Why Your Dog Doesn’t Know Sit

When I was a young girl, my grandmother would send gifts of books from Czechoslovakia.  The books were filled with stunning moving pop-up illustrations.  I learned a lot from those books.  I learned how those illustrations popped up.  I learned how one moving part operated another moving part.  What I failed to learn was how to read Czech.  My attention was so fixated on the illustrations that I memorized the words.  I recited the story based on the illustration.  I never focused on the letters.  Illustrations overshadowed the letters.

fox with cheese

Overshadowing is a well-researched part of dog training.  One place it applies involves adding cues.  (Commands for those who still use that term)  Animals, when simultaneously given two or more cues are likely going to learn about the most salient – to the detriment of the others.  Which facet carries the most weight depends on many factors.

Lured downs offer an example many can envision.  Dogs see humans bending at the waist during the lure.  If owners simultaneously say, “down” while luring or pointing, the word is unlikely to register.  Despite dozens or hundreds of repetitions, the dog stays focused on the owner’s gestures.  The word, “down,” becomes irrelevant background noise.  It predicts nothing of importance because with each repetition, the movement gives the dog all the information it needs.  Touching the ground comes to mean “lie down” rather than the word.  Pointing is perfectly acceptable if one wants to touch their toes in order to ask the dog to lie down.  I just don’t know many people who put it on their wish list.

Overshadowing affects many areas of training.  This is not a luring problem.  It can affect targeting, shaping and capturing.  It is not a positive reinforcement based problem.  Overshadowing has far reaching tendrils that reach pretty much everywhere.

Gestures do not need to be grandiose.  It can be as subtle as the wiggle of a finger or a raised eyebrow.  We all have dog training tells much like poker players have tells.  It takes self-awareness to compensate.  Often it takes a second set of eyes to spot them.

did you say something copy

This does not mean hand signals are bad.  Rather that few people want ridiculous signals.  No one wants to touch their toes to get a down.  It’s annoying.  Holding an arm extended for “stay” isn’t useful.  You can’t hold your hand up to sign stay and tie your shoe at the same time.  If you train with a prolonged gesture, that’s what the dog will need in order to understand.

Good hand signals are functional.  It takes effort to teach a great verbal cue.  Teach both but don’t mash them together and expect the dog to recognize them individually.  Don’t blame a dog for misunderstanding cues that were never made clear.

This might seem persnickety.  Who cares if signals are mashed so long as the method is “positive?”  Frankly, it is a problem when many trainers tell clients to mash signals and then encourage “balance” to clean things up.  Many repetitions become justification that the dog ought to know better and do better without recognizing that the repetitions were flawed.

Clients may feel that positive reinforcement failed because the dog is not responding to verbal cues.  This perceived failure again leads to “discipline.”  Positive reinforcement didn’t fail.  It worked exactly how science said it would.  In the absence of another reasonable explanation “dominant, stubborn, willful” can sound reasonable to a frustrated owner.

That’s a real shame because overshadowing is pretty easy to deal with.  Cues need to precede the behaviour without interference.  Fade lures.  Remove training aides during shaping or targeting.  Get a clean behaviour.  Then purposely add in the cue, and only the cue.  Spend a little time highlighting that these words or signs that are important and have meaning.  Do this in a thoughtful and planned way.

If we dismiss science, then we don’t learn about factors such as overshadowing.  I suppose it must be easier to justify corrections and sleep at night if one remains willfully oblivious to such things.  It is a choice to ridicule science and then justify corrections under the pretense of “balance.”

Learning the science is hard.  It demands that we regularly rip off the bandage that protects our fragile egos.  We need to find the thing we have yet to learn.  It goes beyond lip service.  We can’t just say, “We all have more to learn.”  You have to do something about it.

Learn better.  Do better.  Get better results.  Often those who suggest this path went down it before.  At least I certainly have.  There are walls you hit where it seems like something isn’t working right.  Finding out why is worthwhile.

Individually we should all lose a little sleep wondering if there isn’t some variation of overshadowing playing havoc with our cues (probably).  We should wonder if it impacts other areas of training (it does).  We should wonder if there are other effects to learn about (there are.)

Owners absolutely don’t need to learn decades of research in order to train their dog.  The trainers they hire should.

The takeaway for owners is twofold.  First, don’t mash your cues.  Second, science often does have all the answers….and it makes training a lot less frustrating when you work with it rather than against it.

New Isn’t Better. Better is Better.

Protocols created by pet professionals have been around for as long as I can remember. By protocol, I mean a system or recipe that provides a step-by-step instructional guide, presented as something that works better or differently than generally accepted practices described in standardized scientific terms.

