Shock Collars are so NOT like T.E.N.S.

I had a more practical blog lined up.  Humor me, as we look at one more expression.  This one keeps coming across my news feed and it’s interesting.  Some trainers claim that, “Shock collars are like T.E.N.S. machines.”

I have used a T.E.N.S. machine many times under the guidance of various therapists.  For those unfamiliar with this treatment, mild electric current flows to pads secured to the patient’s skin.  It causes muscles to contract.  Dr. Ho’s Pain Therapy System seen on infomercials is a T.E.N.S. machine.

Here is one of the machines that I use on a regular basis.  At the bottom are two dials for “intensity.”  There are two intensity dials because the machine regulates the left and right pads separately.

tens

Comfort levels change between individuals.  They also change from moment to moment for the same person.  Intensity levels vary from one area of the body to another, hence the two dials.  There is no “consistent” setting.

If you asked a patient using a T.E.N.S. “Are you okay?” the answer should be “Yes.”  Discomfort results in a reduction in intensity.  If asked, “Do you want me to turn it off?” the answer should be, “No.”  Stimulation should be neutral or pleasant.

With shock collars, it is this underlying premise that is fundamentally different.  Bark collars shock dogs to suppress barking.  Barking reduces because the dog does not like the shock.  If the shock were neutral, nothing would change.  If it were pleasurable like a T.E.N.S. machine, barking would increase.  Barking would increase because the dog would be learning that barking leads to massages.

The same goes for electronic training collars used as negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is like the game “Uncle.”  Children pinch one another.  They keep pinching until the other child says, “Uncle.”  The behaviour of saying uncle leads to cessation of pinching or relief.  Similarly, dogs turn the shock off by obeying a command.  Reinforcement is the cessation of the electronic stimulation – relief.  Dogs that respond quickly can “beat the buzzer”, avoiding shock altogether.

“Pleasant” shock, under the level of aversiveness wouldn’t be effective here either.  Ask a dog, “Do you want the electrical current to stop?”  The answer needs to be, “yes” or the collar will not work as designed.

Both may involve electrical current but the intensity is on a gradient.  Many things are on gradients.  Music is nice, unless it is too loud.  Massage feels good, unless Olga the Horrible is hurting you.  (My apologies to anyone named Olga.  Olga was the name of the massage therapist who hurt me.)  Light helps us see unless it is glaring.  Flowers smell pretty unless it is an overdose of noxious perfume.  Cool water makes a refreshing swim.  Cold water is icy and painful.  Food is usually fabulous, unless you have eaten excessively and feel nauseated.

No one thing fits neatly into a naughty or nice category.  Dogs decide what they find pleasant, neutral and aversive.  We infer how the dog feels by observing their change in behaviour.

I would have gladly paid Olga the Horrible to stop the massage.  Massage therapist Mike was different.  He had magic hands.  I would pay money for longer massages.  Olga’s massages were aversive.  Brad’s were appetitive.  I was not screaming and thrashing in pain with Olga.  I just wanted it to stop and it changed my behaviour.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the dog’s attitude that will tell you if the training is aversive.  It is the dog’s responses.

There is a second key difference between these two devices.  Shock collars are training.  With T.E.N.S., the goal is long-term if not permanent pain elimination.  It is not a teaching tool.

Olga may have been brutal, but her intent was to offer long-term relief.  Magic Hands Mike offered the same goal under threshold.  Suzy who does scalp massages at the hair salon….she just gives nice feeling massages.  Training cannot be compared to these scenarios.

In training, the trainer creates the plan with the goal of creating a change in behaviour.  We determine which behaviour we want to teach.  Therapies for pain relief have no skills development.  Olga never taught me to dance a jig in return for pain relief.  She did not use my discomfort as a tool.

I never went back to Olga.  I had the choice to leave.  More importantly, I had a choice to never return.  I could refuse to participate.  Our dogs do not have that choice during training because repetition is part of the gig.  Once the aversive ceases, the aversive is back in play for more training.  We can’t see all the differences unless we look at the specifics of how each of these work.

