Five Days from Fear to Fun – Classical Counterconditioning.

I decided to spend some of our holiday time working on a whistle recall.  This is when a dog learns to come to the sound of a whistle.  Pamela Dennison has a number of resources on how to teach this skill for anyone who might be interested.

Unlike other whims, I remembered to grab my camera.  When I blew the whistle for the first time, Karma tucked her tail and ran.

I probably should have been a bit more thoughtful in my introduction of the whistle.  However, when you have confident dogs you get accustomed to taking liberties.  Sometimes, Karma bites you in the butt.

Before anyone sends me hate mail, we didn’t plan for this to happen.  We adjusted immediately.  Fear can unexpectedly happen.  I decided to share that one incident because frankly it happens to owners all the time.  It’s the clicker that scares a dog, the dropped cooking pan, the ratting of aluminum foil, fireworks or the whirl of a new kitchen appliance.  Sometimes our dogs get scared.

I thought it would be interesting to put together a time lapse of Karma’s responses as they changed over the course of five days.  It would show the change in her body language and a real time account of what we actually did.

We used classical counterconditioning.  This means that each time the whistle sounded, Karma received a really amazing goodie, mainly turkey.  There were no conditions on her behaviour.  I did reduce the volume and duration of the whistle until she grew more comfortable.  I made sure she was some distance away from me during the first few repetitions.  This made the process easier on her.

The sound of the whistle was initially aversive to her.  Aversive means that it’s something that the dog will seek to escape, avoid or postpone.  At first, you can see that Karma clearly is looking to escape from the sound of the whistle.  By pairing the sound of the whistle with goodies, her emotional response changes over time.

Just because something is aversive for a dog today, it does not mean that it cannot be changed.  Things that used to be aversive can become appetitive and vice versa.  It might have been easier to shelf the whistle recall idea entirely.  Perhaps for some dogs that is an option.  However, as Karma goes to more and more events, I know that eventually someone is going to blow on a whistle.  I do not want her to be startled and frightened if there is something I can do today.

Some people seem to think that classical counterconditioning is hard or doesn’t work. They say it takes a lot of time and effort.  While there are some basic rules to keep in mind, by following the rules, busy people – like myself – really aren’t doing that much work at all.

People fail to realize that long breaks between sessions are beneficial – perfect for the busy dog owner.  In its simplest form, you feed the presence of the trigger.  In this case whistle equals goodies.  You do need to be mindful of things that can block or overshadow the conditioning.  Otherwise, it’s really that simple.  Trigger equals treat.

One thing we did was hide a treat somewhere in the house while Karma was out in the yard.  Later, when she was back inside, I’d blow the whistle and surprise her.  This was done because I was going out of my way to ensure that the whistle predicted goodies.  Not “hand in pocket” or “open fridge door” or “standing in the kitchen.”  It really has to be the trigger that equals the food.  The cleaner you work, the faster the association will happen.

The results in the following video involved the following:

  • Five days of classical counterconditioning
  • Six reps per day approximately (only 2 on the 24th…was busy … it was Christmas eve.)
  • Ten seconds of work per repetition.


Total Training Time
Less than FIVE MINUTES.

I will probably re-visit whistles a few more times.  It pays to finish the job by generalizing the conditioning.  We could work in a variety of locations or work with different types of whistles.  Then we’ll be ready to switch back to our initial plan of a whistle recall.

Yes, I do realize that some dogs have traumatic experience in their past.  Not all problems will go away in five days.  There are dogs with global fears and there are dogs with a history of trauma and abuse.

For the most part, many dogs are just normal dogs that occasionally get scared of one thing or another.  We are the ones who are our dog’s worst enemy. We over think what needs to be done.

We become embroiled in minutia and complexities that are not relevant.  We worry that feeding a fearful dog will reinforce fear.  It doesn’t.  We wait for “good” behaviour instead of just feeding the trigger.  I clearly fed a dog that was afraid and I fed a dog that was not necessarily behaving.  Yet, the fearful response disappeared.  Sometimes it pays to let go of intuition and just trust the science.  Feed the appearance of a well defined trigger.  It works.

Additional resources:

Awesome Dogs Shareables Counterconditioning Collection

Reactive Dogs on Facebook

Fearful Dogs on Facebook

CARE

Stop Nagging – Start Training – Using the environment as a command

I cannot stand micromanaging my dog’s behaviour.  There is a certain point when I expect my dogs to behave.  I hate repeating myself, and I really hate sounding like a nag.

It’s exhausting.

