The Danger Of Reductionism

 

dog training

One of the many strategies recommended by conventional dog trainers to help a dog overcome fear of new people is to counter condition the dog by having new people approach and give the dog treats. This is not a strategy that I personally employ very often and here is why:

Let’s put it into a human context. Let’s say that I have reason to believe that strangers are untrustworthy. Along comes this new person, who approaches uninvited and says “Hey Tyler, come hang out over here…I’ll give you a dollar ;-)”  The offer of a dollar is unlikely to make me feel comfortable with this new person, or to earn my trust. In fact, it triggers warning signs in my mind because it’s a little reminiscent of the “Free Candy van”…It’s a little creepy.

Now, let’s say instead that I was in the same room with this person, only instead of trying to bribe my confidence, he recognized that I was uncomfortable. He gave me my space and went about whatever it was he set out to do. Or perhaps he just sat down, enjoyed some quiet time to himself and let me do my own thing. Maybe he occasionally glanced at me, acknowledging my presence in a non-confrontational way, and then again gave me the space I needed to feel free from threat.

In the first example, the seemingly innocuous act of trying to give me a dollar only added to my discomfort. It indicated that there was an expectation of me, a type of social pressure. The person was trying to pull me in, but that act of pulling only gave me something to push back against.

In the second scenario, there is no pressure. The person showed through his behavior that he understands, and he is ok with the fact that I need some space. There is no expectation, and that lack of expectation creates an opening that I can freely choose to explore.

I want to take the second scenario further, but first, let’s go back to using a dog for the example, with the “I” being the role of the stranger.

So, the dog is nervous, and I am in the same room, but have been giving space and zero expectation. The dog’s natural social curiosity may motivate her to explore and experiment. She may come closer, pause, and then move away. Eventually she comes within several feet and air sniffs. As more time passes she begins to become neutral to my presence.

From here, one of two things may occur over time (sometimes this takes hours or even several sessions over several days).  Perhaps at this point, when the dog chooses on her own to approach and come near, I casually and without saying anything, toss a treat on the ground, and then go back to whatever I was doing. After several repetitions of this, the dog begins choosing to hang out near me as I toss treats in her direction. The kernel of a bond is formed.

Alternatively, perhaps I notice that the dog really wants to go outside, so I open the door to let her out. She walks over to a tree to sniff. After she passes, I wander over to the same tree and have a look around. The dog shows interest in a stick, so I pick one up and give it a toss, in a way that shows that I share the dog’s joy for sticks. What I am communicating is that I am interested in the same things that she is, and am willing to follow her lead and engage in the activities that she chooses. I am not interested in changing her behavior, I am trying to learn more about her and understand her.  

If the dog is a real foodie, the option of tossing some treats (when she is ready and has approached on her own), has a decent chance of working. “Treats! I LOVE treats!” This dog exclaims.

But not all dogs are so enthusiastic for treats.  Some dogs like to sniff, some enjoy walks best of all, some like sticks, etc…

If we look at dogs as simple input/output machines in the purely operant sense, it seems like the typical counter conditioning techniques should work. But there is danger in reducing dogs to this simplified view. We should not ignore the fact that, like humans, our dogs think, feel, get angry, get lonely, have motives, instincts, trust issues, attachment issues, angst, and the whole colorful spectrum of emotions. To be fair, even the second scenario that I have outlined is a form of counter conditioning, but it is one that takes into account the dog as a unique individual. It honors the dog and gives her the sovereignty to let us know when she is ready to engage. It respects the uniquely dynamic qualities of dogs that have given us humans the privilege of evolving alongside them for tens of thousands of years.

While I personally think it is important for us trainers to have a firm grasp on the science of dog training, let us not allow ourselves to become too far removed from the spirit of simply being with a dog, striving to understand each individual for what makes them unique, showing compassion through our actions, and letting our heart guide us.

-Tyler G. Muto

 

He Just Wants To Protect Me…

By Tyler Muto

police dog

“I know he’s just trying to protect me, but I don’t know why”

This is a common sentiment among dog owners bringing their dogs into our training center for help.  If you have owned multiple dogs, there’s a decent chance that at least one of them has displayed over-protective behavior.  The problem behaviors most often associated this sentiment are the dog lunging, barking or snapping at passers-by while out on a walk.

