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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.