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.

Define “Works”

Some say that statistics lie.  Personally, I’ve never met a dishonest statistic.  I have however met dishonest people who misuse statistics.  There are people who misread them.

Unless you want to be the person who is spending $50.00 a month on the latest supplement or therapy program, take some time to learn about controls.  Let’s face it, if all those miracle treatments worked, people wouldn’t have drawers full of fads that did not work.  Same goes for dog training miracle treatments.

Let’s have some fun with statistics by creating some really basic fake study results.

Here is our study:

Scientists told a bunch of people to eat strawberries three times a day.  They want to know if strawberries help people with upset stomach feel better.

You look in a magazine and see that strawberries offer clear benefits to people with upset stomach.  Within the article is a diagram – a graph.  It looks something like this:

do nothing copy
Impressive looking results.  Forty percent of people felt better when compared to people who did nothing to change their diet.  Oddly, some people who did nothing felt better too.  Maybe they had the flu and it cleared up on its own.  It certainly looks like we should be eating strawberries with every meal.

Another researcher repeated the same study with one change.  They found similar results, so we have the beginning of a possible trend.

junk

Forty percent of people felt better eating strawberries.  This time the researcher compared junk food eaters to the newly named Strawberry Miracle Diet.

Seriously, how is that revolutionary?  Comparing real food to junk and candy is an absurd idea.  We know junk food is bad.  Comparing to a bad control obviously makes the strawberries look good.  Overall, it doesn’t prove a “Miracle” strawberry diet works.

Researcher number three is skeptical and their study has yet another chart.

Placebo
This researcher did something interesting.  They created a placebo group.  This means that some of the people ate strawberries.  The other half were given a sugar pill.  A placebo is a treatment with NO medical effect.  Comparing strawberries to a treatment with no benefit helps weed out the placebo effect – when people truly think something is helping but it’s not.  Yes, our quirky human brains are funny that way.

Researcher number three has provided clear evidence that strawberries are no better than sugar pills – a treatment known to do NOTHING.  Suddenly the Strawberry Miracle Diet looks a bit hinky.

Some might say, “Who cares, as long as people feel better?”  In certain cases, certainly this is true.  For example, people in severe pain might be given a placebo if they have reached the maximum dosage on pain medication.

Exceptions aside, an insidious danger lurks.  One more chart to illustrate what could potentially happen.

pineappleAnother researcher compared a variety of fruits to each other..  Most fruits made 40% of people feel better – except pineapple.  Pineapple stands out, with almost 80% of people feeling better.  That is a significant difference.

Who knows why pineapple is superior.  We need more research.  Perhaps it’s all the digestive enzymes.  Pineapple is better than placebo.  Pineapple is MUCH better than strawberries.  Pineapple actually seems to offer some REAL benefit.  As real as a fake study can be.

For numbers to be meaningful, you need a point of reference for comparison.  For example, a horse is big compared to a mouse.  A horse is small compared to an elephant.  The horse’s size does not change.  However, you only get a real indication of size if you compare to other things.

Similarly, treatments can seem to work.  Only by thoughtfully comparing them to solid reference points can we understand what the numbers really mean.

This is a sticky topic because with our irrational minds, placebos “work.”  You could probably test bracelets made from the hair off a monkey’s butt and some people will swear it “worked.”  Their testimonials will convince other people to wear monkey butt hair bracelets too.

The real tragedy of eating strawberries isn’t that strawberries are bad, immoral or evil.  The tragedy is that it takes people away from pineapples – treatments that work.

You could substitute supplements, holistic remedies, conventional medicine, anxiety treatments or any other “cure” on the planet.  This applies for dog training treatments as much as it does for “Miracle Diets.”  In a world where dog training results are evaluated with owner surveys, you cannot completely avoid the placebo effect.

The fact that something “works” doesn’t mean it works better than placebo.  If you want to know if a protocol, therapy or product works, you need to spend as much, if not more time looking at the control groups.

eMDR or HAT Treatment offers insights into dog behaviour problems.

Experts have an exciting new anxiety reduction protocol.  Discussed since 2003, P.H.T., otherwise known as eMDR, this revolutionary treatment plan has spawned reviews and discussions about its ability to bring success. With a few slight changes, P.H.T. helps trainers and owners to treat anxiety and behaviour problems in pets better.