When we think of obedience, the command/obey sequence is what typically comes to mind.  It is what most dog owners first learn.  Say sit, and when the dog sits, reward the dog.  Continue practicing until the dog sits when told to do so.  I have no objection to this.  Being able to communicate with your dog is very useful.  Stylized commands are extremely useful in competitive environments.

Constantly reminding the dog of expectations can get old fast.  Some expectations never change which means it would be nice if the dog did them without having to give a command.  For example, I never want the dog eating the cat’s food.  My dinner is always off limits.  Jumping on visitors is never okay.  Darting out the car door without permission is downright dangerous.  Really, I am never going to want any of these things.

I don’t want to give a command.  I don’t want to give reminders.  Dear dog:  Just do what you are supposed to do.

It’s a lot like little children.  We expect that young children need reminders to “flush the toilet.”  However, there comes a point in time when seriously – you just should not need to be reminded to flush.

If that sounds demanding, it is.  I demand it of myself to train my dog to understand that certain behaviours are expected at all times.  In order to achieve this, we need to expand the idea of what constitutes a command.

stop nagging

Traditionally, commands are words or hand signals that tell the dog what to do.  Who says that commands have to be limited to words or stylized gestures?  Actions and situations can act as commands too.

Dogs readily learn that our actions mean something.  We pick up a leash and they run to the door in anticipation of a walk.  You don’t have to say a word to speak volumes to your dog.

You can use this ability to intentionally to create “commands” for your dog.  If the context or situation reminds the dog of what it should be doing, you no longer have to.

Environmental commands or contextual cues have a wide array of uses.  Teach a dog to sit for visitors, without being told to do so.  Have them wait until released from the car.  For this blog, let’s work through “leave the cat’s food alone”.

Start by ensuring your dog has a reasonable grasp at leave it.  I teach it by reinforcing movement away from treats as shown in this video that demonstrates with American Sign Language.  A verbal cue is taught in the same manner.

Next, bring out the cat’s food.  Continue working leave it, giving the command and reinforcing the dog when it is correct.

At some point, the dog will jump the gun, offering the leave it BEFORE you ask for it.  I call this a genius moment.  Your smart dog has decided to leave cat food alone without being asked

Celebrate this.  Reinforce it – generously.  Give treats.  The dog has noticed that the cat dish being placed on the ground predicts the leave it command.  With repetition, placing the food on the ground will become a command of its own.

Cat food in the bowl = leave it.

The finished product makes for a very peaceful co-existence with our dogs.  The following video shows Kip, Karma and Icarus demonstrating a few variations.  You will see both dogs leaving the cat food alone.  In addition, you will see the animals leaving treats thrown to the others.  I do not like my guys charging and battling over food.  I never want my dogs charging at dropped or thrown food unless given permission to do so.  It’s an excellent candidate for a context based command.

As you watch the video, notice the following key points.

  • There are no verbal commands or reminders given.
  • The dogs are free to do any appropriate behaviour they like.  This is not a stay.
  • Notice the calm and disinterest.  It comes from consistency and generous positive reinforcement.

Most importantly, listen to the silence.  Our dogs are capable of learning that situations have meaning.  Our training has to come up to their abilities.  Watch for those moments when dogs offer genius.  They might be fleeting at first.  With reinforcement, they can blossom into so much more.

(I have used the word command throughout this piece for readability.  Many pet owners recognize it.  Trainers often use the word cue instead because it implies communication while the word command can feel like an order.  By command I really only mean a word, gesture or situation that communicates information to the dog – an antecedent.)

Nine Steps to a Calm, Relaxed, Quiet Canine. Have a Go at DRO.

I like quiet, calm dogs.  Most owners I know want quiet, calm dogs.  Visions of a dog cuddling during a relaxing evening shatter with the reality of a pushy, loud, obnoxious pest.  Where classes are concerned, pestering pups embarrass owners.  I like my classes quiet so I don’t have to yell over the ear piercing, migraine inducing screaming of an out of control, demanding dog.

Typically, owners are offered a long list of tips ranging from increased exercise, busy toys, supplements, gadgets and massages.  Sufficiently exercised, some dogs fall asleep.  A sleeping dog isn’t well mannered.  It’s just sleeping.  When they wake, we’re back to pestering.

Owners can feel like they have become the dog’s personal entertainment center. Perhaps we should use training instead? Many owners try rewarding an incompatible or alternate behaviour.

For example, the dog that is lying on a mat cannot be clawing at your legs.  However, I like to use something a little different because DRIs and DRAs can create behaviour chains.  The dog swings back and forth between good and obnoxious behaviour like a pendulum on a clock.  Pester – treat – pester – treat – pester – treat.

