Layman’s Dictionary of Dog Jargon in Rehabilitation

layman

Technical jargon can sound impressive, scary, intimidating or any combination of the above.  I get that there are proper, technical definitions.  However, using jargon to explain jargon isn’t very helpful to people that are new to dog training and rehabilitation.

Think of this as a stepping stone, one that I recognize is taking liberties.  The concepts are accurate, but the words are less formal.  Hopefully you won’t need migraine medication after looking up a definition.

If you’re learning about learning theory, I hope this layman’s guide helps get you over the initial hump.  From there you can progress to more technical versions.

Please note, just because a strategy is included in the dictionary, it does not mean that it is effective, without risk or appropriate for your dog.  This is just a glossary of terms with examples.

Classical Conditioning (AKA Pavlovian Conditioning AKA Respondent Conditioning)

Take something meaningless  and pair it repeatedly with something good or bad.  Meaningless things take on meaning by association.

Easy example:  I run the can opener.  I repeatedly feed the cat a can of food.  The cat starts salivating when it hears a can opener.

Or, you could just click here and watch this clip from The Office where the neutral Window’s sound is paired with Altoids.  That leads to the Window’s sound triggering dry mouth.

Dog example:  Get the leash, go for a walk.  If the dog likes walks, it will become happy and excited to see the leash.  Be careful, if the dog is scared of walks, the dog can become scared at the sight of the leash.

Process:  You can teach your dog to like things through careful association.  The word, “yes” makes the dog salivate because “yes” has been paired with treats.  Conversely, “No” can be paired with a leash correction, triggering fear.

Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+ or CER-)

Learned emotional reactions that come from our experiences.  They can be pleasant, neutral or negative.  We learn that things predict “good”, “bad” or neutral feelings.  We develop feelings about things that predict these outcomes.

Easy example: A special phone ring tone means a loved one is calling.  We feel happy when we hear that ring tone.  (Or the opposite if we associate the sound with someone that we dread talking to.)

Dog example:  Sight of training gear such as a collar, treat pouch or special leash means fun times.  Dog feels happy at seeing these things.  (CER+)  The dog can also learn that the sight of nail clippers means pain, so they feel dread or fear if they see nail clippers.  (CER-)

Extinction:

When you break previous conditioning by NOT following through with the consequence..

Easy example:  The neighbour’s car alarm repeatedly goes off which used to mean danger.  The alarm keeps sounding for no reason, so now it means nothing.

Dog example:    Your dog has learned that the sound of the clicker means food.  You click but do NOT give food.  Eventually the dog realizes that the click has become meaningless.  A second example would be a dog that received attention for barking.  If attention is no longer given, the dog stops barking because it is no longer rewarded.

Process:  Present the trigger and do NOT follow with the expected consequence.  You can extinguish associations, and you can also extinguish behaviours.

Counterconditioning:

Take something that has previously been classically conditioned.  Pair it with something different to change the reaction.

Easy example:  You hate loud rock music.  You have a child, that child decides to take up drums and play in a rock band.  You get so much joy out of watching your child play, you start liking rock music.

Dog example:  The dog is afraid of strange people.  Each time your dog sees a stranger, you give them special, tasty treats.  With repetition, the dog starts feeling happy when they see strangers.

Process:  Present the scary thing, and then give something that the animal can ENJOY in that moment.  The dog leaves the situation while enjoying the experience.

Desensitization

Gradually expose the animal to something it fears in baby steps while teaching it to relax.  Begin with easy steps and work toward more challenging exposures.

Easy Example:  You are scared of spiders.  You learn to relax while looking at a fat lazy spider in a locked box.  Later on you learn to relax while looking at a fast moving spider that jumps around, while the spider is locked in a box.  You learn to relax while the fat lazy spider is in an open box.  You learn to touch the fat, lazy spider.  You learn to relax while looking at a medium speed spider in a partially opened box….etc.

Dog Example:  You teach a dog that is afraid of other dogs to relax when faced with other dogs.  At first, you might work at a distance, with a very slow moving animal that is facing away.  Then you expose the dog, but approach a bit closer.  You then teach the dog to relax while the slow moving dog is far away, but facing each other.  You work toward situations where the dog has to face fast, unpredictable dogs in close proximity…etc.

Process:  The dog is slowly exposed to things it fears, working from easiest to hardest.  The dog leaves the situation while it is relaxed.  The dog learns to relax at each step or level prior to moving on.  Important note:  Easiest to hardest does not mean farthest away to closest, nor does it mean you work in chronological order.  Different dogs have different triggers.  Triggers are actively worked in the order in which the dog finds easiest to hardest.