For successful resolution of problems like these, it is helpful to first understand what is actually going on. The motivation behind the behavior is often difficult for us humans to grasp. Dogs that lunge, bark and snap at people or dogs on walks are rarely acting in defense of their owners.  Rather, they are protecting themselves. Or at least that’s the way it begins…

In most cases, the first time a dog lunges at others while walking, it is because the dog feels threatened. While this feeling of threat may be generalized as a perceived threat to the whole family or “pack”, it begins with the dog itself feeling insecure or afraid.  This fear can then evolve into protective behavior in two ways:

First, as was already stated above, if a dog perceives someone or something as a threat to the dog itself, it is easy for the perception of threat to be generalized to the rest of the people or dogs they are with.  However, this by itself does not necessarily result in an aggressive display.  We must remind ourselves that dogs are inherently social animals, and as is true with all social animals, part of their experience and behavior is shaped by social constructs or hierarchies. These hierarchies may be static, or fluid, set in stone, or situation dependent, but they exist nonetheless.  Within canine society, high-ranking members play a variety of important roles, one of which is taking the lead in situations of threat or danger and protecting the rest of the group. Dog aggression

So does this mean that your lunging/barking dog thinks he is “dominant” over you?

Not likely. A more likely interpretation would be that he or she doesn’t have faith in your leadership, which translates into the dog not feeling secure in the faith that you will protect him or her if need be.  In fact, it is probable that if your dog is predisposed to experiencing these kinds of insecurities, they are not the type of individual that is gunning for top position, and they would much rather enjoy their position somewhere in the middle of the pecking order. In other words, your dog probably doesn’t want to be acting like the leader, but they feel that they have to because no one else is taking the reigns. Truth be told, among domestic dogs, there are relatively few “truly dominant” individuals.  When dogs who are not naturally programed to be in a leadership position feel compelled to take that role, it can often fill them with anxiety and stress, thus contributing to the explosive and irrational nature of their responses.

The second iteration of this evolution is related to, but not entirely the same as the first. One of the ironies of dog training is that we humans often forget that we are just animals as well, and we succumb to the same types of conditioning that our dogs do.  Being caught off guard by your dog suddenly lunging at a passing person or animal can be incredibly distressing, and even borderline traumatic for some. After several of these experiences in close succession to one another, we very quickly succumb to classical conditioning, or more specifically a conditioned emotional response.

Although the sight of an oncoming jogger used to not bother you at all, after repeated pairings of that sight immediately followed by the scary and distressing experience of your dog lunging at them, you now find yourself overwhelmed with fear and anxiety at the mere sight of a jogger coming toward you while you are out walking your pup.

While your dog started off lunging at joggers because they themselves felt nervous, they now begin to notice that as the jogger approaches you become afraid and nervous too!

“I knew this jogger was bad news,” the dog exclaims to himself “even my human is afraid!”

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to stay calm and controlled in conditions of danger or conflict. Thus, your fearful/anxious behavior simply deepens your dog’s lack of confidence in you as their leader.

Furthermore, your anxiety validates for the dog that they were correct in being concerned. “Even my human is afraid!”

The dog has no way of knowing that you aren’t afraid of the jogger, you are afraid of what your dog might do. All they perceive is that when joggers appear, you get nervous, and they put two and two together from there.  You, the human who is short of breath and whose heart is racing under the weight of your anxiety surely must need your dog to protect you.

I in no way intend to undermine the importance of a clear plan for direct training and behavior modification of this issue. However, to embark on that path without an awareness of these underlying factors can leave us frustrated and confused as to why we aren’t seeing the progress we expect.

First and foremost, check the foundation of your relationship with your dog, and what you represent to them. Without going into a discussion of what constitutes healthy leadership, suffice it to say, avoid any advice which advocates pinning your dog to the ground or the like, and gravitate toward an approach that encourages leadership through clear and consistent parameters on activity and behavior, the regulation of valued resources, and an awareness of your own tone, energy and body language as you interact together.

Next, run a check on your emotions when you are out with your dog. If you find yourself feeling anxious or nervous, it is worth pursuing strategies to mitigate either the emotion itself, or at least the signs of it.  Breathing exercises such as deep “belly breathing” and visualization can be powerful tools.  I also find it important to be accepting and understanding toward yourself for having these emotions, and to recognize that it is natural to continue feeling anxious until you start having some success and positive experiences out with your dog. Until then…”fake it ‘till you make it”.

 

 

Functional Obedience and the Development of Character.