When I get noisy, hyperactive, unfocused, pushy, pestering dogs in classes, I start them on a Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviour (DRO) plan.  It uses positive reinforcement to reduce unwanted behaviours.  The absence of a specific problem behaviour over time is reinforced. DRO’s work on a wide array of problems from barking, pawing, pushing, bouncing at the end of a leash and more.  I do not however use it with dogs with fear and anxiety problems that would be better served through desensitization and counterconditioning.

What many fail to realize is that a DRO rewards TIME, not RESPONSES. Simply reinforcing the absence of a problem doesn’t address that we want the dog to behave for a prolonged period of time.

Let’s use barking as an example.  We do not want to create a dog that barks and hushes, looking for a treat each time it quiets.  We want a dog that stays quiet.  Our criteria is not the absence of problem behaviour.  Our criteria is the absence of problem behaviour over time.  Dogs can absolutely learn time based or temporal criteria.

Back to our barking dog, we might begin by rewarding short periods of quiet.  It does not matter if the dog is sitting, standing, spinning, chewing a bone or doing a headstand.  If the dog remains quiet for a pre-determined length of time, they earn their reward. Gradually, we would ask the dog to stay quiet for longer and longer until barking rarely, if ever, happens.

Close attention to passing time prevents the dog from learning that they can bark and hush to get a cookie.  That’s because we are being very clear that our criteria is not the act of becoming quiet, but the act of staying quiet.  The dog is free to do any safe, appropriate behaviour it likes – so long as it is quiet.  The same goes for any other nuisance behaviour we seek to eliminate. dro A well executed DRO follows a process and some rules. There are variations based on the type and timing of reinforcements.  This is the one I typically use in classes and at home with my dogs.

The Process

Step one:  Identify the problem behaviour with clarity.  (My dog barks when near other dogs.)

Step two:  Measure the frequency of the problem to create a baseline.  How often is the dog barking?  (My dog barks when near other dogs on average every 2 seconds.)

Step three: Set the length of time your dog needs to “behave” in order to earn a reward.  This should be slightly less than your baseline.  (I will reward my dog every time he is quiet for 1 second.)

Step four:  Use a reward that motivates the dog.  (My dog likes meat.)

Step five:  Allow the dog to engage in normal activities that are safe and appropriate for the context of the situation.  You are not asking the dog to do anything.  Count quietly in your head and reward the dog each time they meet your criteria.  (One Mississippii – treat.  One Mississippi – treat.  One Mississippi – treat.)

Step six
:  Aim for A level student grades.  The dog should be right at least 80% of the time.  We want the dog practicing appropriate behaviour, not rehearsing the problem.

Step seven:  Continue to re-evaluate progress and measuring the dog’s responses.  Ask for longer duration of appropriate behaviour as the dog demonstrates that they are ready.  Stay at each level until the dog is consistent.

Step eight:  Switch to a random schedule when the dog has developed sufficient duration.

Step Nine::  Generalize the behaviour in various locations as needed.

Now for the rules:

  • Count!  Do not eyeball this exercise.
  • As your dog improves, you can increase criteria more rapidly.
  • If the dog misbehaves before time is up, get their attention and re-start the time.  (Do not reward the attention back to you.)
  • If the dog is not hitting A student level, decrease your expectations.  Make it easier.
  • Be careful not to reinforce other nuisance behaviours.  For example, if you want to eliminate barking, be careful that you are not rewarding pawing or jumping.  If the dog engages in too many alternate problem behaivours, reduce your time criteria.
  • Problem behaviours may initially increase before dropping off dramatically.
  • During initial stages,ignore other training goals.  Once problem behaviour disappears, you’ll have plenty of time to teach new things.
  • If the problem fails to improve, communicate with a qualified pet professional.  It is possible that the dog is misbehaving due to medical problems or anxiety issues.

Perhaps one of my favourite parts of executing a DRO in group class is watching the dogs.   Young, powerful, adolescent dogs barking en masse and too distracted to learn anything start to breathe.  Their muscles relax and the room goes still.

The owners are stunned that for the first time ever , their hyper dog has gone from a maniac to sane – a cool dude lying by their feet.  It happens in a class of other dogs.

A DRO is how we taught Kipper the ex-crotch ripper to settle quietly at the end of a busy day. Sometimes we get so focused on telling the dog what to do, we become micro-managers instead of teachers.  Sometimes we forget that we often don’t actually care what a dog is doing, so long as it’s appropriate.

Often we forget about counting – the time factor.  It’s a shame we don’t focus on time more often because frankly – it’s really effective.  Results are often dramatic and can come quickly.  If you want to eliminate any number of nuisance behaviours, remember to keep one eye on a clock.

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.