Negative Reinforcement (R-)

Something unpleasant ends when the dog engages in a specific behaviour we want to encourage.

Easy example:  Your spouse is nagging at you to do chores.  They keep nagging until you do what they want, at which point the nagging stops.  You do what is wanted to make the unpleasant nagging stop.

Dog example:  The dog learns that by standing calmly, it will be allowed to move away from scary things.  The dog stands still more often because that is how it has learned to escape.

Process:  Show the dog the thing it fears.  Wait for an appropriate behaviour.  When the dog does what you like, encourage the dog to leave.  The dog leaves when it feels uncomfortable enough to want to leave, thus feeling relief.  Dogs can learn to stop things like pain as well.

Flooding

Immerse the patient into something scary.  Prevent escape until they get over the fear.

Easy example:  Lock a person that is afraid of spiders into a room teeming with spiders.  Do not let them out – no matter what – until they are fine with spiders.

Dog example:  Take a dog that is scared of other dogs.  Drop him off into a crowded dog park.  Do not let him leave until he is over his fear of other dogs.

Process:  Take the dog and force it to face what it fears.  Prevent escape regardless if the dog becomes aggressive, loses bowel control – nothing can allow the dog to escape.

Habituation

A rather passive process where one is accustomed to something until they no longer notice it.

Easy example:  You move near a set of railroad tracks.  With time, you no longer hear the trains.

Dog example:  A dog hears a dog bark on television and reacts.  As the dog is exposed to more television, it realized that dog noises from the television are irrelevant.  The dog barely notices them.

Process:  Keep repeating something until the dog fails to notice it any longer.

Sensitization

Process of becoming more sensitive and aroused to things after repeated exposure or exposure to highly aversive stimuli.  Individual usually becomes more aroused to all stimuli, not just the one in question.

Easy example:  A repeated and annoying sound starts to get on your nerves.  As you become irritated, all sounds start to grate on your nerves.

Dog example:  Dog hears scary noises.  As the sounds repeat, the dog because more aroused, more jumpy.  May start to startle at other noises

Positive Punishment (P+)

Adding something unpleasant to hopefully decrease a behaviour you do not want.

Easy example:  Spanking.  The child has a tantrum.  You spank the child in the hopes that they do not do misbehave in the future.

Dog example:  The dog reacts at the sight of another dog.  You leash correct the dog in the hopes that the dog will stop reacting at the sight of another dog.

Process:  The dog is allowed to react/misbehave and is corrected for doing so.

Differential Reinforcement (DR)

Using positive reinforcement, reward a behaviour you would like to increase, while ignoring behaviour you do not want.  There are various ways you can do this.  For example, you could reward incompatible behaviours.

Easy Example:  Giving stickers and attention to a child when they sit at their desk working quietly instead of running.  As the child sits quietly more often, running about reduces because sitting is rewarded more.

Dog Example:  The dog is rewarded for sitting instead of jumping.  The dog cannot be sitting and jumping at the same time.  The dog sits more often because it is rewarded more.

Process:  Teach the dog a behaviour by rewarding it.  Continuing rewarding that behaviour so it takes place of a problem behaviour.  Often times, unwanted behaviour is prevented to ensure safety.  For example, you might have the dog on a leash to ensure Grandma isn’t knocked to the ground.

Negative Punishment (P-)

Take something away that the animal wants, suppressing an unwanted behaviour.

Easy Example:  Take away television privileges when the child swears.  The child learns to reduce swearing so they do not lose further television viewing time.

Dog Example:  Put the dog into timeout when it jumps for attention.  The dog loses the opportunity to get attention and social contact.  In the future, the dog learns to jump less often.

Process:  When the dog misbehaves, take away something they value.  The dog has to lose something, and not just be waiting to earn the next reward.

Positive Reinforcement (R+)

Giving something pleasant that increases the chances that the dog will do something you want.

Easy Example:  Give a child a sticker for completing a homework correctly.

Dog Example:  Give the dog a treat or play session when the dog comes when called.  The dog starts coming when called more often.

Process:  When the dog does something that you like, follow that behaviour with something the dog finds rewarding.

You could watch this clip from The Big Bang Theory for a visual example.

Extinction Burst

When an animal is going through extinction, but the behaviour increases before it decreases.

Easy example:  A child has a temper tantrum.  That tantrum escalates before it stops.