By: Tyler Muto

 

“…Thorough obedience training does more than assure a dog’s response to his master’s command; capacities for learning and emotional stability could be increased and integrated as permanent qualities of character.”
-William Koehler, 1962

For many years, I chose to leave the behavior of sit-stay out of my basic obedience programs, and give preference to teaching the dog to stay in either a down position, or on a dog bed.  This is not to say that I did not teach sit, or that I did not teach stay.  I simply did not find that it was important to teach the dog to hold a sit position for a duration of time independently of his human.

When questioned about this, I held fast to two primary points of reasoning:

  1. It is not functionally necessary. The rationale behind this trajectory of thought is that I have already taught the dog to stay in a “place” command (on a dog bed), and I have already taught the dog to stay in a down position.  With these two positions, I can control my dog and expect them to stay put in virtually any circumstance that I can imagine. So, why would I need a third ”Stay” position?  Additionally, I cannot fathom a scenario where it would be necessary for my dog to stay where he is, at a distance from me, and it be absolutely imperative that he is sitting up rather than lying down.
  2. When I observe dogs behaving naturally, I rarely see them holding a sit position while they are in a passive state of mind. In fact, what I see is quite the opposite; dogs holding sit positions are most often in an active state of mind, or in anticipation of an action. To illustrate my point by way of example, you can often observe a dog watching a squirrel up in a tree or running along the top of a fence, while holding a sit position anxiously awaiting the possibility that the squirrel might come within reach. Similarly, you may be watching in amusement as two dogs are roughhousing or playing, when suddenly one of them stops to eliminate. The second dog often sits while waiting for his playmate to finish up and return to the game.
    Generally, when I ask my dog to stay where he is, what I desire is not only that he physically remains stationary, but also that he becomes calm and passive, not anxiously awaiting his release so that he can explode into a fury of excitement. The down and place commands more readily lend themselves to this relaxed state of mind. Thus, if my goal is to create calmness, they are preferred.

These were my reasons for not teaching the sit-stay, and I was certain that my logic was sound. Luckily for me, I discovered that I was wrong (I say luckily, because I am always delighted to discover a way in which I can improve my skills as a dog trainer).

My mistake was in only considering the value of the behavior in relation to its tangible function. This flaw in logic would be akin to me stating that the painting, which hangs on my wall, is unimportant because the wall itself is already painted and the painting adds nothing to the wall’s structural integrity. What I have failed to acknowledge is that filling ones home with art adds not only to the character of the home itself, but also to a sense of well-being while there. The entire feel of the space changes by virtue of the art and its placement.

Likewise, my assessment of the value of sit-stay was flawed because I only took into account its tangible functional value, while neglecting to investigate the potential value it may have of establishing qualities of character.

What I have come to realize, is that holding a sit-stay without fidgeting and without lying down is not only physically demanding for the dog, but requires a level of attentiveness and self-discipline that characterizes a well mannered companion. It is an exercise which I relate to the image of a soldier standing at attention. Compared to a down-stay where the dog can relax and her mind can wander, the sit-stay requires that she stay focused on the task at hand and possess an unwavering commitment to the act of sitting.

I find the exercise to be equally beneficial for the fidgety and impulsive dog as it is for the lazy and lackadaisical dog. While I may not use the sit stay behavior itself functionally in my day-to-day routines, the regular practice of this exercise develops and adjusts the dog’s character in such ways that generalize, and seep in to virtually everything else we may do together throughout the day. In this way it becomes highly functional.

Virtually all aspects of training a dog, when properly executed, should serve to develop and maintain a component of the dog’s character. Poorly done training, that is undisciplined, may teach a dog to respond to command, but will leave something to be desired. That something, while less tangible, is at the heart of what most dog owners want and need. It is the essence of what makes a trustworthy companion.

When setting out to train your dog or the dogs of others, keep in mind the words quoted above from the great Bill Koehler. Responsiveness to command is undoubtedly a desirable thing; but there is no greater satisfaction than realizing you have developed a dog with a sound mind and a noble heart.

– T. G. Muto

Lessons In Dogmanship From The World Of Real Estate

“My husband always wanted them to feel comfortable in their home,” the woman on the phone told me, “so they have no rules, they basically run the house.”

This came right after she told me that of her two dogs, one is fearful of virtually everything, and has bitten visitors to the property, and both are peeing and pooping in the house.

“Letting them do whatever they want,” I proceeded, “Is just about the worst plan for helping them feel comfortable and secure.”

There was a silence on the other end of the line, so I decided to regale her as I so often do, with a story from my own life:

I am currently house shopping for my first home. It was cool and exciting for about the first week, and now it is just frustrating and annoying.