Your Dog Ain’t No Jesus – Even He Lost His Shit

People want the perfect dog.  They want Lassie.  Lassie is a bit like the Jesus – holier than average.  Perfect most of the time.  I say most of the time because even Jesus lost his shit.

I don’t particularly care to enter any religious debate.  Truth is, Jesus has a reputation and most people have heard of him.  He fed the hungry, saved baby lambs, taught children and washed the feet of prostitutes.  “Turn the other cheek”…that would be Jesus.

Despite the cheek turning, there is an exception.  In a fit of righteous indignation, Jesus charged into the temple, turning over tables. He used a whip to drive out the moneylenders and the animals.

On a scale of one to ten, Jesus was at eleven.

Yet owners are told that no dog should EVER show ANY sign of aggression.  Dog aggression is pretty cut and dry.  Dogs that bite rarely get second chances.  Holy heck, we want our dogs to act better than Jesus did.

Never mind that they are animals and have no moral code to abide by.  Pets certainly cannot write letters to newspaper editors, nor can they protest or unionize.  Our expectations of what dogs should tolerate are high.  We want them better than Jesus no matter what the circumstances.

Dogs - expected to behave better than Jesus.

Dogs – expected to behave better than Jesus.

Quickly glace through social media, pictures of kids riding dogs like horses or shoving macaroni up their poor animal’s nostril.  Infants grasp handfuls of fur as they yank the dog closer for a hug and kiss.  Why?  So parents and owners can post pictures online captioned with phrases like, “So cute!”

No, it is not cute.  It is bullying.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the other cheek indefinitely.

Other dogs live a life of unpredictable expectations and nagging.  Mom invites the dog up on the sofa.  “Daddy’s gone – come and cuddle.”  When dad gets home, the dog is scolded for being on the couch, and then labeled as being stubborn and dominant.

No, it is not okay.  It is confusing and stressful.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the other cheek indefinitely.

Aggression begets aggression.  That should not be hard to understand.  Retaliation is no surprise.  We should expect that with repetition, a dog is going to bite the hand that strikes it.

No, it is not discipline.  It is hitting.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the other cheek indefinitely.

As our dogs grow older, illness can trigger aggression.  Even in youth, routine care can be painful.  Unwell dogs often have a short fuse.  Unwell people often have a short fuse too.  It’s understandable when a human is the one suffering.

No, reacting to pain and illness is not disobedience.  It is a dog that needs empathy.  That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn the cheek indefinitely.

Even the perfect dog can get scared.  Fear keeps us safe from things that can legitimately cause us harm.  Many dogs spend too much time chained, penned or avoiding life.  They fail to receive adequate socialization that will help them learn that the world is a safe place.  Humans need to help dogs out of legitimately dangerous situations while teaching dogs to feel safe in normal daily life.

No, scared dogs are not spoiled.  These animals did not get the advantages that socialization offers. That dog ain’t no Jesus that will turn its cheek indefinitely.

At the end of a day, we can aim for Lassie.  Rare genetic factors and past history aside, the burden is mostly on us.  We socialize to prevent problems.  We condition our dogs to various handling.  We step in and prevent our dog from harm and bullying.  Dog lovers should ask permission before petting dogs.  Owners should condition dogs to accept touch as a precaution.

We do this because our dogs have to put up with us.  Too many dogs have to put up with too much provocation from humans.  We expect dogs to take it and take it and never protest. A steady stream of grievances chips away at our dog’s patience, wearing it thin.  We should be surprised and grateful that dogs tolerate as much as they do.

Therefore, it is a good reminder to realize that even “perfect” Jesus really lost his shit.  Your dog ain’t no Jesus.  Maybe we should rethink what constitutes provocation instead of assuming that dogs will tolerate us indefinitely.  Maybe, sometimes, we need to have their back, ensuring that expectations are realistic.  Realistically speaking, no one can expected to endure repeated provocation and not eventually blow up.

Good dog – Bad dog – Sad dog – Mad dog

We have had a number of dogs over the years.  Their nicknames range from Crazy Kiki and Loveable Kaya, to Kipper the Ex-Crotch Ripper and Sweet Karma.  Their nicknames give a clear indication of their personalities.  Their names are practically labels.

A past client of mine labelled their dog.  They adopted a mixed breed puppy.  The trainer that they first met made a dire prediction.  “That is a Pit Bull.  It is genetically predisposed to aggression.  You don’t have children…do you?”

Diligently they worked at modifying the dog’s “genetic tendencies toward being a menace to society.”  Of course, the poor pup lived under an iron fist and non-negotiable rules.  Fear of an impending mauling struck the fear of doG in the family’s heart.  Instead of socializing they shied away from other animals – they shied away from play dates, scared that some killer instinct would emerge.