Dog example:  An owner decides to ignore all food begging at the table.  The dog pesters more, insistent on getting food before finally quitting.

Process:  Although not something one usually strives for, it happens as a by-product of extinction.

This list offers a good overview of the main strategies used in dog training and rehabilitation.  There are others that I’ll add to the list as they come to my attention.  Let me know if there are terms you want to see!

One important note.  These strategies are not based on intent.  It is always the dog and their reaction that determines which strategy actually happened.  For a more detailed explanation, click on this previous blog post.  For example, owners might intend to reward their dogs with praise and petting.  However, if the dog is scared, human contact might be punishing.  Look at the whole picture when deciphering which technique is at play.

Negative Reinforcement – The Bill Collector Quadrant

Many people seem to know what positive reinforcement means.  People assume that negative reinforcement means exactly the opposite – that you do something nasty like hit or yell at the dog.  This is not true.

Negative means subtract.  Reinforcement means to strengthen.  Put them together and it means that you take away something nasty in order to increase a particular behaviour.

Negative reinforcement stymies even pet professionals. An example would probably be helpful.  By viewing this quadrant from a human situation, we can better recognize negative reinforcement – how it acts and maybe even how it feels.

Watching television, I saw an excellent example:

“Are you tired of calls from bill collectors?  You can make them stop!”

past due

This is negative reinforcement.  You can escape repeated phone calls, making them stop, if you increase your bill paying behaviour. Yes, it is true that collectors must start calling in order to stop.  Stopping the discomfort is key element doing all the work.  That is how we know it is negative reinforcement.

People with sufficient money with perfect payment histories might never feel the stress of collection calls.  They AVOID nagging calls and letters.

Most people slip up at least once.  They ESCAPE the uncomfortable nagging by paying the bill.  They feel relief.  Anxiety goes down, at least temporarily.  When the next bill deadline looms anxiety resurfaces  It’s potentially a roller coaster of highs and lows.

Those that run into a financial crisis face waves of calls and letters that go on and on and on.  There is no peace or reprieve.  Those unable to pay have no real means of ending the barrage.  One can easily start to understand how the inability to ESCAPE could make some people snap.

Calls and letters can only be stopped one way – through paying bills.

Unless you’re dealing with the mafia, bill collectors are not abusive.  Phone calls and letters aren’t typically traumatic.  These things are part of daily life.  It is interesting that people often complain about the HARASSMENT from bill collectors.  No disrespect meant to those that do the job.  However, one can easily see how repetitive nagging can be upsetting.

Relief that comes from getting that monkey off your back is a sweet – sweet reward.  While it might be a “reward” and it might feel good to feel the relief, people generally don’t like bill collectors or the process.  The exception being if you hired bill collectors to work on your behalf.

In dog training, we don’t use bill collectors.  Some trainers offer relief from pain, discomfort or fear.  You can generally recognize negative reinforcement if something is stopped or removed when the dog complies.

If you come when called, I will STOP the continuous shock.
If you take the dumbbell in your mouth, I’ll STOP pinching your ear.
If you sit calmly, I will let you MOVE AWAY from something scary.

Dogs learn to obey faster and faster in order to stop the discomfort sooner.  If the dog happens to become PERFECT, they might obey so quickly they avoid discomfort altogether.  Other dogs fail to comprehend, in which case the discomfort is unrelenting.  Like the person facing bankruptcy, the dog just snaps or gives up.

Can it work?  Sure.  Bill collectors “work” at least some of the time.  If all you want is your money, you might get it.  They do not work all of the time.  If your goal is teaching financial responsibility and money management, you might want to consider another strategy.  Bill collectors do not call teenagers, giving them a taste of what might come if they mess up in their adult lives.  That task rests with parents, teachers and even lenders.

Even lenders want to avoid the use of collection agencies.

The question should never only be if it works.  We need to compare the results to the risk.  Clearly, there are risks; so many that they are best left to a blog of their own.

When it comes to understanding negative reinforcement, these are some points to remember:

1 – Perfect pups may look happy – like perfect bill payers.  You can’t necessarily read a dog’s body language accurately and determine if coercion was used, especially if the dog has learned to completely avoid the aversive.

2 – Negative reinforcement does not need to be violent or abusive in order to cause significant discomfort.  Bill collectors aren’t abusive and neither are most dog trainers.

3 –Negative reinforcement might make you comply, but it doesn’t mean you like it – or the person/thing dishing it out.  Compliance is driven by the desire to “make it stop – make it go away.”