P.H.T. stands for Purple Hat Therapy.  The authors go to great lengths detailing the importance of colour selection, most likely due to greater understanding of the influence that colour plays on our emotional state.  Where dogs are concerned, their limited colour vision makes these distinctions less important.   In an effort to avoid any proprietary infringement, I have simply started referring to this treatment as H.A.T. (Heuristic Anxiety Treatment.)

Briefly, H.A.T. is a desensitization and counter conditioning protocol, with one added feature and benefit.  With the use of a novel item – a hat – dogs learn a contextual safety cue.  Examples from the literature and reviews detail its effectiveness in treating driving anxiety.  This specific application, it is eMDR (electro magnetic desensitization and remobilization) as it helps people remobilize in various social contexts

H.A.T. is an extremely important and critical advancement in anxiety treatment.  I am excited to bring it to you….even if it only exists in the mind of Rosen and Davison.  They created the hat protocol.  Everything I stated above is true.  Despite being fake, it is important.  P.H.T. or eMDR is an example used to illustrate that you can add bells and whistles to standard therapies and the program might still work.  People will sing the praises of a silly little hat.  Chances are, if you test H.A.T. therapy, scientific testing will probably show that it works better than doing nothing.  Perhaps it does not work better than a placebo.  It will work for some.

Why?

The eMDR (electro Magnetic DESENSITIZATION!!!! and Remobilization) therapy uses desensitization – a well-established treatment. Hat or no hat, the desensitization part is going to have an effect.

Jim Morrison and The Doors were right.  People are strange.  We are strange because we are biased.  When we add bells and whistles, we often credit the bells and whistles.  We are so biased that there is a bias for thinking we are not biased.

The one that applies here is illusionary correlation.  We assume flawed associations.  Someone bitten by a particular breed of dog assumes that all dogs of that breed are aggressive.  Add a new sound, gesture or movement to a training plan and we credit the sound, gesture or movement.  Put in a twist and it’s new and improved….ready for sale.

However, a twist on the words of psychologist Richard McNally points out the critical lesson.

What is effective in certain therapies is not new, and what is new is not effective.
HAT copy
Many fads incorporate tried and true elements that work in the background.  According to the Rosen and Davison report, “proprietary, trademarked therapies can receive recognition without regard to any meaningful principle of change.”  We need to be cautious that our desire to find a helpful protocol does not create an environment where “any treatment innovator or savvy charlatan who puts a novel method through a single randomized controlled trial with a no-treatment comparison,” thrives despite the lack of scientific testing.

Personally, I have a difficult time asking clients to hop from one expensive fad to another when the meaningful processes of change are well documented and readily available.  I have an even bigger problem crediting the silly proverbial “hat” when I know that results come to those that apply techniques and work diligently.  The majority of my clients are awesome.  It is not the hat or any other silly gimmick.

We need to arm ourselves against blind faith and desperation, without becoming too skeptical.  According to the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, the following warning signs are warnings that someone might be trying to peddle pseudoscience.

Ad Hoc Claims:  Problems are dismissed in a way that cannot be falsified.  There is no way to show the objection is incorrect..

Absence of Self-Correction:  While both science and pseudoscience can be wrong, science seeks to find errors and fix them.

Avoiding peer review:  Expert review can sting.  Avoiding critical review by independent sources looking to poke holes is a problem.  Watch out for those that try to avoid scrutiny by claiming that science is wrong, biased or not yet ready to examine a new discovery or strategy.

Accentuates the positive:  Pseudoscience looks for proof.  Science looks for flaws.   Yes, it does come across as negative and critical.  It is possibly the one time “positive” trainers should be “negative.”  Poke holes.  It is what science is supposed to do.

Burden of Proof:  It lies on the one making the claim (the one selling the product.)  Period.  End of Story.  The person questioning should NEVER feel guilty about asking for it, or asked to wait for some distant point in time to get it.

Lack of Connectivity:  Anything that claims to exist above, beyond or outside of current scientific knowledge is highly suspect.  While radical new discoveries may exist, any claims of such require strong scientific evidence to support it.

Testimonials and anecdotes:  Every dog trainer on the planet has stories and testimonials.  (Mom, brother, aunt, friend, boyfriend….)  Don’t mistake stories for proof.

Technical language:  Big words sound fancy.  If you do not understand the jargon, ask a third party (unbiased) to explain it.  Big words make things sound all sciencey.