My wife and I met with a buyer’s agent early in the process since we have no idea what we are looking at when viewing homes.  The agent’s name is Jim Hoffman, and he said to us right away “I am going to be very critical of the houses we look at, you are going to hear my opinion whether you like it or not.”

The truth is, at first I didn’t like it. It bothered me. Every house I liked, Jim would shoot down, pointing out all the flaws and potential resale problems. But as time went on, I grew more and more comfortable with Jim.

See, I hired Jim to be my leader, my guide through the jungle of real estate; and I want the kind of leader that will slap the poison berry out of my hand before I eat it, even if it stings a little. That is exactly what Jim is doing.

Recently he went out of town, and I had to view a few homes with a different agent. This woman was new, and not quite as critical as Jim. She was very nice, agreed with everything I said, and genuinely wanted to make me happy. We viewed a few homes that had some flaws, yet she happily pointed out the positive features of the houses. She clearly wanted me to feel good about the process and the houses we were viewing, and she spent very little time addressing the problems with the houses that might make me uncomfortable. I saw a home with her that I really liked, but I felt unsure. I had a sense of anxiety and insecurity about making an offer. It was decision time, a critical moment, and I needed a leader that I could count on.

The fact is that Jim didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, he told me what I needed to hear, and because of that I felt safe under his watch. When he got back in town, he took me back to the house to look at it with me. He gave his approving nod. We are making an offer today.

If you want to help your dog feel stable, safe, and secure, it’s important to share both appeasing affection, and consistent discipline. This is what animals, including humans, look for in a leader. Good leadership makes us feel secure and relieves anxiety.

If you live in the Buffalo New York area, and want a real estate agent who won’t lead you astray. Check out Jim Hoffman at JamesHouseHoffman.com

-Tyler Muto

If You Aren’t Listening, It’s Just A Lecture

Around this time last year, I coined a term, and a system I called Conversational Leash Work™. The idea behind this approach to leash handling is to utilize the leash to have an entire conversation with the dog, to guide her through her choices and give feedback about those choices both good and bad in a non-confrontational manner.

Since then, I have seen many people use the term Conversational Leash Work™ in reference to handling that does not exactly fit the principals of my system. The average professional that I have seen state that they are doing Conversational Leash Work™ is actually doing nothing more than traditional leash pressure work.

There is nothing new about Leash pressure work, or the idea of conditioning a dog to give-in to leash pressure rather than oppose it. This system allows the dog to learn to accept the leash as negative reinforcement, and teach her that she has the ability to control whether that pressure is “on” or “off”.

Typical leash pressure work goes like this:

1)   The handler puts a slight pressure on the leash in a certain direction and waits. (The dog typically shows a bit of initial resistance)

2)   The dog eventually gives in to the pressure and moves into the leash, thus making the pressure go away.

3)   The handler praises the dog and (optional) marks the behavior and gives a reward of a treat or toy.

The treat/toy reward of step 3 is optional because the release of pressure is the initial reinforcement. There is no need for further reward for the system to work.

What is happening here with the leash is essentially a lecture. The handler speaks (adds pressure). The dog listens and takes notes (moves into pressure. The handler then praises the audience for being such good listeners and moves on to the next bit of the lecture.

Conversational Leash Work™ takes the leash handling one step further.

1)   The handler puts a slight pressure on the leash in a certain direction and waits. (The dog typically shows a bit of resistance)

2)   The handler feels through the leash that the dog makes a shift in mindset from resistance to cooperation. (The dog doesn’t actually have to move an inch; the shift can be felt in the dog’s muscle tension.

3)   The handler actively releases the pressure from the leash, showing the dog that he is listening to her.

4)   The dog typically completes the rest of the action on her own, with no tension of the leash.

One of the key elements here is what I call the Active Release. And it’s not just how you do it, but the timing of when you do it is very crucial.

In this system, the leash become a way of speaking and listening. The handler is releasing the pressure as way of giving feedback. The dog is learning that her behavior can elicit a direct response from the handler. She is still indirectly controlling whether or not she feels the pressure from the leash. However, that control is now part of a team effort, or partnership with the human.

An entire conversation is now taking place through the leash alone. The handler speaks (pressure). The dog responds (shift of mindset). The handler responds to the dog (active release). The dog continues to respond back (completes action/movement). Then the praise and reward can come for a job well done (the dog and human are both rewarded through mutual affection).