Of course, aggression did start to emerge.  I would expect no different in any under socialized dog.

By the time I met the dog, the owners were convinced that they had been cheated (they thought they had adopted a lab cross).  They were grateful to the first trainer for being honest about the impending aggressive reactions.  They felt that had they not been aware, they might have…gasp…put the dog into puppy classes.

Suffice it to say that this was not a “Pit Bull,” puppy.  Lack of socialization can lead to behaviour problems in dogs.  It is more reasonable to assume that fear kept the owners from socializing their puppy.  That lack of socialization is more likely to blame than some hypothetical genetic predisposition to maiming and killing.

By the time I became involved, it was too late to change this family’s belief system.  A hundred people could have told them that they owned a very normal mutt.  It didn’t matter, their perceptions had been formed.  They formed a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Negative labels can wreck havoc with training goals.  Low bars, gloom, and doom expectations generally lead to dismal results.  Frustration and disappointment clouds the reality that most pups can be obnoxious and it’s normal to have to work through these problems.  These are not “bad” dogs.  They are young dogs.

Trainers and owners often do label their dogs.  “My dog is fearful.”  “My dog is dominant.”  “That dog is anxious.”  “Our dog is bad.”  That does not seem healthy if you get what you project.

Researchers Rosenthal and Jacobson conducted an experiment in the 1960’s.  Children from Oak school were evaluated with an IQ test.  Subsequently those children were divided into random groups.  The researchers then told the teachers that one particular group was ready to “bloom” intellectually.  This group had potential.  The teachers did not know that this was patently false.

All the kids in all the groups were…average.

At the end of the testing period, children (falsely) labelled as intellectually gifted had better academic marks.  The average children were still…average.  (Although some of the average children did better than expected and that is another blog post for another day.)

Our expectations shape our results.  This is called expectancy theory.  Labels we place on others can improve results.  Conversely, negative perceptions can hold students back.  There is an element of truth to the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dog trainers and pet owners are teachers.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we project our bias onto our dogs.  We can choose to look at our pets as anxious, scared, reactive, bad, hyperactive, dominant, willful or stubborn and the dogs will probably fulfill that vision.

What is your dog's label?

What is your dog’s label?

Focusing on what the dog is – today – could hold us back.  Those words and labels have no goal, no purpose and no vision.  We quit.  We settle.  We act according to our mind-set and expectations.  We choose training strategies fulfill or play to our expectations.

We might become overly assertive on the assumption that a dog is problematic.  Others might coddle a shy dog, limiting social experiences.  We become desperate when faced with the energy and youthful antics of an otherwise normal dog.

An alternative is to label the dog with their potential.  The dog is, “learning to be stubbornly obedient.”  Perhaps the pup is showing, “potential to bloom with confidence.”  Maybe we have a “chill dude in the making.”  We can see the “high energy agility star in training” – the one that gets us up off the sofa.  These are good things.

I have an EX-crotch ripper.  (Thank you to the person who added the ex to his nickname a few years ago.)  Kipper the EX-crotch ripper is a more productive and optimistic version of Kipper the crotch ripper.  Those names represent very different perceptions and goals.

If you see potential, then setbacks are simply pebbles that stub your toe.  We alter course and move on.

I do not ever mean to suggest that we should minimize real dangers.  I will be the first to point out a bona fide safety concern.  We address it and adjust our goals.  Today’s problems should not be tomorrow’s vision.

I refuse to aim for a goal of nothing.  I refuse to continue labeling a dog by its history, or the flaws of today.  I will not settle when success is an option.

The dog’s potential is the inspiration that can motivate us to keep going.  Seeing the bigger picture can prevent anger, fear and frustration from setting in.

If I were to be completely honest with myself, I know that I treat Kip and Karma differently.  People who meet my dogs treat them very differently.

Kip, although large and reserved draws people to him like moths to a flame.  Protests fall on deaf ears.  Strangers wiggle with fingers and tell all 70 pounds of him, “I don’t mind if you jump.”  People encourage their dogs to run up to him.  This really reflects my vision of fulfilling his potential of becoming a social dog.

I treat Karma like a working dog.  I reinforce her more quickly.  People give me a wide berth.  They call their dogs away from her.  She happens to be the small, cute and cuddly dog.  How ironic is that?  My expectations create a culture that supports good behaviour.  She learns to be attentive to me.

I think we often get what we ask for and what we expect.  If that were the case, why would we ever dwell on our dog’s flaws when we could re-frame our perspective, just enough to add a degree or optimism and potential?

So tell me, what is your dog’s label?

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.