Olga vs Mike

If you are ready to jump in and say, “You don’t need batteries to use aversives,” then you won’t get any argument from me.  There are many forms of aversives in dog training.  Some are easier to swallow than others.  You do not need batteries to use aversives.

But, let me broaden the statement.  Using aversives in dog training is not the same as using a T.E.N.S. machine.  It’s not even close.  It does not matter if the aversive is added to the dog, the dog is added to an aversive scenario or whether we use a dog’s discomfort for our training purposes.  Using the aversive is trainer’s choice.  If the dog is put into a position where they want to leave, they have been put between a rock and a hard place.  It’s not free will.  The trainer has free will.

Training paradigms are not the same as T.E.N.S. machines.  In dog training, the choices to use an aversive are ours and ours alone.

Becoming a RE-Crossover Trainer – Rallying Against the Slippery Slope

Several years back, I had a number of challenging dogs in class.  I work with a lot of rescue and feral dogs.  This doesn’t mean that I think that mutts are tough.  Rather, when dogs have a rough start, the odds of behavioural fallout are overwhelmingly high.  Not every puppy is born with a silver spoon in its mouth.  Many of my clients have dogs that were born on the wrong side of the tracks.

Those dogs had nice and highly permissive owners.  Those that work with animals will know what I mean when I say that permissiveness can be a huge problem.  While I appreciate the gung ho positive vibe that these families embody, allowing dogs to rehearse unwanted behaviour is a huge problem.

This combination of tough dogs and permissive owners was a perfect storm of pressure.  In a desperate effort to communicate the need for consistency, I used a standard expression.

“Nothing in Life is Free.”  There isn’t anything particularly wrong with this idea.  Dogs should learn appropriate behaviour.   We shouldn’t allow dogs to run amok.  There’s nothing wrong thus far.  My mistake was in what I omitted.

Nothing in life is free still requires good training mechanics.  I didn’t lean on this fact strongly enough.  Without a plan to increase criteria, proper timing and a fast rate of reinforcement, it creates a client that is asking too much, frustrating the dog, and using aversives.

While the distinction may be slight, let’s look at an example.  Pretend we have a dog that would like to play with other dogs, instead of sitting politely on a loose leash.

By skillfully reinforcing the animal, it learns what is expected, and is proofed to distractions.  With practice, owners can switch dogs to a variety of reinforcements.  Instead of earning a treat for sitting politely on a loose leash, the dog transitions toward learning that polite behaviour gives access to free play.  We are well within the realm of positive reinforcement and Premack Principle.  The dog gets what it wants by doing what the owner wants.

Without strong technical training skills, a very different scenario arises.  The owner fails to reach the dog, or fails to proof the dog.  Incorrectly they assume that the dog can meet expectations.  The dog, in over its head, fails to comply.  As frustration builds, the dog starts to strain at the leash.  The owner stands firm, waiting for a response that comes slowly if at all.  Very quickly, that tight leash stays tight.  Owners wait for a release of pressure.  Pressure and release – or negative reinforcement.  This negative reinforcement could have been avoided.

slippery slope
Just that quickly, we step across that invisible line between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement/positive punishment.  We slip into aversives.  More importantly, we unnecessarily slip into aversives.

When owners spend prolonged periods of time, hanging onto a dog that is forcefully and painfully yanking at their arms, the temptation to correct increases.  It leads to a verbal correction, a touch, a poke, a little tug on the leash, a leash correction.  Each step is small – almost insignificant.  However, the changes over time culminate into dramatic differences in training methodology.

Badly done positive reinforcement is the funnel that fills the coffers of force trainers.

Poorly executed positive reinforcement strengthens the conviction that aversives are needed and frankly not that bad.  Force trainers have a valid point when they point to dogs straining against leashes.  This is not positive, nor is it kind.  Snickering, they have reason to laugh as someone aimlessly walks about or literally walks in circles doing changes of direction.