Holism:  Dismissing lack of scientific evidence because research fails to focus on the whole or holistic picture. For example, “My protocol can’t be tested because you can’t replicate this in a lab with any accuracy.  I do real life therapy.”

At the end of the day, Rosen and Davison point out that, “Principles of behaviour change, after all, cannot be trademarked, for they belong to science.”  The rest is just a bell…a whistle…a hat – until put through the ringer of empirical testing.

Go Buy Milk (Or Teach Heel).

Not too long ago, I asked my husband to stop and buy butter and milk at the store.  It’s such a simple request.  “Please buy butter and milk.”  How hard can it be?

Buying dairy is harder than it seems apparently.  Between organic, 2%, skim, homo, fine filtered, lactose free, goat, I know that “Please buy butter and milk” will probably result in a flurry of text messages.

That confusion is absolutely my fault.  I know the dairy counter is filled with wall-to-wall milk choices.  I failed at communicating.

If two humans can miscommunicate about “Go buy butter and milk”, a seemingly easy task, how much more likely is it that we miscommunicate with our pets?  We are not even the same species.

For example, heel position means many things.

  • Put your behind on the ground.
  • Do so beside my left leg.
  • Keep your body parallel to mine.
  • Sit tall.
  • Look at me.
  • Move your body into heel following a precise series of steps.
  • Sit not too close and not too far away.
  • Learn to control your hind end as you swing in tight.

Sit in heel is about as complicated as “Go buy butter and milk.”  There is a lot going on behind that very simple request.  Communication is hard.

How hard can sit be

Dogs can learn to understand us.  They are at an incredible disadvantage.  Using words is not in their nature.

Some handlers have a knack for making these skills look easy.  It’s not because they have some magic in their pocket, but rather that they engage in thoughtful, planned training.   Communicating a beautiful heel position is a skill – like a teacher that captivates a classroom or a couple that understands each other’s nuances.

A skill taught well to a dog, polished and finished is an indication that someone cared enough to teach well.  We should absolutely celebrate improvements along the way.  However, habitual crooked sits or the inability to wean away a lure speaks volumes.  Never finishing and polishing a skill is a shame.

The art of completing just one skill, from start to finish speaks to the question:

“Can you communicate with your dog well enough that you can finish and polish behaviour?”

Which skill does not matter.  No one has to enter the world of competition behaviours.  Completing your dog’s “shake a paw” trick is a very worthy goal.  Get the behaviour on cue and achieve stimulus control.  At least it has the benefit of stopping enthusiastic and repeated swatting and scratching of people’s arms.  It develops skills that carry over to other real life scenarios.

The beauty of a perfect heel, chase turn, rear cross or cute trick is not in a ribbon or medal.  It is in the experience of learning to finish a task from start to finish.  We learn to persevere, adapt and communicate more fully.  The dog shows its comprehension by demonstrating the skill – flawlessly.  The dog learns to attend to the cue, and not a lure.  Dogs learn to offer behaviours only when asked.  Our gestures and movements begin acting like spoken words.

Make that journey.  Achieve the most perfect form of behaviour possible.  Eliminate lures, create stimulus control, and work on minute position changes on at least one skill because it’s an important skill to have.  Eliminating lures and contextual cues in a routine are the same skill set found in rehabilitation programs.  They are not optional accessories in a dog-training toolkit.  A trick can be a opportunity for growth.

Effort is required for the simple things, perhaps even more than for the complex.  Mistakes glare on simple skills.  It’s just you, the dog and a sit.  Not much hides a sloppy sit or unfaded lure.

Failing to communicate all the elements of a behaviour is not much different than saying, “Go buy butter and milk.”  It’s too vague.  Be prepared to eat some crow when they bring home buttermilk.  Don’t expect dogs to do much better with partial instructions either.

Good communication looks like magic, but it is really just a whole lot of effort on our part.  Only in its absence do we miss it.  It is something that everyone can achieve with their dogs if they set a goal, create a training plan and go for it.  Start with, “just one behaviour – as close to perfection as possible.”  Finish it.  You may find that it gives you something more valuable in return.

Science says … a lot of things.

There seems to be an explosion of science circulating through dog training groups, and that is rather exciting.  I started collecting studies over a decade ago.  I am a huge fan of science and seem to have gotten a reputation as a go to person for links.  Often I receive messages that say:

“Do you have anything that proves that…..<insert topic here>.”