4 – The inability to escape can send you over the edge, and it can send your dog over the edge.  Some have referred to this as a “ticking time bomb dog.”  Jean Donaldson’s webinar on negative reinforcement touches on this.

Nevertheless, the real question is:

Do you want to live your life as a bill collector?  Would you choose that road if an alternate existed?

Threshold Roulette or Choice?

Many years ago, when I was a child, I was terrified of deep water.  Both my parents were concerned that I might drown if I fell accidentally into deep water.  I therefore had to learn to swim.

Dogs often have to face their fears:  bicycles, strangers, children, dogs, skateboards and so on.

Many treatment options (and acronyms) exist.  Boiled down to the basics, you can punish, reinforce, create associations and break them.

Many people feel that humane rehabilitation gives the dog choice.  The idea being that choice is empowering.  Limiting choice is somehow less effective and perhaps even less humane.

Wait one minute.  My parents did not give me any choice where it came to my fear of water.  I had to overcome it.  If I had been asked, “Do you want to learn to swim in the deep water?” I would probably have screamed “no” and ran.

Dogs don’t get to choose whether to participate in rehabilitation programs either.  It is entirely plausible that dogs would refuse to consent to rehabilitation.

Adult humans are different and they do get to choose.  For example, you can choose to face a fear of snakes or not.  It is your choice.

However, just as my parents decided that I must get over my fear of deep water, a dog’s owner decides if a dog will do rehabilitation exercises.  There is no choice here for the dog.

The human also chooses the techniques to be used on the dog.  Some programs claim it is best to let the dog choose when to approach and when to retreat.  Is this wise?

Let’s return to the lake for a moment.  I enjoyed playing in shallow water.  Going to the lake was fun and I ran enthusiastically toward the water.  I knew that I could leave the water at any time.  Which incidentally, did not make me like deep water.  I just avoided it.

It is very common for lakes to have areas that drop off sharply.  Should the sand break away beneath your feet, it can send you plummeting into deep water.  One minute you are happy.  The next you are in a fit of terror.  This is not necessarily a momentary setback.  Fear can quickly escalate and spread.  Shallow water becomes unpredictable and potentially unsafe.

The wiggle room between safe and dangerous is so small – one tiny step.  Giving choice to someone who cannot see the bigger picture may create threshold roulette.

Similarly, in dog training, a dog can be given the choice to approach scary things.  Much like the child that runs into the lake, the dog can get quite close to that line that separates okay from definitely not okay.  Reading body language is not going to help because the dog is legitimately okay until it is not.

These are the dogs that happily walk past other animals on walks, but lose control when unexpectedly sniffed.  It’s the animal that can happily nudge the hand of a child and walk away for a treat – only to blow up if the child fidgets or squeals.  Like sand crumbling beneath your feet in the lake, the dog learns that situations that previously were enjoyable are now unpredictable.

The notion that the dog should be in control is flawed.  Dogs cannot foresee problems and may not anticipate surprises.

That’s not to say a dog should never have choice.  If my dog startles when it sees a garden gnome, I am confident the gnome is not going to start dancing about.  I can give my dog more choice because the dog’s threshold isn’t sitting on a behavioural sandbar.

However, scary things such as other dogs, children, people, bicycles and skateboards are not fully predictable.  No matter the skill of the trainer, a decoy dog may bark unexpectedly.  Children fidget.  Adults fail to follow direction.  Skateboards may inadvertently flip and bang.  The closer the dog is to the precipice, the more likely you will find yourself playing threshold roulette.  When luck runs out, your only choice becomes restraining the dog or letting it flee.  Neither of those is desirable.

Different strategies aim for different thresholds.  For example, classical conditioning aims to keep the dog well below threshold.  Done correctly, the dog may even be unaware that rehabilitation is taking place.  There is plenty of wiggle room for errors.

By contrast, negative reinforcement aims to reward the dog by relieving discomfort or pain.  The dog is intentionally placed much closer to edge.  The closer the dog is to the edge, the more likely that you’re going to lose your roulette game.  Positive punishment lets the dog go over the edge, disciplining the dog after it has gone off the deep end.

I did overcome my fear of water.  My parents devised a most clever rehab program.  They took a life jacket and divided the foam core into strips.  I swam with this life jacket.  I had fun.  I felt safe.  I could not slip into deep water.