This subtle change in technique creates a dramatic shift in the outcome of the work. Where traditional leash pressure work is simply a tool to help shape obedience cues, Conversational Leash Work™ becomes a powerful aid in establishing a relationship of mutual respect, trust and cooperation.

So far I have only seen one other professional who fully grasps this work, and that is my good friend Chad Mackin of Pack To Basics.

In my philosophy of Dogmanship it is important to remember that we are the humans, we have asked the dog to live in an artificial human world, which they don’t understand. We are here to lead the dog through that world. This is not a choice, but an obligation. If we want her to learn to listen to us, we must first listen to her. If we want her to respect us, we must first show her respect.

One last thing to note. The Conversational Leash Work™ that I have created is not simply a technique, but rather a series of exercises that works the dog through various levels of complex communication. To learn more, consider hosting or attending one of my seminars.

The following video is from last year and has been previously posted. It shows an intro to Conversational Leash Work™ with a dog that has never met me before.

-Tyler Muto

Training Small Dogs To Lay Down

Training small dogs can be tricky. One command that people tend to find especially difficult with smaller dogs is the down command. With traditional food luring, or leash pressure techniques, the dog may get confused because they are already so close to the ground, so it is difficult for them to grasp what you are trying to communicate.

The following video shows a very simple trick that I frequently use to teach small dogs the down position. It is very easy, can work on any dog, and is conflict free.

Self Discipline

When I was roughly 5 years old my mother asked me if I would like to take karate classes.

My answer was flat out “No.”

About 6 months later I saw the movie “The Karate Kid,” and suddenly I had a change of heart.

I took my classes pretty seriously for kid. I climbed the ranks, competed at championships, and by the time I was 12, I earned my black belt, the youngest at my school.

I learned many important things during this time, and none of them had to do with fighting. If you were to ask me today, the most important thing I learned was self-discipline.

Merriam Webster defines self-discipline as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement”. It often involves controlling one’s emotions, actions, impulses and desires. An extremely valuable skill for a young man to learn.

When I hit my teenage years I discovered girls, skateboards, and cars among other things; and my karate lessons seemed boring in comparison. I quit.

The discipline I learned carried me through many difficult situations and decisions, and helped form the adult I became. When I was 27, I had an itch, I needed martial arts back in my life, so I began taking Kung Fu classes.

When I was searching for a school, I had a particular vision of what I wanted. Again, it had nothing to do with fighting skill. I missed the discipline. I found what I was looking for at the Gold Summit Martial Arts Institute. My teacher, Laoshi Markle is strict in the most traditional sense. She is knows exactly what she expects from her students, and she accepts nothing less. She will not hesitate to scold someone for offering less that their best effort, and compliments are hard to earn. Because of this I find myself working just as hard to please her as I would my own father (I recently completed a class on one foot because I had a sprained ankle), and on the occasion that I receive one of her compliments it fills me with a sense of personal satisfaction that lasts for the remainder of the day.

What she knows is something essential, that great teachers have known throughout the ages. Her firm clear teaching, carefully doled out praise, and clear expectations have taught us to keep ourselves in line. The more advanced students never need scolding, they practice self-discipline.

Now, on to dog training. I am a firm believer that dogs can and do learn self-discipline. Not only that, but the vast majority of problem dogs that come into the K9 Connection dog training center have none of it. Most problem dogs that I see have never learned to regulate their own impulses, emotions, and actions.

This often is a function of either no training, or ineffective training. Many dogs, without learning that negative consequences can result from certain behaviors, never learn to temper their actions; they see no reason to.

If, when I first stepped into Kung Fu class, I saw that Laoshi ran her school following the only praise and reward style of teaching, I would have turned around and left, immediately. I knew that I would only reach my fullest potential with a teacher who will be firm when necessary, even if it is unpleasant in the moment. I crave the balance of reward and consequence, it makes her praise more appealing and it assures me that I am getting the feedback I need to grow as a person. Laoshi isn’t abusive; she never hits us or insults us. She doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, but she will always tell us what we need to hear.

Your dog craves this balance too. Structure and discipline can help a dog reach a state of peace and fulfillment. Instinctually, I think both you and your dog already know this.

Dog training can be a lot of fun, but it may not always be fun. Sometimes a dog needs to learn to do things that he may not really want to do. We work him through it. These are the moments that develop self-discipline.

