Interview with Dr Ian Dunbar, founder of The Association of Pet Dog Trainer

Parts 1 and 2 of my interview with Ian, filmed September 2014

 

 

 

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THE most important thing you can ever do with your puppy

Proper socialisation is the most important thing you can do with your puppy until he is 16 weeks old. Inadequate or poor socialisation is something your dog may never recover from. Here are a couple of videos discussion what to do and what not to do.

 

Classical conditioning vs NILIF

Play with your dog
Play with your dog

 

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.

I don’t know how to fly a plane, but I can learn

Copper and Nero
Copper and Nero

I worked with a client recently who has a one year old Landseer Newfoundland called Nero and an eight year old collie cross called Copper. Copper is one of these “once in a lifetime” dog’s who everyone wishes they could own but very few of us, unfortunately, ever have the pleasure to. He is very confident, experienced, has great social skills with other dogs and people and is a true gentleman. This would appear to have come naturally to him. Nero, will be Copper in a few year’s time. He needs some more practice and guidance, but he has been reared in much the same way as Copper, with steadiness and consistency. He is naturally a little more inclined to do his own thing than Copper is, and doesn’t always respond the way Jeannine, his owner, wants him to.

Jeannine is an airline pilot, I’ll explain why that’s relevant in moment. The issues with Nero are that he tends not to settle when people come into the house, as he wants to say hello and he has a habit of running up to people in the park (he doesn’t jump up) also to say hello. I explained to Jeannine why he is doing this, and when we changed how he is being reinforced, when he is being reinforced and by whom, we very quickly changed his behaviour to something which was more acceptable for us.

During the first session in the park, I did the majority of the handling, as Jeannine had her delightful baby girl (who clapped every time I said “good boy!” to Nero), so she could have a clear picture in her mind of what we were looking for. I reinforced Nero for calmer behaviour with food, praise and the continued opportunity to play and explore every time he did something I liked, which was either waiting, recalling or sitting. As the session continued, Jeannine gave the cues and I reinforced the behaviour.

About 40 minutes in, Jeannine observed that Nero was responding to me much better than he usually responded to her. My response to Jeannine was ” But I would expect that, because I don’t know how to fly a plane”. This is a strategy I’ve adopted to make clients feel better, as often the remark is made by clients that their dog responds better to me than to them. Initially, and until recently, I’ve put it down to the fact that I have handled and trained dogs for years, my timing is better than novice dog handlers, and I am better at reading body language and predicting dogs’ behaviour. This is true, but it’s not the whole story.

When a dog lives with a novice handler/trainer (and I would put very many owners into that category, as it has to do with training experience rather than ownership experience) the reinforcement history can be very sketchy. The dog’s behaviour is sometimes reinforced, some times not, sometimes punished and sometimes not. The result of this is that the dog either consistently tries behaviour which works for him (very often the ones we don’t want) and doesn’t reliably perform others (very often the ones we do want).

On the other hand, when I meet a client for the first time with their dog, I am starting with a clean slate and I write my own history with the dog, with no reference to anything else. This leads very quickly to the dog trusting that when I act in a certain way, and he responds, his behaviour will either be reinforced or not. Because there is no history, the dog has not point of reference other than the limited experience with me, which is very clear (hopefully).

The point of this is that I can learn to fly a plane, given enough time, commitment and effort. We can all try to wipe the slate clean with ours dogs, and start building a new relationship built on consistency and trust.

In my next blog, I’ll talk more about how to build this trust and the things we can do, inadvertently, to damage this trust, which can lead to further frustration in both human and the dog and a further breakdown of trust.

Canine Social Superstars – part 1

Our lifestyles with ours dogs have changed over the last 40 years and subsequently, the way we breed, rear, train and live with our dogs has changed also. Much of what I’m posting here I’ve learned from the work of John Rogerson, Ian Dunbar and Stanley Coren as well as my own experience and interpretation.

Breeding – I grew up in a large new town outside of Glasgow. Living conditions were good and although we had housing estates they were not the same as the ones in the inner cities of Glasgow, London or Birmingham. As a child, I remember peoples’ pet dogs roaming around the streets. They were generally let out in the morning, would potter about and come home at dinner time to be fed. Of the dog’s I remember from my childhood, they were mainly collie-type mixed breeds. I do remember a few pedigree dogs, mostly terriers, a Dalamtian called Nick (who we knew better than to try to pet) and the Italian guy who owned the local chippie (fish and chip shop to non UK readers) who had a huge wolf sable German Shepherd called Lupo. The mixed breed dogs bred naturally as the bitches selected which dogs they wanted to mate with and, although I didn’t know it at the time, choose the big strapping lads with good bone structure and good temperament. Ian Dunbar’s PhD work investigated this among other things. He observed that a bitch would happily pal around with one or two dogs throughout the year but when she came into season, she wanted nothing to do with her pals and would seek the attention of the stronger, more stable dogs. She chose which dog to mate with. After her season ended, she would happily make up with her friends.