I have used protocols in the past and I think the desire to find that shiny, new, better protocol comes from a passionate desire to help more dogs. No matter how good we are as trainers, there is that client that struggles. We want to help.

Thus is born the argument that we need more tools in the training toolbox. Don’t get me wrong, I am completely in favour of better and I am in favour of learning about new things. New does not mean better. New does not mean it will stand the test of time. New does not mean that it belongs in my training toolbox.  Perhaps it belongs in my “interesting new factoid” box.  Evidence supporting some cognitive ability in dogs does not mean it will successful translate into something useful for dog training. Not even all of Skinner’s work held up upon review. That is okay. That is how science works.

This is why the idea that “there is a study” is not sufficient to say that new is better. It is like those people who replaced their butter consumption with margarine. Trans fat is not better even if it was newer than butter.

New

Will a specific study or protocol hold up over time? I do not know. I only know that before me is a human being, a client with a dog. It is my job to:

  • Choose a strategy that has evidence of being effective.
  • Ascertain that the strategy is suitable for that particular problem.
  • Understand, mitigate, avoid and warn about risks and costs.
  • Factor in the client’s capabilities and safety measures.

That is a tall order to fill. Human psychology has wrestled with this problem. It resulted in a series of task reports by Chambless and Ollendick on evidence based practice. It recognizes that new treatments may become available, and we need to balance the potential for new effective treatments with the scientific evidence at hand. As a result, many psychological associations list ratings of treatment options.

For example, the Society of Clinical Psychology lists the treatments for panic disorders as:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy NEW (strong research support)
  • Applied Relaxation (modest research support)
  • Psychoanalytic Treatment (modest research support/controversial)

The terms “strong research” and “modest research” reflects specific criteria that explains the amount and type of research supporting that treatment.   An untested treatment plan may or may not work. Its omission from the list is an honest way of communicating that we just do not know.

Should controversy exist, this is also noted, creating a transparent system.  Reviewing, revisiting and questioning evidence does not constitute a personal attack. As the task force explains:

“Experts are not infallible. All humans are prone to errors and biases. Some of these stem from cognitive strategies and heuristics that are generally adaptive and efficient. Others stem from emotional reactions, which generally guide adaptive behavior as well but can also lead to biased or motivated reasoning.”

Criteria leading to a “strong research support” (well-established) designation are stringent. According to the Chambless and Ollendick’s criteria:


I – At least two good between group design experiments demonstrating efficacy in one or more of the following ways:

A Superior (statistically significantly so) to pill or psychological placebo or to another treatment.

B Equivalent to an already established treatment in experiments with adequate sample sizes.

OR

II – A large series of single case design experiments (N>9) demonstrating efficacy. These experiments must have:
A Used good experimental designs and
B Compared the intervention to another treatment as in IA.

Further Criteria for both I and II

III Experiments must be conducted with treatment manuals.
IV Characteristics of the client samples must be clearly specified.
V Effects must have been demonstrated by at least two different investigators or investigating teams.

(Bolded areas by myself to highlight the many requirements.)


You do not need to be a researcher in order to see that this is well beyond, “There is a new study – here is my new protocol.” Well established treatments have multiple, reputable studies with multiple researchers and teams that review and debate the merits of that evidence..  Even those listed as “modest research support” go well beyond one study and an idea.

How do we choose what is the best therapy for a particular client?  The task force suggests,

“…evidence should be considered in formulating a treatment plan, and a cogent rationale should be articulated for any course of treatment recommended.”

In dog training circles, protocols are marketed differently than the above.  Clients and trainers alike are told that we, “need more tools, or dogs will die.”  This insinuates that nothing but more protocols can save lives, overlooking that this is not the issue at hand.  The choice of options is not between new protocols and death. Our choice lies between therapies with a strong body of evidence and others with little to none.

More choices and more protocols create an ethical dilemma. We do not know if shiny, new things are better than placebo, nor do we know if they carry risks. We are working without the safety net that testing provides.

We also create an opportunity cost. We abandon the well-established treatments in favour of the unknown. There is a finite amount of time, money and resources in a client’s life.  Attention to the new takes time and attention away from a strategy that has a strong track record of working.

Even if we could mash methods and offer multiple strategies, it is unlikely that anyone has tested or reviewed if methods are complimentary. Do the effects of our shiny, new protocol trigger blocking effects in the tried and true? Without testing, this presents yet another concerning unknown. It is entirely possible that we are setting the client up to fail.

Out of the plethora of shiny new protocols, perhaps some will stand the test of time.  We remain in the dark until rigorous testing happens.

We, as dog trainers, have no right to override or skip testing or review. Our experiences and anecdotes are not superior to the tenents of scientific processes. Nothing gives us the right to let our ego grow to the point where we believe we can create a protocol – skip testing – sell it to clients at will – without disclosure – while taking payment for that service.

