Some video footage of Crystal, the Central Asian Ovcharka. Crystal is reactive to people in the street, at varying distances. She will bark and very often lunge at pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, motor bikes and scooters, bin men and a host of other stimuli. She will rarely, if ever, take food when outside. Her normal tail carriage is high and arched due to her breeding (this is our baseline). As explained in the video, Lynn lives in the city centre and has no option other than having to take Crystal into this environment at least some of the time for walks. We are doing work also in a less stressful environment (local park with plenty space), but is it is essential for us to be able to do some work in the urban area as this is where Lynn lives. We just need to do everything we can to minimse problems and are making excellent progress with her. All the stimuli you see in the video, would previously caused her to lunge at these distances before we started working
I’ve been trying to formulate my own system of training and behaviour modification for a while now from the information I’ve learned from a number of great dog people. I’ve come up with a three level training/behaviour modification system which hopefully is easily to understand and apply.
Level 1. This is the most empowering level for both the dog and the owner. The crux of it is in the following statement which I learned from Dr Susan Friedman – control the environment, not the dog, to allow him to make other choices, and then reinforce those choice to make them more likely to happen in the future. It is hugely empowering for our dogs to be in control of their own decisions. Now this doesn’t mean we allow our dogs to do whatever they want. Through careful control of the environment, we can limit or change the dog’s options so it now becomes easier for them to do something we want them to do (and difficult for them to do something we don’t want them to do) and when they do it, the wise use of reinforcers makes it more likely to re-occur.
If your dog jumps up on people when you stop to talk to them, we can stand on his lead so he can’t jump (give him enough slack that he can still stand or sit comfortably). We have now controlled his access to reinforcement (the person) and we can now reinforce (with food/praise) four feet on the floor. If we do this every time, the dog now has a large reinforcement history of four feet on the floor, and a tiny history of being reinforced for jumping. Not jumping is now much, much more likely.
Level 2. This is less empowering for the dog but the dog still has lots of choice. In this level, we use previously trained behaviours to give the dog instruction about what we want him to do. This is useful if our environmental control, as described in Level 1, gets away from us and the dog isn’t voluntarily able to make a decision which we are able to reinforce. We can now tell the dog what we want him to do.
To give you a couple of examples, say we are training our dog to remain within a certain radius of us. The dog is almost at the limit if the radius and suddenly a pigeon lands very close to her. The environment now changed and we couldn’t do anything about it. It is unreasonable to expect the dog to return to us without prompting at this stage unless we have trained for it, but what we can do is prompt the recall with a verbal cue which we have previously worked on. The dog now returns to us and we can reinforce this choice.
Another example would be if your dog is reactive to other dogs. At 100 feet, he might be able to willingly look at you, which you can reinforce. At 50 feet, your dog might not be able to look at you without prompting, but if we have taught an emergency U-turn which he knows well, we can ask him to perform the U-turn and reinforce it when he does.
The reason this level is less empowering for the dog is that he has less choice and you are starting to rely on more automatic responses. Although these responses have been taught using reinforcement, the dog is starting to perform them automatically and without conscious thought, so the question we could reasonably ask here is how much choice does the dog actually have?
I don’t think this is too much of an issue as long as we are either practicing the behaviour to maintain it’s reliability or we are using it because the alternative (running off or reacting aggressively in the previous examples) is a far less attractive option for us and potentially far more damaging to the dog.
As part of a society, and I include dogs in this, there are absolutely times when we need to do what we are told. We do this willingly in many cases but we are still doing it because we are either told to or asked to.
Level 3 – Physically moving our dog out of trouble. At level three, our dog is now unable to offer anything we want to reinforce, either voluntarily or with prompting. This is all about management and keeping the dog safe. At this point the environment has completely got away from us and we need to get our dog out of that situation. We are now controlling the dog. Examples would be if we are training a recall using a long line and the dog is running very quickly towards a busy road (think about how much environmental control we had in the first place!) we would stand on the line to stop the dog moving forward. In the case of the reactive dog, if another dog appeared round a street corner, and our dog reacted, we would physically move our dog away on a short leash to a non reactive distance.
When working on this, we can switch between levels 1 and 2 quite often. I use level 1 when I can, but also use level 2 frequently so we can use the available distractions as practice to keep previously learned behaviour strong and reliable. If we do this often, the ultimate aim is so that we don’t have to use level 3 and all.
The last thing to consider is training your dog to do many different behaviours. This allows the dog to offer previously learned behaviours during level 1 and gives you multiple options during level 2. If your dog doesn’t know how to do an emergency U-turn or recall, how can you ask for it? Also, different situations will call for different responses. Sometimes sitting may be more useful (when you are talking to someone in the street), other times having your dog to “leave”, “drop it” or “back up” might be better.
More training means more options. I’ll write more about this as I practice more. Until next time, happy dog training.
I re-blogged a post by the wonderful Nicole Wilde yesterday discussing whether or not some dogs need a heavier approach to training meaning more physically aversive techniques. The answer to that is no, they don’t and I agree wholeheartedly with Nicole’s well educated opinion on the matter. It got me thinking about the term “Red Zone Dog” which has been popularised by Cesar Milan on his show “The Dog Whisperer”
I want you to imagine that you are frightened of something. You have also learned that screaming and shouting and acting like a crazy person generally makes the thing you are scared of go away. You also have no ability to rationalise things. Your screaming usually works either because the scary thing wants nothing to do with your insanity or that the scary thing was going to go on it’s merry way regardless of how you act. Now, lets say the scary thing is getting closer and closer. Having learned that acting like a madman usually works, this time it doesn’t. What are you more likely to do? My guess would be act the way you usually act but this time with more intensity and energy than usual. Now the scary thing goes away. So the next time the scary thing comes close and because you are smart and efficient, you are just going to jump in with the same level of intensity as the last time, so you learn this is now what works. Now some person comes along and forces you to remain in the same area as the very thing you are terrified from. Would it be reasonable to expect you to fight like hell to get away from the person and the scary thing and you might even want to hurt the person, regardless of their intention to help or otherwise, who is forcing you to remain next to the very thing which causes you nightmares? On top of this they occasionally punch and kick you in order to “snap you out of it”.
Now, lets imagine a trusted and kind friend who understands your fear, keeps you at a safe distance from the object of your terror, makes you feel safe and reassures you in a way you understand that nothing is going to happen when the scary thing appears and if you don’t react badly, you will either be moved away from the scary thing and/or given something which you really enjoy (chocolate, money, whatever you really like). Do you think in time you might become used to the scary thing, and maybe even look forward to seeing it at a safe distance? Maybe even think you might try getting a bit closer because when you do you get better or more of the things you like?
The safe distance I’ve described is called threshold. At or further away from threshold, dogs have the ability to learn and we can teach them that the object of their fear isn’t going to hurt them, and may even mean good things happen. If we move beyond threshold, dogs can only react, they can no longer learn. They now engage the emotional part of their brain and disengage the thinking, learning part.
Cesar Milan’s “Red Zone Dogs” are seriously beyond threshold. In his show, we have seen him forcing dogs to remain at a distance which they are clearly not comfortable with and he then assaults them. I’ll not get into the reasons or excuses he uses to justify this. Now I have worked with some seriously aggressive dogs, whose threshold distance is several hundred feet. These are difficult to work with but if you find the right location it’s possible and I’ve had some truly excellent results. Some of these dogs could easily be classified as “red zone” cases.
If you don’t want to see a red zone dog, don’t bring it within a distance to the scary thing where it can’t learn. It’s cruel and ineffective. How would you feel?