Little by little, as my ability to swim improved.  Unbeknownst to me they removed one strip of foam at a time.  Eventually, I was swimming with a life jacket that did not float.  When the time was right, I found out that the life jacket was useless.  I could swim and rather enjoyed it.

The point being that this program was:

  • Under threshold.
  • Stress free.
  • Aversive free.
  • Avoided threshold roulette.
  • I was given no choice.  In fact, I was blissfully unaware – as classical conditioning should be.

In the end, I learned to swim, overcame the fear and even took up scuba diving.

Taking away choice is not always a bad thing, especially if it avoids creating threshold roulette.  Taking away choice can be humane, effective and thoughtful.  Moreover, you may even find that the dog learns to love – rather than tolerate – the things it once feared.  The bigger concern is how do you keep a dog truly under threshold?

Crisis of Conscience – Ultrasonic

Recently, I had a number of products sent to me for review.  They included several ultrasonic devices.

These devices emit a high frequency sound that is used to deter barking and other nuisance behaviours.  I had heard that these products worked for some, while other dogs failed to react.  I had also heard that a small percentage of people can hear the noise.

And so, I tried it out on myself first.  Yes, I can hear it.  I would characterize the sound as unpleasant.  Before you try this on yourself, warnings inside the packaging state that the device should be kept away from human ears.  Distance varies based on make and model.

The product I tried was a remote activated hand-held device.  You, as the owner, pressed a button when you wanted to correct the dog.

Here’s the dilemma.  Kip heard it.  He reacted badly, crouching low to the ground and then attempting to flee.  There is no doubt in my mind that he hated the ultrasonic.

Not dislike – hated. 

There was another sample, a bark activated ultrasonic box.  The inserts claim that you can prevent your dog from barking in the yard.  Or, you can install the box and have it correct your neighbour’s barking pets.

Each time a dog barks, a high pitched sound is emitted.  All dogs within range would hear this sound.

Think about this for a minute.  Imagine you live in an urban environment where yards are small.  Imagine that a barking dog lives nearby.  Your dog however, is calm, well-mannered and trained.  Each time the OTHER dog barks, ALL dogs in hearing distance are corrected.  You, as a human probably will not even know that this is happening.

Your dog can be punished for living in close proximity to a barking dog.

How is this a crisis of conscience?

I think people need to see how some dogs perceive ultrasonic sound.  Imagine if your dog started acting strangely, but you could not figure out why.  How does ultrasonic impact some dogs?

The question is, do I post video of Kipper and his reaction for the greater good?  Should people see the type of reaction they might expect, especially since they may be completely oblivious that their dog is being corrected?

I struggle to understand how anyone can legally use these devices on other people’s dogs, without their knowledge or consent.  Owners are generally liable for their dog’s behaviour, yet neighbours can secretly meddle with other people’s dogs.  How is this at all right or just?

Those that have to endure nuisance barking might point out that they have a right to quiet.  I’d agree.  The problem is, you’re punishing ALL dogs, not just the barkers.  There are other options.  Police do respond to noise violations in most municipalities.

If I posted video, some people may claim that it can’t be that bad if I would risk filming and posting video.  Others may say, “How could you do that to your dog?”  They will say that I am being cruel and no amount of justification warrants causing my dog a moment of unnecessary discomfort.  It’s the dilemma of greater good versus knowingly causing a moment of suffering.

Question

No matter how long and hard I think this through, I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer.  I am torn between two wrongs.  So I’m tossing it out there for all of you to please tell me what you think.  Would it serve the greater good to show this?  Or is never worth momentary discomfort even if it’s for the greater good and I know that I can ensure Kip has no lasting side effects?  Thoughts?

Toolbox or Technique

I am a tool junkie – specifically, kitchen gadgets.  In dog training, there are also plenty of tools.  Some people feel that the more tools a trainer has, the more problems they are capable of solving.  That would be wrong.

Bear with me for a moment while I go back to cooking…..

My ability to cook is not tied to my tools.  Give me wood and a pan, and I’ll cook you something so good that you’ll go weak at the knees.  If you like a nice ceviche, you can even skip the fire.  Someone has serious technical skill when they can take the cheapest, toughest piece of meat and turn it into something succulent.  It’s all about having mad skills.

If you are good at what you do, you don’t need a whole toolbox of tools.

Realistically speaking, I don’t want to whisk egg whites by hand, so I have a stand mixer.  However, I don’t need one to have success.  The act of buying a thousand dollar Robot Coup will not magically transform someone into a cook.  Nor will it result in an edible meal.