It didn’t take very long for me to recognize the error that I had made and to correct it.  Not all people do.  Some people slide down the slippery slope of aversives.  Encouragement, from other individuals who feel similarly makes it seem more palatable.  If others were also failed by positive reinforcement, it’s easier to blame the method than to admit to screwing up.

Others, seeing that they are sliding, dig their nails into the dirt, pulling themselves back up to where they want to be.  Despite erring, they bravely swallow that bitter pill.  Holy heck does it hurt.  Recognizing that the frustration in the dog’s eyes is a result of our shortcomings is excruciating.  I’ve slipped into that tenuous place where a “little firmness” or some “natural consequences” look tempting.  I’ve immediately regretted that misstep.

Owning our mistakes and our mechanics is a good thing.  We are all fallible human beings.  Making mistakes is to be expected.  Repeating them because we wear blinders made of ego is wrong.  Since we all make mistakes, our first course of action prior to sliding into aversives is to find our own errors.  Failing that, we need a trustworthy, honest person to give a second opinion.  Hubris does not belong in dog training.

Stepping out onto the precipice is costly.  It absolves trainers of personal reflection and growth.  As we habituate to minor aversives, what was once unthinkable gradually becomes acceptable.

Sloppy execution begets sloppy results.  Dissatisfied clients, people who assume they were using positive reinforcement, become convinced that it doesn’t work.  These people don’t know that their execution was flawed, nor do they know that they were using aversives.  We fail both the owner and the dog.

Poor mechanics create a need for aversives.  Aversives come bundled with side effects.  Perhaps there are trainers who are comfortable with minor aversives.  Perhaps they feel that the results that they obtain are good enough.  I hope that they also embrace the term balanced in their marketing material.

If we want positive reinforcement to be a method that appeals to the masses, then we need to deliver on results.  That will only happen if we all embrace the idea that our learning never stops.  The experience of training in the zone of correctly executed positive reinforcement is something that words cannot describe.  Unless one has been there, you cannot understand how quickly and efficiently the results come.  Only by experiencing these results can one understand the importance of rallying for professional proficiency.  Only then can someone understand why it’s so critical to rally against the slippery slope that lack luster mechanics can bring.

We can always develop our mechanics and technical abilities just a little bit more.  Only perfect people have a right to claim otherwise.  I just don’t happen to know any perfect people.

Blurred Lines – When Approach Means Escape

Imagine that you are locked in a museum.  Evil people have hidden bombs throughout the building.  You cannot run away.  There is no way you can call for help.  If you smash the bombs with a hammer, they explode.   Your only hope is to defuse the bombs.

Rushing about, you seek to find the explosives.  As you find each bomb, your nimble fingers gently open the casing.  You pry apart the mass of tangled wires and you deftly clip the wire and disable it.  Then you rush off to find the next one and the next one.

Why would you run toward something scary?

Why would you run toward something scary?

Which quadrant did the evil villain use?

I love bizarre questions like this because sometimes the insanely exaggerated helps us understand the mundane.  Running around looking for bombs is creepy and twisted.  Thus, it is…interesting.

Plenty of behaviours are increasing:  searching, prying apart wires, clipping them.  We know that this is some form of reinforcement.  There is an obvious aversive (something unpleasant that we would rather avoid).  Bombs are clearly an aversive in the vast majority of situations.  Thus, this is clearly negative reinforcement.  Without the negative reinforcement, none of the behaviours, the seeking or the defusing would take place.

Here is the twisted part.  Generally, we flee FROM things that are nasty, scary, painful, uncomfortable or just plain yucky.  If a tiger is trying to eat you, you probably will run away.

In the bomb scenario, we would run TOWARD the aversive.

While it is natural to flee from aversives, the reason we run toward a bomb is because the behaviours that lead to escape are near or part of the aversive.  In order to escape the aversive, you must search for the bomb, touch the bomb, examine the bomb and cut the wires.