There are times when it is preferable to create a situation where the dog wants to do what you are asking. You can add incentives like treats or toys to make the dog enjoy the process. To me however, an equally important part of training is seeing what happens when the dog doesn’t necessarily want to do what you are asking. Will they do it anyway? Will they use self-discipline without there having to be something external ‘in it for them’ such as a treat or toy?

One of the main exercises I use towards this goal is the down-stay position. Not the typical “stay for two minutes and you’ll get a treat” that the average training class teaches. I purposely ask the dog to do this when he knows there is no treat involved, and the minimum I require my students to strive for is a half-hour stay. During this time frame, the dog is going to have many impulses to get up and do other things, but I want to see him begin to control those impulses.

Essentially I want him to think twice before he acts, a habit that can carry over into every other aspect of his life. How great of a skill is that, think twice before you act, can you imagine?

-Tyler Muto

Humane Dog Training, A Different Perspective

My friend Suzanne is a volunteer for the City Animal Shelter, and very involved with animal rescue throughout the area. Occasionally, she spends a day at the K9 Connection training center with me, to observe my work and take anything she can learn back to the shelter to help the animals.

Being active in the community, she is also friends with other trainers, including some who have been my critics throughout the years.

I am what many would call a Balanced Trainer. I believe that the dogs are best served from a training approach that utilizes both reward and consequence to give them the maximum amount of feedback on their behavior possible. There are many trainers these days who disagree with that approach and prefer to train using only rewards (and the consequence of no-reward) to train dogs.

I respect these other trainers for what they do, and I respect their opinions, but based on my experience I cannot abandon my conviction that dogs, like humans, thrive on balance.

During my time with Suzanne this past Sunday, she brought up a conversation she had with a friend of hers who, very politely and professionally disagrees with me. The comments of her friend were something to the effect of this:

I understand that there may be some situations where dogs need to be corrected, but I am going to try very hard (and spend a lot of time) first to solve the problem with rewards based training, before going that rout.

My last post discussed some points about ethics in dog training and some research which showed that reward based training isn’t necessarily less stressful for a dog than a well timed correction. This comment from her friend brought up another important discussion about ethics which I shared with Suzanne.

Again, the trainer here is drawing on the assumption that solving a dog’s behavior issue with rewards only will always to be inherently more humane/ethical, than using reward and correction combined.

I disagree with this as a blanket statement and here’s why:

When dogs are brought to a trainer due to behavior problems, those problems are typically having a ripple effect on both the dogs’, and the humans’ lives.

First and foremost, many of the behavior problems we see are the result of, or component of the dog being under some amount of stress, duress, or anxiety. These are not ‘happy’ states for the dog to be under. I have an ethical obligation to help the dog come out of this state as quickly as possible

Secondly, often due to behavior problems, the dog’s life has become limited. Limited freedom, limited exercise, and limited socialization. Again, this is not a healthy condition or way of life.

Third, these problems typically place a strain on the relationship between human and dog. Frustration, anger, and anxiety can drive a wedge between them. As inherently social creatures, I cannot help but believe that the dogs’ are negatively impacted by this social strain.

Fourth, let us not as professionals forget to take the stress and well being of the human into account. Humans are animals too, and as professional trainers we have an obligation to help the dog and human reach a better quality of life as quickly and effectively as possible.

Fifth, the reality is that we are dealing with families who often have limited time, limited patience (usually their patience is already fading by the time they call me), limited training/handling skill, and limited finances (the longer it takes me to solve the problem the more it will cost them). The unfortunate truth is that the more time it takes us to correct the problem, the more likely the family is to run out of money, or patience, and give up on the dog. A truly sad state of affairs for the dog.

I feel I have an ethical obligation not allow any of these reasons to continue any longer than necessary.

Now, with these considerations in mind, lets say someone brings in a dog with a behavior problem. I now often have two options to consider:

1)   I can get the dog and human to a better, more relaxed, less stressed place very quickly using a balanced approach, which involves everything good about reward based training, plus added feedback of well timed and tempered corrections. Or

2)   Try to solve the problem using only rewards, no matter what it takes. Limiting the sources of feedback I am giving to the dog, and potentially spending a great deal of time (and the clients money) resolving the issue.

Which is more ethical?

In my opinion, the clear choice is option #1.

If I were to select option #2, I would be allowing the dog and the human to exist in a perpetual state of stress, far longer than is necessary; Costing the human more than necessary, and taking a significant risk that the goals will not be met before the human gives up (sometime because they have no choice).

