approaching makes him feel good with there being no food present (classical conditioning) and you are reinforcing him for paying attention to you when people or dogs are around (operant conditioning using positive reinforcement).
2. Your dog’s toys. Let him play with his own toys. He has his, I have mine. Mine are a couple of balls on ropes and a tug toy. He gets to play with his by chewing on them, maybe throwing them in the air and catching them. I let him play with mine, but only when I’m there and there are rules attached, but mine are more fun, beacsue I’m involved in the play. My toys move, I throw throw them and I tug on them. She gets to chase them and tug on them back. The rules are be careful with your teeth, and give them back when I ask you to. I don’t play with my dog’s toys but I do allow her to play with mine, because they are fun (for both of us) and because I can train her when playing.
Your dog enjoys playing tug or chasing a ball, you play tug or throw the ball, your dog will now enjoy playing with you (classical conditioning). You give your dog a game of tug or throw the ball when they come back to you you are now using positive reinforcement to train a recall.
There’s also loads you can do for free for your dog which is still training your dog and classically conditioning you to him in a beneficial way. Playing long games of tug in the garden with your dog, for no reason other than having fun, classically conditions your dog that you are a great, fun guy to be around, Further to that, now when you give your dog a short game of tug after a recall or a down stay, he has that long history of big tug games to refer to and it is much more powerful. Similarly, petting your dog for 40 minutes in the evening when you are sitting reading or watching TV means that clapping your dog when he does something you like now has more meaning.
One of the main differences between this approach and NILIF is that it doesn’t give you permission to do nothing. Your dog needs daily exercise and stimulation for a full life. The more we use our dogs food and play and attention for training, the better trained our dog will be. If you use a quarter of your dogs food for training, rather than all of it, you will only get a quarter of the benefit. That said, you don’t need to hand feed it all, put what you don’t use in a Kong or other stuffable toy and you are now teaching your dog to entertain herself, chew an appropriate item and be calm. The minimum we can do with this, if we’re motivated to is to give all daily food in toys or food puzzles so you are at least getting that benefit from it.
A programme like this leads to a well trained, sociable dog, and a truly deep relationship with you.
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.
“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
I attended Grisha Stewart’s Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT) seminar last weekend. I have been using BAT both on it’s own and in conjunction with other behaviour modification methods since I read Pat Miller’s article on the subject in the Whole Dog Journal in 2010. Since I was first made aware of BAT, I’ve also used elements of it in working with clients and there dogs. The weekend was excellent, loads of new information and I got to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while and meet some new contacts too.
The basic premise of BAT is that it uses functional rewards. These are things which the environment offers rather than we offer such as the feeling of relief a scared dog experiences when a dog it is frightened of goes further away or the chance to play with another dog or sniff the grass. From Grisha’s website http://www.functionalrewards.com, Grisha defines BAT as
“Behavior Adjustment Training, or BAT, rehabilitates dog reactivity by looking at why the dog is reactive and helping him or her meet his needs in other ways. In a nutshell, BAT is a dog-friendly application of ‘functional analysis’ that gives the dogs a chance to learn to control their own comfort level through peaceful means. It’s very empowering to your dog, in a good way.”
Eager to put my new found knowledge into practice, I had a session with Reggie, the adolescent Boxer, the following week. Reggie is a great dog, very typical of a Boxer at his age. He is eager to please, super friendly with people but can lack manners in greeting other dogs. He is very keen to meet other dogs but pulls on the leash to get to them (and this isn’t always possible) so much so that he has ripped his pads a few times against the ground and is now starting to show signs of frustration when he doesn’t get to other dogs quick enough or he doesn’t get to greet them at all.
We met at a great park where I know loads of the owners and their dogs, so I was able to choose appropriate dogs for us to work with. We made some really good progress and it took us about 20 minutes until Reggie was able to approach the fenced in area where there was another dog playing (here in the UK we are extremely fortunate that we can let our dogs off leash in public parks and aren’t limited to using dog parks, but some parks do have fully enclosed dog parks also).
We were about 40 minutes into our session when we met Evan who is about a year old. On speaking to Evan’s owner, he told me that he had adopted Evan from the Dog’s Trust a couple of months earlier. Even is a mixed breed about the size of a Labrador. Evan was also a canine social superstar. His communication skills were among the best I’ve ever seen from a dog. Evan gave Reggie enough signals to convey to him that he needed to approach with a bit less energy than Reggie was accustomed to. It also helped that we had been “BATting” Reggie for about 40 minutes at this point.