Until shiny, new studies and protocols become tested and reliable, we have choices to make for the individual client before us. If we choose to go the route of shiny and new, then at the very least clients deserve to know that they are signing up for something experimental. They also have a right to know that a supported treatment is available to them elsewhere.

new and untested

To be quite blunt, while we dabble in the new and untested, we are asking our clients to be our guinea pigs.

New does not mean better. Better is better. We will know we have better when we have proof that it’s better.  In the meantime, perhaps our focus is better served at becoming better at that which already meets “well established” treatment guidelines.

Yes you can reinforce fear…..or at least enable it.

A number of recent articles claim that, “You can’t reinforce fear.”  What they mean is that you cannot use positive reinforcement to create or maintain fear.  This would be true.  I can pay you to fake an Oscar worthy performance of being afraid of spiders.  However, I cannot pay you to BE afraid of spiders.

However, you can, absolutely enable fear via negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is a bit challenging to understand.  You can read how it works in more detail here in a previous blog post.

The Reader’s Digest condensed definition of negative reinforcement is that you stop something unpleasant in order to increase behaviour.  Presumably you have to start being aversive in order to stop it.  For example, you can’t turn off a car unless someone started it first.  The important point being that it is the cessation of something unpleasant that has all the power.

In dog training, negative reinforcement is used a fair bit.  Turning off continuous shock when a dog obeys is one example.  Nagging is a classic example of negative reinforcement.  Fear also works.  Dogs can learn if they act calm, they can move away from something that makes them nervous.

Negative reinforcement supports a wide range of fears and phobia.  For example, some people stay in their home because they are afraid of social situations.  Anxiety reduces when outings are successfully avoided.  Staying at home increases.

In order to survive in this world, we develop coping strategies.  Not all of them are healthy.  Some people might brave the world if a close friend tags along.  For lack of a better word, the friend acts as a crutch or buffer.  Their presence prevents the phobic person from facing the root of their fear, on their own.

These are maladaptive coping strategies.  Other publications call them safety behaviours and safety signals.  Maladaptive strategies create a rapid drop in anxiety, but stand in the way of addressing the primary fear.  Continued practice of these maladaptive strategies makes the patient better at avoiding the real problem.  Fear festers in silence.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

Similar things happen to our dogs.  Fear can be maintained with negative reinforcement.  In order to cope, our pets can create maladaptive strategies that deceptively look like cures.

For example, nervous dogs might take a back seat to another dog in the home.  So long as “big brother” takes the lead in social situations, owners fail to see any sign of fear.  Anxiety festers.  The dog fails to develop social skills – until one day big brother is no longer around.  The poor dog is ravaged with terror.

Owners can also become a crutch by repeatedly bailing (rather than occasionally helping) dogs out of difficult situations.  Dogs become dependent on the owner in an unhealthy way.  Instead of learning how to handle difficult situations, they learn how to escape when thing get uncomfortable.  Owners offer an easy out.

If it makes you recoil at the possibility of being an enabler, understand that negative reinforcement is powerful and subtle.  The curative appearance that safety behaviours create can fool expert eyes.

Our role, as owners or coaches is to help empower our dogs.  We need to give them roots and wings.  This means careful self-reflection – bitter, painful, self-reflection.  Are we serving the dog, teaching it to face its fear?  Or are we intentionally giving the dog an escape route?

By no means am I advocating that dogs sink or swim.  There is no reason to work a dog to the point of discomfort.  There are plenty of options such as desensitization and counter conditioning.  New advances in their execution are improving upon already impressive results.

However, what I am pointing out is that you can enable fear through negative reinforcement.  You can fool yourself into thinking that you have cured said fear if you intentionally or accidentally create a safety behaviour that allows or encourages escape.

Perhaps you are fine with that, so long as your dog stops being embarrassing in public.  Remember that life isn’t always fair.  Owners get sick, divorced – heck they go on holidays.  Dogs become lost and end up in a shelter.  Like the dog that lost its “big brother”, how will your dog feel and behave when abruptly forced to face a very scary world all alone?  What will your dog do when they no longer have you to turn to as a routine escape plan?  What will you do when your dog is cornered unexpectedly because they are charged by something or someone scary?

Regardless of your personal decision, understand that negative reinforcement plays a role in keeping phobias alive whether you like it or not.  If you’re helping a nervous dog to overcome its fears, it pays to understand how negative reinforcement works, how it maintains fear, and the risks that tag along for the ride  When a quadrant has this much power, it pays to know it inside out..

**Safety behaviours and safety  signals link only works in some browsers like Chrome.  If the link doesn’t work, please try changing browsers.