You see, as professionals, we have far more to consider from an ethical standpoint than whether or not it is technically or theoretically possible to resolve a behavior issue with rewards only. We must also consider whether is realistic and possible for the family we are working with, and the potential consequences of our failure, or at least, lack of a timely solution.

This was the basis of the conversation (it was probably more like a lecture) that I had with Suzanne.

Then, two things happened to solidify my position. First, I received an email from a potential client. The message read:

“I have a spayed female with aggression issues especially on leash and trying to bite the vet.  I have been to other (positive) trainers but they either would not accept her as a client or gave up on her.  I would like to know more about what K9 connection could offer.  After having watched many of your videos online I think it would be worth a try with a different approach.”

“You see Suzanne,” I said, “I get emails like this everyday. The trainers locally who criticize me keep saying that they can do what I am doing with only rewards; but they’re not doing it. I literally get hundreds of emails like this a year, no joke. The dogs are suffering.”

Suzanne shook her head in disbelief.

Then, the second event occurred, my next client walked in. it was a first session with a young couple, Kelly and Mike, who were referred to me by their veterinarian. They own two female pit bulls, who were utterly out of control, and had begun getting into very serious fights with each other. The fights were serious enough to cause injuries that required veterinary attention. Another issue to consider, the behavior is dangerous. I have got to get a handle on these dogs as quickly as possible for safety reasons.

In the waiting room, the dogs were exhibiting what the owners described as their usual behavior. They were sitting separated from each other (to prevent fighting), and were hyper, anxious, stressed, and pulling on the ends of their leashes (gasping for air). Their feet were clenched and nails were sliding across the floor as the dogs tried desperately to pull towards me, towards each other, towards Suzanne, towards everything. It was all that Kelly and Mike could do to hang on.

The dogs simply could not even go out into the world without being under an extreme amount of stress and anxiety. They could not go for walks together because it is when under this kind of stress that they are getting into fights. The other thing causing fights between them are resources, such as food.

I asked them to follow me back to my rear training room. Watching them attempt to walk the dogs through my building was awful. When we got to the room I said, “That was appalling, the first thing we have to do is get these two to calmly walk. This stress is triggering their fights, they have to practice calmly walking side by side and controlling their impulses. Aggression,” I explained, “is largely an impulse control issue.”

I knew what I had to do. I ran to the back and grabbed two prong collars. Kelly said, “Yes, thank you!”

I fitted the collars, and with each dog separately, introduced them to my trademark system of conversational leash work. My system does not involve any harsh or painful corrections. The leash and collar are used with a subtle pressure/release, correction/reinforcement to teach the dogs the boundaries and expectations of the exercise, in this case heeling.

By keeping the leash work simple I was able to focus more of my time teaching Kelly and Mike how their energy, focus, and body language were affecting the dogs. My goal is to affect their entire way of being with their dogs, so they can be in a better position to influence the dogs’ choices.

Within less than a half hour we had both dogs outside, walking perfectly calmly at each owners’ side on busy Niagara Street.

Then the big moment happened. I took the leash from Mike, and put it in Kelly’s free hand. For the first time ever, she was walking both her dogs together, on loose leashes.

Kelly walking Daisy and Olive together for the first time

A man on a bicycle passed, she was in disbelief. Normally, she explained, bicycles would set the dogs off.

We returned to the office, and the dogs were perfectly calm and relaxed. Their stress was gone. The humans had taken control, and the dogs accepted the new limits on their energy and behavior gracefully and without protest. The humans were more calm too, and expressed that they felt empowered and encouraged. They all left in a happy, calm and confident state, eager to continue our training the next week.

I turned to Suzanne. “I couldn’t have accomplished that with rewards only, not in one session. Walking calmly is just a small piece of a very big puzzle with those two, I can’t spend that much time on it if I want to realistically help them. It takes a long time to teach dogs to walk that calmly on leash with reward training. And she certainly could not have walked both dogs herself. They fight over food, the last thing I want to do is try to give them a treat while walking side by side. Now the owners have made huge progress and everyone’s life is going to get better right away. The dogs will get more exercise, which will make them less anxious and happier, and they are not in that constant state of anxiety anymore. There is still a lot of work to do, but that was a great head start. Putting prong collars on them was the most humane thing I could have done. Others may disagree, but I will sleep well tonight.”

“I have to admit,” Suzanne said, “When I saw them in the waiting room I thought, ‘holy cow!’ I didn’t know what you were going to be able to do with them.”