Many tools that I have bought fall into the miserable uni-tasker category.  Meaning they do only one thing, or aren’t worth the time or money.  They wind up in the trash.  They are too frustrating and aggravating to drag out of the back of the pantry when a decent chef’s knife will do.

You can also waste money on dog training uni-taskers.  Introducing the Dog-a-matic 6000.  Fast results.  So easy!!  Anyone can do it just press the button for instant results.  Money back guarantee if you’re not 100% satisfied.

It’s a bit of a money grab in my opinion.  That’s not my real beef.  An editor’s comment is.  There is a screen shot circulating on social media.  It’s allegedly a snapshot from Dog’s in Canada Magazine – the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) publication.  It states:

“Purely positive trainers…are limited by their personal training philosophies, leaving them unable to fix difficult, long-term behaviours in a timely manner.  A balanced or integrated trainer may be more likely to have a variety of skills and methods to fix problem dogs because they have a wider set of TOOLS and approaches…..”  (Caps added)

Excuse me – but a plethora of tools is just a bunch of gadgets.  The only tools a trainer really needs sits squarely between their ears.  It’s called a brain.

Just as I do own kitchen tools, I do own dog training tools.  I use a clicker.  Do I need it?  Heck no.

Without timing and skill, that clicker won’t give effective results.  Neither will prong collars, shock collars, chock collar, leash correction on any kind of collar or using your hand to poke, swat, hit or otherwise punish the dog.  (None of those I use.)  If you’re struggling with the timing of food rewards, then you’ll also struggle with the timing of corrections.  It’s a hand/eye co-ordination problem.  How is it fair to use the dog as a guinea pig while you learn to use pain?

Some tools do more harm than good.  It’s like driving a nail with a sledgehammer.  It might be possible, but it’s a little crazy to think you won’t damage the wall.  Greater power does not always equal better results.

Plenty of dog training techniques come with a bunch of side effects, creating other problems in the wake.  According to research, some techniques trigger aggressionRetaliation toward discipline is the number 2 trigger for dog bites to children.  Pressure on a dog’s neck has been tied to eye problems.  When you’re playing with life and death outcomes, asking about potentially negative fallout matters.

When it comes to some of the gadgets such as shock collars, electric fences and citronella collar –  they come with a manufacturer’s warning that says, “Do not use on aggressive dogs.”  According to the makers, don’t even use them on dogs prone to aggression.  With restricted use, having these in a toolbox doesn’t seem to offer any benefit.

At the end of the day, I don’t NEED to buy a sledgehammer to drive a nail.  Frankly, I don’t WANT one either.  I don’t NEED a Robot Coup to make a puree.  I WANT one.  I really don’t WANT the latest Dog-a-matic 6000 gadget because it’s a cheap piece of marketing nonsense that will end up in the garbage.  Waste o’ cash.

Call me really old school if you like.  I believe in technical skill and practice.  I don’t NEED to use any pain or fear.  I don’t NEED any tools that cause pain or fear.  I don’t NEED silly gadgets.  That old school attitude does not at all compromise results because a multitude of gadgets and tools will never make up for lack of technical skills.

If you have solid technique, you never NEED a full toolbox to get results.

Citronella Collars – May contain: Pesticides, Booze and Refrigeration Coolant

Natural things feel so good and safe.  By contrast, we see chemicals and pesticides as being bad and dangerous.

Marketing executives love our love affair with all things natural.  A trip through a grocery store is an epic journey into glacial waterfalls, exotic berries, butterflies and cherry blossoms.  Natural is a beautiful, safe embrace in a cold and dangerous world.  I know this is true.  It says so on the soap I bought.  Perhaps I should say it was strongly implied.

Nature offers us so many wonderful, natural things.  Digitalis, a heart medication, comes from the beautiful foxglove flower.  Unfortunately, it’s not as appealing when called by its other name, “Dead Man’s Bells.”  Death Cap mushrooms are natural.  Heroin comes from poppy plants.  Black widows are natural, but I prefer to avoid them.

Natural does not mean safe or free from side effects.  Natural can kill you.

The problem is that consumers generally stop reading after seeing the word “natural.”  We see butterflies – not death caps.  Marketing executives know that natural products appeal to many consumers.  It’s about time we stop falling prey to sunshine and fairy farts.  Natural on a product label is just a sales pitch.  It doesn’t tell you anything useful in terms of safety.

Citronella is natural and it is used in dog training products.

What exactly is citronella?

Citronella is also used in soaps and perfumes.  It smells a little like lemon.  It probably has appropriate uses.