Placing the abort sequence on an aversive creates an odd scenario that causes people to run toward things that are scary, nasty and even potentially dangerous because the behaviour of approaching is part of the escape route.

While our hypothetical example might conjure up images of blind panic, there are other examples that do not.  People who search for land mines do the same thing.  However, it’s with a slow and steady purpose.  As J.M. Lohr points out in Clinical Psychology Review, “”there is no expectation that the predictability of an aversive event will reduce the aversiveness of the event.  Having the ability to safely find and defuse bombs does not make bombs any less aversive.

When it comes to dogs, this sort of “put the abort button on the aversive” scenario is interesting for a couple of reasons.  Two things change when the location of the abort sequence is near the aversive.

  • The direction of escape changes.  Fleeing turns into approach.  Do not assume that approach equals lack of aversive control.
  • Lack of overt fear does not mean lack of aversives.  Calm, cautious behaviour may indicate practice and predictability, not lack of aversiveness.

Trusting common sense and rules of thumb can only get you so far.  Thankfully, quadrants do not lie.  Some might claim that quadrants are fuzzy.  As Leahy and Leahy pointed out, “Just because the boundaries between night and day are fuzzy, it does not mean they cannot be meaningfully differentiated.”

The quadrants are four little boxes – it’s not rocket science.  Changing small details such as the location of the desired behaviour can change everything.  Fleeing takes the form of approach.  These details are interesting and important elements that require our attention.

Exceptions such as these are especially important for trainers and rescue workers who evaluate dogs for placement into family homes.  Approaching children is not necessarily the same as loving contact from children.  It’s an important distinction if one is placing a dog in a home with a child.

Trainers can place abort sequences on or near scary things.  Dogs will learn to approach them.  Anything is possible if you know how to wield the sword of behaviour modification.  The question in dog training isn’t whether you can but rather whether you should.  Sometimes the quadrants get a little sneaky and you have to look very carefully to see if there’s an aversive lurking about.

I’d like to give Jean Donaldson a thank you for her assistance – for letting me ask her questions.  I have never met someone who is so open to questions and helping others.

Treat Training Trinity – Why positive reinforcement did not work for my dog.

About fifteen years ago, when I started apprenticing as a trainer, I used leash corrections and other forms of “discipline”.  I no longer leash correct, and have not for more than a decade.  This is not because I had a moral agenda.  I simply needed an effective training solution.

Kiki, my learning dog pulled like a tugboat.  We tried so many techniques we could have been the poster child for:

“But I tried positive reinforcement and it did not work.”

I chuckled and snickered with other trainers, “Ignore bad behaviour?  So you just LET the dog knock grandma to the ground?”  Teaching with food and then proofing with corrections seemed to make more sense.

We ran the gamut on protocols:

Food luring Collar corrections – flat collar
Collar corrections – nylon slip Head halter use
Head halter to reposition dog Head halter corrections
Chain choke collar correction Special choke collar correction (sits behind the dog’s ears)
Clicker instead of verbal marker Penalty yards
Be a tree Change of direction
Reward dog for releasing leash pressure Reward with approach to distractions
Hiding food rewards/surprise Finger poking the dog

 

Failure was not from a lack of effort or poor timing.  That special choke collar came from a very large, well-known training facility.  Ironically, they market themselves as being positive.

I have heard people say that positive reinforcement did not work for their pets.  Upon further digging, their chart looks oddly similar to mine. This is not positive reinforcement.  This is a mixed bag of reinforcements and punishments, more aversive than not.  We don’t even know if any of the elements were executed correctly.  In hindsight, I know that in Kiki’s case, they were not.

Kiki was lucky because I am stubborn.  Despite multiple trainers telling me to give up on her, I kept searching for a solution.  Our journey took us to a workshop and some private sessions where some exercises had a profound impact on my way of thinking.  I realized that intending to use positive reinforcement was not the same as using it effectively.

In each of these exercises, we initially fed so quickly it was obscene.  The clicker took on a machine gun staccato.   Feed!  Faster!  Click – TREAT!  Click – TREAT!  Again!  Again!  Faster!  You’re clicking too slowly!