Reggie greeted Evan from a side angle, they did their “butt sniffing” dance and then Evan invited Reggie to play by bowing and then skipping away, asking for Reggie to follow. Reggie duly obliged but at about 100mph and with as much restraint as a child in a sweet shop. Evan immediately told Reggie that this level of energy wasn’t acceptable by stopping running and sniffing the ground, which is a calming signal for both dogs. You could almost hear Reggie thinking
“What happened there, I thought we were playing?”
Reggis started sniffing the ground too. As soon as he did this, Evan bowed again and skipped off, telling Reggie the game was back on. Reggie responded but went straight to 30,000ft and Evan responded by ending the game as before. Reggie calmed down after a few seconds and you could almost hear Evan thinking
“Will we try this again and see if you understand the rules this time?”
Reggie then played but with much less intensity as before. When dogs play chases, they usually take turns chasing and being chased. Some dogs like being chased but if they do, you can usually tell by relaxed body language and not a panicked look in it’s eyes. If you seen this from your dog when it is being chased or when your dog is chasing another, you need to intervene and stop the chase as it is no longer fun for the “chasee”.
At this point, Reggie stopped chasing Evan, bowed very slightly and then hopped off with Evan chasing him. Real progress. They then played for several minutes and I asked Bryan, Reggie’s owner to call him a couple of times during this time and then release him to go and play with Evan again, so Reggie was still paying attention to him. The whole exchange from initially seeing Evan and Reggie bowing to Evan took less than three minutes. It was a joy to watch, and I wish I had my video camera with me so I could have captured it.
It took us about 40 minutes for Reggie to begin to understand what the rules were when we were trying to teach him. Evan did it in about 3 minutes. We don’t always have superstars like Evan available, but we can use them when they appear. Other than that, the 40 minutes it took Reggie the first time will become 30 minutes before long and when he really understands the rules of what we are trying to teach him, will quickly take less than 10 minutes, then 5 and before we know it and with enough practice, will become his normal behaviour. It’s worth it for Reggie’s sake, for the sake of our own joints so we aren’t getting our shoulders and backs hurt and for other dogs and owners because we owe it to them to raise and teach a sociable dog.
“He doesn’t need so much exercise, he’s only a (insert dog breed in here).”
Dogs who are very small or are very large, like some of the giant breeds, are often promoted as not requiring much exercise. The question is, though, compared to what?
I did Discover Dogs at Crufts with our big girl, Kitty, for five years during her life. For any of you who don’t know, Discover Dogs is run twice a year by the Kennel Club in the UK, once in March as part of Crufts, and again in November at Earl’s Court. It is an opportunity for breed clubs to educate the public about their individual breeds. I often heard from people attending that Neapolitan’s didn’t need much exercise. I would counter that by saying that they don’t compared to border collies and springer spaniels but they still need to get out for their run and walk. A fellow who was manning the Dogue de Bordeaux stand one year told me that you can’t exercise young Dogue’s at all until they are 18-24 months old. His dogs would potter around the garden all day and get out for short walks a few times a week. You shouldn’t over exercise them to protect their joints but an young dog who isn’t getting the necessary amount of daily exercise out of the house will go stir crazy making it difficult to live with.
I’m working with a young man, Steven, just now who has a Shiba Inu. Shiba’s are a Japanese breed which were used to hunt small game.Steven called me because his dog, Xande, was stealing his things, running away with them and growling when Stephen tried to get them back. Steven had been told by the breeder that the dog’s don’t need much exercise. The breeder didn’t tell Steven how much “not much” is so Steven thought that taking his dog out for two twenty minute walks a day would be enough. After taking a short history, I recommended that Xande should be taken out for a walk in the morning to do the toilet and that his evening walk should be at least 45 minutes, consisting of on lead walking and off leash running and playing interspersed with training opportunities throughout. 45 minutes was my minimum recommendation, but an hour or an hour and a fifteen minutes would be better.
Small dogs like the toy breeds need out for their daily walk as much as the larger breed do and the giant breeds like mastiffs and St Bernards need at least 40 minutes of continuous exercise daily. This can be at a slow pace, and doesn’t need to be 40 minutes of marching or running around the park. If you have a large breed, keep him very light until he/she is at least 2-3 years old to minimise impact on forming bones so they can get the amount of exercise they need. Freedom of movement around the house and garden isn’t the same as exercise. Dogs need out to explore the world, sniff where other dogs have been and peed and for their own physical and mental health and social development.
If your dog has the required amount of daily exercise, she will be happier and more content in the house and easier to train.