However, there are plenty of things I like for some uses, but not for others.  I happen to love capsaicin, the stuff that makes hot peppers fiery and Indian food delicious.  I sure as heck don’t want it sprayed in my face or in my eyes.

In dog training, It can be found in sprays and bark collars – sold as means of stopping problem behaviours.  The collar is placed on the dog’s neck.  Each time it barks, a canister squirts citronella spray at the dog.

Citronella is an insect repellent – a pesticide.  It is also one that has been under scrutiny, regulation and banning.  According to Health Canada:

The limited data available for citronella-based insect repellents has brought a number of concerns to light. Natural citronella oil may contain methyleugenol, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies.

Companies that use chemicals, whether they be naturally derived or synthetic file a Material Safety Data Sheet (M.S.D.S.).  Pet owners can look these up by searching for ingredients followed by the letters MSDS.  You can become better informed with this simple step.  For citronella, you would type Citronella MSDS.

One company that uses pure citronella extract states in their MSDS:

Citronella can cause lung cancer if ingested.
Inhalation:  Remove to fresh air.  Avoid casual breathing.

It’s important to know that most products on store shelves contain multiple ingredients.  A canister of citronella spray is not necessarily 100% citronella.

The following MSDS was obtained directly from the manufacturer by trainer Caryn Charlie Liles.  You can read her story here.Citronella JPEG

The safety page for the canister of 1% citronella spray also contains approximately 10% ethanol and up to 90% Tetrafluoroethane.  Warnings include:

Potential Health Effects:
Eye: may cause irritation
Skin: may cause irritation
Inhalation:  may cause dizziness and loss of concentration

It then goes on to say:

This product is considered hazardous based on the criteria listed in the Federal OSHA Hazard.

Most people are familiar with the effects of ethanol.  It’s alcohol.  It makes you drunk.  What we don’t know are the effects of inhaling alcohol.  Who knew, but apparently people do this.  According to the CBS it is a new and seemingly dangerous trend that promises to deliver quicker intoxication.

Tetrafluoroethane is a refrigeration coolant – it makes car air conditioning units cold and it is also used in various spray canisters.  This chemical is also a street drug, giving abusers an easily obtained rush.  Users inhale sprays, leading to drunk, dazed and intoxicated behaviour.

Pause for a moment and think about this.  Inhalant abusers breathe these types of products to get stoned.  Bark collars spray this same substance in the air around the dog’s face.  You might say the spray is not directed straight at the dog’s face.  It doesn’t matter.

According to at least one manual:

“The mist if very fine and simply creates a mist in the region of the snout.”

Proponents of such tools claim that manufacturers simply could not sell unsafe products to the public.  That is not true.  Companies cannot sell defective products.

Most products have some degree of risk.  Think of prescription pills.  They have side effects.  Should you choose take medication, you accept that risk.

A Roger Williams law review paper states that clever marketing can downplay risk in a consumer’s mind.

Manufacturers can remain immune from liability by placing warnings on products while simultaneously undermining the effect of those warnings.

…the manufacturer can simply point to the warning and say cynically, “See, I told you so.”

This means that pet owners need to read warnings while ignoring sales pitches if they are to make an informed decision.

Ignoring MSDS pages and safety precautions makes us blind.  It absolutely is easier to feel good about spraying a dog in the face, nose, mouth and eyes with what seems to be a “natural” extract.

Would pet owners embrace spray collars so ethusiastically if the packaging stated:

“Sprays insect repellent, alcohol and air conditioning coolant (and drug used in inhalant abuse) in your dog’s face to stop barking.  Side effects may include skin and eye irritation.  May cause dizziness and loss of concentration.”

Natural just doesn’t sound so pleasant anymore.

Pain: When in Doubt, Leave it Out

What makes pain … painful?    It’s an interesting question because let’s face it, some pain is just worse than others.

Think of removing a bandage.  You could rip it off quickly, suffering an intense short burst of pain.  Alternatively, you could gently ease it off, suffering less, but for longer.  Which is worse?

What do bandages have to do with pet training?  Bear with me.  This pain stuff is interesting.

Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, devised multiple experiments – inflicting pain on willing subjects so he could ask, “How did that feel?”  Creepy as it seems, Ariely was the victim of severe burns.

During his recovery, he begged nurses to remove the bandages slowly.  The nurses, experienced in patient care and no doubt caring people, disagreed.  They believed, based on experience and observation that a fast tug was kinder and less painful.  After recovering, Ariely began researching pain perception.  These types of pain studies objectively study the mechanics of pain so we can reduce the future suffering of others.