I can’t emphasize how fast we were feeding that dog.  She was right and right and right.

Twitchy toes Kiki, who couldn’t stand still on account of her tail wagging so hard, learned a stand for exam.  On the formal recall, she learned to target a bulldog clip attached to the front of my shirt.  I stepped back 5 cm, asked for the touch – click and treat.  Five centimeters seems absurdly easy!  (That’s two inches for my American friends.)

Wouldn’t you know: it worked.  Not only did it work, we finally moved AWAY from food rewards.  The gasp I heard at her first competition as she charged toward me and sat in a perfect front , I can still hear it.  It’s one of my fondest memories of Kiki.  Within months of measured, planned and well-executed positive reinforcement, Kiki stopped pulling on leash.  Did I mention, she did this on a body harness?

Properly executed, positive reinforcement works.

It all comes down to the Bob Bailey trinity.  Timing – criteria – rate of reinforcement.  While providing feedback at the right moment in time is important, it is equally important to raise expectations in small, measured increments.  Too big of a leap and the dog goes from right to wrong.  We also need to provide fast feedback in the initial stages of training.  Pause too long between reinforcements and the dog checks out, gets bored or would rather be elsewhere.

Trinity
The greatest irony being that strong technique allows owners to wean away from food treats faster.  A few weeks or a month of good technique may include bursts of obscene machine gun clicking.  The alternative is months or years of slow feeding and searching for the miracle cure that may or may not come.

It doesn’t help when fear of food mongering encourages people to reduce treat use.  Stingy feeding and large leaps in criteria create a weak technical foundation.  That weakness is what creates, “I tried positive reinforcement, but it did not work.”

Technique matters…period.  The tougher the dog, the more important technique becomes.  I see those dogs as the ones that point a paw at me and say, “You have more learning to do….I shall point out your technical weaknesses!”  I cherish those dogs for the lessons.  I truly hope that I never fall into the mindset to think that I know it all.

Re-visit the dog training trinity first when a dog is not responding in the way you want.  We seem to spend so much time, effort and money adding new tools to the toolbox.  It pays to sharpen and hone the essential tools we already have.

It’s like buying a food processor because your dull knife won’t cut a tomato.  Of course the knife isn’t working.  You have not maintained it.  Sharpen it.  Don’t neglect the essential tools of timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement.  They are the ones you need to count on.  Really, it’s not a moral issue.  At the end of the day we want dog training that works.

“A” Sucks. “B” Stinks. What Kind of Choice is That?

Each year we go to a large Chinese buffet restaurant for a family event.  This particular buffet offers a plethora of choices.  This apparently is good because “everyone can find something that they will like.”

Unless you hate greasy Chinese food.  What draws me to this restaurant is not the food, but the company.  I enjoy visiting with extended family.  My little foodie rant is rather trivial.  It goes to show that having choices is not the same as having good choices.  Children understand this.

“Sweetie – blue pants or red pants?
“I want to wear a tu-tu.”
“You can’t wear a tu-tu.  You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”
“I want to wear a party dress.
“You can’t wear a party dress.   You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”

It doesn’t take long for a kid to realize that choices have been limited.  Beneath the guise of choice lies the ultimatum of “You will wear pants.”

Not all choices are good choices.

Not all choices are good choices.

Dogs also get limited choices during training.

Sit = cookie – Don’t sit = no cookie.
Come = praise – Don’t come = correction.
Pee = treat – No pee = stay out in the cold until you do.
Bark and lunge = scare away other dog – Flee = avoid the scary other dog.
Choose to do anything you want, but you are doing rehab setups today.

Choice sounds good creating the assumption that all choice based programs must be good.  Choice sounds good unless you ask, “What are the choices?”

Just because a dog made a choice, it does not mean that the dog enjoyed it.  Dogs can pick the best of the worst.  What other choice do they have?

Choice is no gift when A sucks and B stinks.