The truth is that you could insert almost any topic and I probably have something.  Heck, I could send you study links to “prove” that aliens exist.

Where dog studies are concerned, I have studies that show negative reinforcement is linked to stress.  However, I also have studies that show no increase in cortisol – a stress hormone – in dogs trained with negative reinforcement.  Pick any topic and there will likely be studies that draw very different results.

I can “prove” both sides.

Science is a lot like Lego.  Each block is important.  You can’t see the whole of the structure by looking at just one block.  Research studies are the pieces.  Together they give you a complete structure.  As you stand back, you might see that some don’t fit quite right.  Some pieces for whatever reason don’t work in a given spot.  Sometimes you might even get one of those cheap knock off bricks that doesn’t fit anywhere at all, except perhaps the trash bin.
IMG_8216 copy

There are knock off studies – pay to publish.  Money talks, sometimes a little too much.  Not all research is free from the dilemma of who pays and why.  We live in an era where corporations can hire researchers to “test” their products.  How biased those studies are depends on the construction of the study.

Other times statistics pose problems.  Small or pre-screened samples create a huge margin of error.  Who cares if one or two pre-screened dogs act a certain way?  One proverbial guinea pig is not a large scale study with blind controls and random assignment to groups.  That is rather important if you want to know how the average dog behaves.  That is not to say that small studies are bad.  It is what it is.

Scientists question studies, trying to replicate interesting findings.  If only one research team is getting a particular set of results, we should probably ask why.  It’s not personal, nor is it an insult.  Questions are good.  Researchers do it all the time.

Let’s not forget that mistakes can happen.  Media outlets reported that neutrino particles moved faster than the speed of light (apparently an amazing physics discovery).  Testing and re-testing confirmed the results.  Yet, other scientists kept digging into the controversial finding.  Eventually it was determined that a loose cable caused faulty results.  In the age of the internet, you can still Google the obsolete (2011) results.  Quote it all you like, it’s wrong.

Questioning research doesn’t make one a jealous Debbie downer.  The scientific process is all about throwing stones.

The question is whether we allow our own opinions and bias to determine which studies we blindly accept, and which we evaluate with a critical eye.  Searching for studies is not the same as searching for truth.  Validating our own choices, or heaven forbid our own business product is biased and self serving.

Don’t get me wrong, Google Scholar has a place.  But it’s not really a place where we should hunt down support for our own opinions.  “I knew I was right, I found an obscure abstract, skipped over the flaws and quoted one paragraph that proves my point.”  Of course, no one ever phrases their findings using those words – making the practice difficult to spot.

Instead, we should be looking at all studies with the goal of ascertaining truth.  If we have made an error in our thinking, we can seek to correct it, or wear blinders, plugging our fingers in our ears chanting “na na na na I can’t hear you.”

Our dogs deserve better from us.  They deserve us to care enough that we look for truth.  By doing so, we can see that conflicting studies just give different representations of information that might oddly fit together.

Returning to the negative reinforcement example from the beginning, there really is no controversy.  We know that successful avoidance of aversives can provide temporary stress reduction.  Both outcomes are possibly true under different scenarios.  Conflicting results can support one another.

It’s like saying that I don’t fear spiders in my home because I bug bomb regularly.  Does that make bug bombing is a good strategy in treating spider phobias?  No.  It can reduce my stress levels inside my home until it is time to spray again.  Conflicting results have surprisingly logical explanations.

The goal should be to keep asking questions, discarding pseudo science and disproven theories.  We should aim for the very elusive goal of seeking truth – ever mindful that we all carry a bias.  The antidote to that bias is to kick the studies that appeal to us with just as much ferocity as those that offend us.

That goes double for studies quoted by other people.  Read the studies.  Read the opposing points of view.  Simple truth: If you believe everything that comes with a link, you’re letting other people do your reading and thinking for you.  That is an idea that I just find, unthinkable.

Feb 21st:  Great blog done by another great writer – Eileen – on the subject.  Has some excellent links on assessing the qualify of journals.

Feed Problem Dogs Last

Kip, Karma and Icarus sleep on my bed.  Although, Icarus, the cat, prefers to use Karma’s tail as his own personal flirt pole rather than sleeping.