Others have followed similar lines of questioning for various reasons.  Some of the findings are as follows:

Individual tolerances differ.
The ability to tolerate pain differs from one individual to another.  Studies on electric shock found that some people felt pain when shocked with 0.30 mA of electricity.  Others could tolerate up to 2.0 mA.  Each individual feels things differently.  There is no really good way to predict how any individual will respond.  (For more information on pain   and shock, see my previous blog post.)

Escalating pain feels much worse than diminishing pain.
Some pain becomes worse over time.  Mild discomfort turns into intense throbbing.  Take the same pain but reverse it.  Start high and reduce the intensity.  Our perceptions change.  Given the exact same pain levels, we find increasing pain to be much more severe.

Duration matters.
Long pain feels worse than short pain especially when the intensity varies.  There is a very important side note.  Low levels of discomfort might not start out painful, but they can become painful over time.  Imagine a heating pad.  At first, it feels hot and possibly even therapeutic.  As time passes, heat builds to intolerable levels.  With the passage of time the pain threshold is crossed.  Just because something feels mild – nay pleasant – it doesn’t mean it stays that way.

Uncertainty increases pain sensitivity (Hyperalgesia)
Unpredictable pain makes us sensitive and less tolerant to unpleasant and painful situations.  Research shows that as little as three mild shocks can trigger this hypersensitivity.  It’s like watching a scary movie and then jumping at every bump in the night.  Our bodies have this built in survival skill that says, “This place is unpredictable and dangerous.  Be careful.  Be on high alert, extremely anxious and sensitive to any level of pain.”

Consistent outcomes reduce pain sensitivity (Hypoalgesia)
When faced with consistent pain, our bodies react differently.  When we can control and predict painful consequences, our brains release natural opiates to block pain sensation.  In other words, our brains self medicate in order to stay strong and carry on.  It’s a bit like getting injured while on pain medication.  Saying “That wasn’t so bad,” does not mean the incident was pleasant or safe.  It means we didn’t feel the full sensation because of the drugs coursing through our body.  The natural release of opiates is a coping mechanism and another survival skill.  It lets you keep going despite pain.  It’s handy if you need to ignore pain in order to escape a clear and present danger.

What it boils down to is that pain is complex.  You cannot measure pain based on a technique.  There will be variation that can increase, decrease or mask pain.  This raises concerns because pain is not about actual physical harm.  It’s about our perceptions and even the anticipation of pain.

With all the subtle nuances, how can anyone claim that physical discipline in dog training is not painful?  We cannot judge based on a happy demeanor because the dog could be hypoanalgesic.  “Gentle” or “mild” correction is dubious because it could trigger hypersensitivity toward pain.  If long in duration, it could cross that pain threshold.

Gimmicky videos of happy yet physically punished dogs is not evidence of lack of pain.

Many dog training techniques are at risk of triggering these problems.

  • Shock collars often have a continuous function for corrections that are longer in duration. Does mild ‘stim” cross the pain threshold, and if so, at exactly what point?
  • Inexperienced handlers and novice owners are notoriously inconsistent.  Consistency comes with practice.
  • Consistent trainers dismiss initial shrieks claiming that with time, the dog does not mind.  They say it’s surprise.  Couldn’t we also assume that pets are self medicating – releasing natural opiates to cope with their training.
  • Bark collars and electric fencing increase the intensity of pain when the dog fails to comply.

I can hear the objections now.  Dogs are not people, rats, mice or monkeys.  True.  Let’s remember, plenty of research indicates that our pets feel pain in the same way we do.

We have two choices.  We can assume that dogs and cats are freaks of nature – different from all other mammals.  We can turn a blind eye to the possibility that the “mild” or “correct” use of physical discipline has no pain or consequence.  We can pretend it ain’t so.

Or, we can look at the bandage question at the beginning of this blog – realizing that the nurses – the practical hands on experts on bandage removal in a burn ward were wrong.  Slow and gentle was better!

We can admit that dishing out physical corrections does not make one an expert on taking them.

Ariely’s most profound finding in my opinion is that you can look someone right in the eye, convinced that you are acting in their best interest, sure that you are not causing pain – and you can be wrong.  That’s what’s so great about science.  It just answers the questions so we can make better choices in the future.  In the meantime, we take the science we have.  Where pain is concerned, when in doubt, leave it out.