When a dog retracts, retreats or refuses, the dog has made their choice.  The dog is saying, “A sucks.”  Communication goes two ways.  We can respond to the dog’s message that “A sucks” through our actions.

I can continue doing the same thing, justifying it by saying that the dog is free to leave.

I can change what I am doing, so the dog no longer wants to leave.

When we make an error – when the dog tries to retract, retreat and refuse – we should respect the dog’s wishes.  Apologize, do not let the dog suffer.

Listening to the dog once during an error is not at all the same as planning and creating scenarios where the dog is stuck between many lousy, unpleasant or irritating choices.

When our dogs communicate that we have erred, it is our choice whether to adapt the training plan or continue forcing the issue.   Humans should not dump the responsibility of our own behaviour onto our dogs – our lack of listening and adapting to feedback – by cloaking it in a guise of choice.

Once is a mistake, twice is stupid.  It is a human choice to engage in the same scenario that triggered the retreat, retraction and refusal in the first place.

Which choices are available is up to the human.  There may be 2,3, or 100 of them.  Owners can create choices the dog avoids, tolerates, or seeks out.

Shrugging one’s shoulders is akin to saying, “They can always leave.”  It is an example of hearing rather than listening and responding to the dog’s attempts at communication.  Listening means that I alter the training plan so that the dog wants to stay and participate.  Signs of retreat and resistance disappear.

We can choose to take responsibility for our own technique.  We can swear to better our skills, trying to provide choices that the dogs not only want but enjoy and love.  We can promise to look for signs of refusal, retreat and retraction.

Some may argue that we really cannot fully know what the dog wants.  Perhaps that is true.  We can make educated guesses.  Researchers are finding ways to test choice and preference.  It seems cold to not try to listen to our pets.

Why put a dog in a position where it has to chose between one aversive and another?  At the very least, it’s really not so hard to lay out the dog’s choices, like a buffet table of behavioural menu items.  Take a good look and ask yourself if there is anything on the menu that your dog actually likes – or are you giving the dog a choice of A sucks and B stinks?

Avoidance Makes for Happy (Looking) Dogs

This New Years, I made a resolution.  I am leaving a number of Facebook groups.  It was triggered by a couple interesting exchanges, one that left me sobbing.  I can’t say that I was sad or hurt.  I have to respect someone in order to be hurt by them.  I can’t say that was the case.

In hindsight, I suspect it was stress release.  When you keep trying to not rock the boat, there comes a point where a straw breaks the camel’s back.  Low-grade, long-term stress sucks.  The relief of making up my mind and leaving just opened the floodgates.

Leaving the first group was difficult.  It felt like I was shunning people.

Click…you’re gone.

Each subsequent group became easier.  I needed less of a reason to go.  I didn’t even need to feel personally threatened or offended.  Seeing others bicker was enough.

Click…bah-bye.

You know something, it feels GOOD.  Damn good.  Click!  You are gone.  Click!  No more Facebook baiting.  Click!  No more trolls.  Click!  You are banished from my little world.

Click … I have the power to leave.

It gave me an epiphany.  Everyday social situations can be extremely aversive.

Some people will chime up that we should have the choice to leave abusive situations.  Absolutely:  Leave and stay away.  This blog is not about the right to leave abuse.  Although I do find it interesting that people go back to abuse.  That just goes to show that returning to something does not mean it was pleasant.

Dogs should live a life free from abuse too.  Let’s be really clear.  This blog is not about leaving abuse.  Nor is it about accidental situations where a dog becomes scared.  Chalk that up to a mistake and don’t let it happen again.

This blog is about using aversives intentionally in training.

When you leave an aversive situation, you get a sense of relief.  In social situations, it boils down to, “I feel good knowing that I can escape or avoid you.”  That is negative reinforcement.  All negative reinforcement involves aversives.  That is what negative reinforcement means – the cessation of an unpleasant stimulus, increasing a particular behaviour.

There are two special forms of negative reinforcement.