When Kip first came to us, he preferred to sleep under the bed.  It took some time using coaxing and treats to convince him that it was safe to sleep in the open.  When puppy Karma earned the right to come onto the bed, I was sensitive to the fact that Kip likes his space.  If others are too close, he retreats to the floor.

I brought treats with me to bed, ensuring that I quickly set some ground rules.  “You lie down here and you lie down there.”  Both were close to one another, but both had their assigned areas.

I had anticipated that Kip would be uneasy.  Surprisingly, Karma snapped at Kip.  “Back off – my space- my treats – my mom.”  She is a spunky little gal.  While mild resource guarding might be natural, I do not like it.  I do not want it in my house.  I do not want it when I’m around other dogs either.  Mild resource guarding does not scare me, but I am on it immediately.  Therefore, I made the decision to follow the following rule:

“Karma, you get your treat last.”

Many trainers claim that problem dogs are trying to assert themselves, trying to become the alpha.  By feeding them last, you are driving home the point that the dog is at the bottom of the pack, the omega.  “I am alpha, you are not.  Knock it off.  Alphas eat first and you need to be the alpha.  Feed the dominant ones first, and you cannot let it be the problem dog.”

Trainers and owners swear that this strategy works.  I have no doubt that it does.  After all, I just said that I implemented it.

A treat for Kip, then a treat for Karma.
A treat for Icarus, then a treat for Karma.
A treat for Icarus, a treat for Kip and then a treat for Karma.

Not only did we do this as we prepared to go to sleep.  Karma had snapped at a couple potential dog friends.

A treat for the strange dog, then a treat for Karma.

Initially I would have one dog to the left of me.  Karma was further off to the right.  The distance between my outstretched arms increased the distance between the animals.  With time, I allowed the other dogs closer and then initiated a pause.

A treat for Kip, followed by a pause, then a treat for Karma.

By pause, I mean the briefest of moments.  It feels like you have taken a short breath and are still waiting to exhale.  With time, those pauses grew longer.  “Please learn to patiently wait for your treat.”

Finally, we added the element of motion.  If I tossed a treat to another animal and it went astray, I wanted Karma to back away instead of fighting over it.

Throw a treat to Icarus, watch the cat bat it around like prey, then a treat for Karma.

Execution matters.  We worked in careful measured steps.  This is an overview, not a how to.  Had these been adult dogs, I would have put safety precautions in place.  I hope that the gist is clear.

Karma eats last.  Proponents of dominance theory use the same exercise.  The problem dog eats last.  Yes, it can work.  I do not think it has anything to do with dominance.

There is this principle in science called Occam’s razor.  It states that if there are two hypotheses, the one with the least assumptions is likely true.

We can assume that dogs act like wolves.  We can assume that the desire to be the alpha dog motivates them to act in dangerous and destructive ways, even if it seems counterproductive and unstable.  Our assumptions can extend to the idea that dogs keep a tally based on when they eat in relation to others.  We can leap to the conclusion that dogs are too dense to realize we belong to another species.  We can believe that we can integrate ourselves into this battle of social rank and that we can influence the dogs.  We can ignore the caveat that dominance is about relationships between conspecifics – members of the same species.

Would it not make more sense to say that dogs make associations?  Pavlov rang a bell and the dogs salivated.  If Kip gets a treat, then Karma gets a treat.  I am creating an association.  See a dog get a cookie and salivate.

With repetition, the dog’s internal emotional state changes so it no longer wants to drive away other animals.  It wants those dogs closer.  “Please, come closer.  If you get a cookie, I get one too.  I’m drooling in anticipation of your presence.” 

Karma and Ic napping

Feeding the problem dog last can be part of an effective strategy for many dogs.  However, the fact that it works doesn’t prove that dominance played any role in the problem.   Similarly, just because some trainers justify the strategy with dominance based explanations, it does not make the technique flawed.

Occam’s razor is probably right.  It usually is.  Classical conditioning as an explanation has an additional benefit.  Labeling our dogs as dominant, painting them as creatures set on usurping our authority is combative.  These magnificent creatures share our homes and our hearts and deserve better than a negative bias based on assumptions.  Ulterior motives for misbehaviour justify anger, frustration and punitive measures.

If I have two competing hypothesis, I choose to go with the one that paints the dog in the more flattering light.  If I feed, pet, play or give attention to a dog last, I’m very likely creating an association.  We can break down all protocols into basics confines of learning theory.  We really don’t need an explanation that is more convoluted than that.

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.