Breeding is now done by the breeders. Pedigree dogs are bred, not always for profit as the main goal but often so and professional show breeders often breed for looks which conform to a breed standard and not primarily for temperament. My opinion is that this is the wrong way round, as the majority of these dogs end up as pets and not show dogs. As a result, temperament suffers and we no longer the same amount of puppies which are suitable as family pets. The spaying and neutering programme which has been hugely encouraged has not stopped the flow of unwanted dogs into rescue centres and shelters. It’s just the dogs in there now are mainly pedigree dogs and have more training and behaviour issues due to poor temperament and owner lifestyle than they did before.

Rearing – 40 years ago couples got a dog after they were married and had a child or two. Dad would work, Mum stayed at home and looked after the kids. She would put the kids out to school (we used to walk to school then, in all weathers) and Mum would then walk the dog (which they had been given by the neighbour whose bitch had a litter) down to the local shopping centre where the dog would be left outside (not always tied up) while she did the shopping. As a result of this, the dog got used to being ignored in the house as other things were going on, got used to being outside walking, got used to being left on its own both inside and outside and got plenty of exercise and got used to greeting people (or not) off leash. Mum got back to the house and the dog was let out into the street where is romped around with other dogs so it learned to play with other dogs properly and with natural body language and communication. Dog fights were rare ( I never saw one) and bites were almost unheard of (I can vaguely remember Nick the Dalamation snapping at someone before we could tell them not to touch him).

So, because of the above, dogs were well exercised, had daily stimulation and play and were well socialised with people and dogs. It is different now. In many cases these days, couples move in together and buy a pedigree dog, perhaps simply because they like the look of it, perhaps because they have heard about certain breeds of dog being more adaptive to a modern lifestyle, and perhaps because they have not yet contemplated children. The dog now spends loads of time in doors by itself as they are both working. They come home from a day’s work, tired. If they do take the dog out, it’s either round the block on the leash while they talk on their mobile phone or their pedigree dog (insert breed but think Husky for the sake of this discussion) gets driven to the park where it is let off to play freely without any human interaction or intervention or structured play and training and then driven back home again, sufficiently energised to wing off the walls and torment the daylights out of them for the remainder of the evening.
Happy dogsNot every owner or every breeder behaves like this b in general terms, these things have changed the way our dogs behave.

In part two I’ll discuss how keeping our dogs on leash, how we heat our house and changing general attitudes in society have influenced our dogs’ behaviour.

BATting with Reggie

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.

Reggie enjoying his Kong after training
Reggie enjoying his Kong after training

When reinforcing growling is not only acceptable, but desirable

Yesterday, I had a consultation with Rosemary and her 4 year old terrier Jasper. Jasper has had significant health problems for his whole life. He has a spinal defect on the lower part of his back, which causes very stiff movement. He has developed cataracts in one of his eyes over the last few months and from what I saw yesterday, he doesn’t see too well from his good eye either. He’s also reactive to other dogs.

Rosemary is realistic about how much I was able to do for Jasper, and every now and then a dog like wee Jasper comes along and really tests my abilities and powers of lateral thinking. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “threshold”, it refers to the distance at which a reactive dog will react to the stimulus in the environment which she doesn’t like. For example, if your dog as reactive to other dogs, she might be non reactive if the dog is 30 feet away, and only react if the other dog comes within 25 feet. In this case, 25 feet would be the threshold distance.

In the case of Jasper, because his eyesight is so poor, the other dog is well within his threshold distance by the time he knows it’s there, which means in most cases, as soon as he can see or smell the other dog, it’s already far closer than he is comfortable with and he then barks and lunges at the other dog.

Usually when I’m working with reactive, I do my best to work sub-threshold, so the dog I’m working with can see the other dog but the distance is enough that he doesn’t react. We then reinforce (reward) more appropriate behaviours such as looking away, sniffing the ground, tongue flicking or looking back at us, all of which the dog uses to calm himself or try to displace what he is feeling.

Because I couldn’t do this with Jasper, I allowed him to approach the other dog and the instant he recognised the presence of the other dog and growled, I verbally praised him with a “Good boy” and walked away. Here, the sense of relief the dog is feeling from being away from the other dog is rewarding so we can use this relief to reinforce the growl. Why would I want to reinforce Jasper growling at the other dog? the answer is because it’s not a lunge, snap or bark. The growl is the first behaviour Jasper is offering me that lets me know he’s uncomfortable but it is considerably less intense that behaviours he usually offers.

If we do this time and again, Jasper is than far more likely to growl rather than lunge and snap. As his confidence increases, he will become less growly and we can then start reinforcing less intense growling with the ultimate aim being him not growling at all.

If your dog can’t do what you’re asking or wanting him to do, reinforce something he does which is in some way, even a tiny amount, more appropriate or more approximate to the behaviour you want. It’ll work wonders.