Leaving an unpleasant situation is escape.  With practice, you can hit the abort button soon enough, before things become unpleasant.  That is avoidance. If you’re at all clever, you’ll learn how to avoid unpleasant situations entirely if you’ve had to escape them.

Tears notwithstanding, I am grateful that I felt the joy of leaving that first group.  You don’t need shock collars, prong collars, choke collars or other tools to make something aversive.

I also realized just how good escape feels.  Click…you are shunned.  Woo hoo!  Holy sh!t it feels good.  I don’t have to face this anymore.

That creates quite a conundrum.  Escape and avoidance legitimately feels good.  If you feel good, you LOOK HAPPY once you have figured out the process.  Looking happy as you leave does not mean that you didn’t feel lousy at some point in the past.  The same goes for the dog.

If the dog is escaping, it could have felt lousy a few seconds ago.
If the dog has learned to avoid (escape before they feel lousy), then they might have felt lousy in the past.  The “happy” dog you see is possibly avoiding an aversive that happened days, months or years ago.

Negative reinforcement is powerful.  It is extremely resistant to extinction.  You have to face what you fear in order to realize that you’re not actually in any actual danger.  That fear, of facing what we fear, keeps us avoiding again and again and again.

Negative reinforcement is deceptive that way.  If I I can avoid discomfort, I look happy, not because I have overcome a fear, but because I have become a master at avoiding fear.  The embarrassing blowups might stop, but that does not mean the fear has disappeared.  The fear of fear lingers and supports the avoidance.

The quadrant police, whoever they are, have it right.  If you cannot trust your eyes, then trust the science.  Blurring the lines of the quadrants obfuscates and hides the aversive control.

I care why my dog looks happy. In negative reinforcement your dog can look happy AND be under the control of aversives.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps I might not ever know for sure, but if I know which quadrant I’m using, I can make a reasonable assumption.  If I can identify the behaviour, I can try to answer whether my dog is happy to approach or happy to leave.

As tempting as it might be to curl up and avoid social situations, I have decided that I dislike avoiding life as much as I dislike seeing dogs practice avoidance as a method of choice.  I don’t feel truly happy escaping and avoiding a small handful of jerks because it deprives me of the smart, interesting, good, quirky people out there.  So, I’ll continue reaching out.

It would break my heart to suspect that my dogs look happy because they are successfully avoiding the people and animals in it.  I certainly don’t want to worry and watch for signs that my dog is recoiling from the people who love them.


JV Kip dirtyPerhaps the idea that a dog can look happy and be under aversive control is a tough pill to swallow.  I would rather face that uncomfortable idea.  If my dog is a master of avoiding, I need to micromanage my dog, making sure no one assumes that looking happy means that the dog wants social contact.  The implications of that would frankly scare me.

YOUR Dog is Stressed! MY Dog is Doing Calming Signals.

Many years ago, I went to a seminar by Turid Rugaas.  She pointed her finger at me as I struggled with my dog and said, “That is stress.”  My dog was energetic and young, bouncing and pulling at the end of the leash.  Kiki was friendly to embarrassing extremes.

During the two days, those were the only three words she spoke to me.  She said it only once.

“That is stress.”

It had a strong influence on the way I perceived seemingly happy, playful dogs.  The squiggly “OMG I did it! I did it!” dog that people think is happy – might not be happy.

No, I didn’t feel insulted.  I felt relieved.  Kiki was the dog by my side when I started out.  While I could have been insulted, it made more sense to consider that our struggles might, possibly be rooted in stress.  The hardest but most valuable pill to swallow is self-reflection.  Turid writes in her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals:

Find the reasons for your dog to be stressed.  By looking critically at yourself and your surroundings, you can often find out a lot all by yourself. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask someone to help you see the situation from the outside. We often become blind to what we do.

It’s really quite simple.  If you see calming signals, look deeper.  Identify the root of the stress.  Deal with the root of the stress.  Do not be blind to stress in your own dog as it can easily happen.