Later that day I had a client drop of a dog to start a two-week Boot Camp program. She drove over four hours from Pennsylvania to bring the dog to me. The dog acts aggressively toward other dogs, including those in her own home. “I’ve tried everything,” she said “you are my last hope, if this doesn’t work I will have find her a new home. I love her, but I won’t have much of a choice.”

Here we go again, I have a duty to give it everything I’ve got. And I will.

**Update, 3/26/13

I received this note from Kelly, as comment to this post on my Facebook page:

“I am the owner of Daisy and Olive, the two pits in this story!! I am utterly amazed at what we learned at our first class!! It has already made a world of difference. I am now walking them everyday with close to no problem!! I look foward to more amazing training with Tyler @ K9 connection!!”

Thanks Kelly!

 

 

The Relativity of Pressure

Is training with rewards, without the use of physical corrections inherently more ethical than training with which utilizes other tools such as a leash and training collar, or an electronic collar?

For a significant number of trainers, the answer has always been “Of course!”

I think however if we look more objectively at things, it is less of a black and white distinction than many would like to believe.

When we train dogs, we are always utilizing various types of pressure. Reward based training uses primarily what I term Resource Pressure, or the internal pressure that one feels when they are trying to achieve something of a strong desire. There are Physical Pressures, such as leash pressure, electronic collar pressure, and guidance from our hands. Social Pressure is the innate desire of socially oriented animals to please other members of their social group. Lastly, we often use Spatial Pressure, which often involves using our bodies/body language to “push” or make to dog yield space to us (often used by pet dog owners around doorways etc.)

Training that focuses primarily on resource pressure has often been touted as the most ethical for a variety of reasons. It is minimally invasive, and virtually impossible to abuse (unless you are going to starve a dog to create more pressure). Does that however, make using it inherently more ethical?

To be clear, typically trainers who use this philosophy are also using social and spatial pressure, but almost never use physical pressure and the associated tools (choke chain, prong collar, electronic collar etc.)

There are many factors to consider, such as the ease of learning, frustration created if the goal is not met, and the ongoing stress involved if the particular approach to training takes excessively long (consider that many dogs brought to professional trainers are there due to behavior problems, these problems typically lead to added stress for both the dog and the human, and limited freedom for the dog.)

Although resource pressure often creates a fun, healthy type of pressure, it can indeed be very stressful for dogs as well. Consider this study conducted in Hannover from 2008. The goal was to compare three different training methods, their learning effects, and their effects on stress. The methods were prong collar, electronic collar, and quitting signal (non-reward, a form of resource pressure). At the conclusion of the study it was found that the electronic collar had the highest learning effect, and the lowest stress. The quitting signal (resource pressure) had the lowest learning effect (so low that it could hardly be compared), and a considerable amount of stress for the trials where the learning effect was significant. Another way of looking at this is that the reward based technique, caused a considerable amount of stress in the dogs, for virtually no reason. The training via this method was not nearly as successful as the electronic collar, and caused as much or more stress. So in this study which type of pressure was more ethical? It seems the electronic collar takes the cake.

It still isn’t that simple. This study involved very highly motivated working dogs, in a very specific training scenario. The more motivated a dog is, the more stressful resource pressure will be. If you were to re-create this experiment with a lower-motivation dog, and a different training scenario, you may achieve results that were quite different, if not the total opposite. The results of this study were inconclusive at best to make any general statement about dogs or dog training. In other words, Pressure is relative.

At this point you may be wondering, “Well gee Tyler, then what do think is the most ethical type of training/pressure?”

The answer to that is: There is none!

The modern trend of dog training to limit ourselves to a single modality of training, or to try and eliminate specific tools or approaches is in my opinion, not only foolish, but also disrespectful to the animals we are working with. Today we see trainers on both sides saying things like “I never use prong collars”, or “I never use treats”. We see trainers that use almost exclusively food during training, and trainers relying heavily on electronic collars for every detail of learning. The worst part is that these factions consistently behave at odds with each other.

In my opinion the most ethical trainer is the one who makes it their duty to understand and have experience with the various uses of all the tools and techniques available to them. That way they can pick and combine approaches based on the situation so that the dog has the optimal learning experience. This means the dog learns quickly and reliably without unnecessary stress. Sometimes this will mean relying heavily on resource pressure, sometimes on physical pressure, but most often the dog will have the best experience when we combine various types of pressure which all are urging the dog in the same direction.

The reality is that all types of pressure are relative, to both the dog and the training context. Three words I try to avoid when discussing training tools and approaches: Always, Only, Never.