Reading other people’s dogs looks easy.  People point a crooked, denouncing finger at pictures and videos of other people’s dogs.  “YOUR dog is stressed.  He gave a whale eye.  She looked away.  Your dog sniffed the ground.”  Funny how sure people are with their accusations when they are pointing away from themselves.

Assuming to KNOW what other dogs are experiencing in short video clips is presumptuous.  It is about as accurate as saying that someone who bites their nails IS stressed.  It’s equally possible that the person has a hangnail or a long standing habit.  Nail biting MIGHT mean stress or it might not.  Context is important.  An intimate knowledge of the subject also matters.

For example, I can take a series of SLR pictures of my dogs.  One second they look happy.  Less than a third of a second later, the white of the dog’s eye is exposed, their head is turned away and their mouth pinched tight.  Some might scream, “Whale eye! Tight mouth!  Looking away!”

Kip slr
Little do you know that the cat walked by.  My dog turned his head, looked sideways at the cat and closed its mouth in order ascertain the cause of the noise to its side.  My dog is not stressed in that instance.  My dog is looking over its shoulder.

Here is where things get interesting.  Some people reinforce calming signals during training.  They put the dog into a position where the dog WILL give off calming signals.  Accusatory fingers point at others: “YOUR dog is stressed – but MY dog is doing calming signals.”

Stop right there.  OTHER dogs are stressed but YOUR dog is happily self-soothing and using calming signals?  Maybe it’s time to revisit Turid’s warning that, “We often become blind to what we do.”

The problem with opinions is that my opinion is just as valid as your opinion.  If your pointy finger is aimed at my dog while you wrinkle your nose clucking “Stress,” then I can just as quickly point at your squiggly, seemingly happy (I say twitchy) dog and retort right back.  “No, YOUR dog is STRESSED.”

Opinion only really leads to wars.  Pity, because there is a way to know if your dog is using calming signals or showing stress signs.  Read the definitions and apply them.  The quagmire of word choice isn’t that difficult to navigate.  Several words are used in similar contexts and here is what they mean:

Displacement Behaviours:  Behaviours that bring a dog comfort when conflicted.  Observing displacement behaviours is considered a non-intrusive way of measuring stress, potentially indicating a negative effect on the animal.

Calming signals:  The signals are used at an early state to prevent things from happening, avoiding threats from people and dogs, calming down nervousness, fear, noise, and unpleasant things.  The signals are used for calming themselves when feeling stressed or uneasy. (On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals)

Appeasement gestures:  Stereotypical gestures made in response to threat gestures that tends to inhibit an attack.

Stress signs:  Signs of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.  To subject to pressure or tension.

The differences between these words amounts to hair splitting.  Stressed dogs use calming signals.  Calming signals may indicate stress.  How is one better than another?

All of these terms describe stress, discomfort and adversity.  The difference between stress signals, displacement behaviours and calming signals should not be the direction your finger is pointing.  The use of these words should not be a marketing strategy, making stress signs more palatable by making these behaviours seem desirable.  Really, that is the key difference.  Calming signals sounds warm and fuzzy.  Stress sounds bad.

I respect Turid’s observations, and have for many years, enough that I am not going to candy coat or change the definition she created.  She says that dogs often do these things when yelled at, threatened or scared.  Look for the root of the problem and solve it.  If you believe that calming signals/stress signals/displacement behaviours are important indicators of stress, then changing the definition for your dog (or your friend/guru’s dog) is more of a reflection of personal bias than objective analysis.

I also respect another mentor.  Many years ago, when I wanted to capture and reinforce my dog’s yawns she said, “You’re going to let your dog feel stressed so you can reward them for yawning?  How exactly will you know when the dog is actually stressed or just wanting a cookie?”

Harsh questions are good questions.  I’ll never forget that one because it did make me feel pretty lousy.  For an instant I forgot that capturing a calming signal meant that I would need to cause my dog discomfort.  Calling a stress sign a calming signal doesn’t change a thing about that moral dilemma, regardless if it sounds better when spoken out loud.