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.

Layman’s Dictionary of Dog Jargon in Rehabilitation

layman

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

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

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

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

Classical Conditioning (AKA Pavlovian Conditioning AKA Respondent Conditioning)

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

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

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

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

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

Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+ or CER-)

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

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

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

Extinction:

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

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

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

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

Counterconditioning:

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

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

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

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

Desensitization

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

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

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

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

Negative Reinforcement (R-)

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

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

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

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

Flooding

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

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

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

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

Habituation

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

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

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

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

Sensitization

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

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

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

Positive Punishment (P+)

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

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

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

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

Differential Reinforcement (DR)

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

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

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

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

Negative Punishment (P-)

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

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

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

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

Positive Reinforcement (R+)

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

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

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

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

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

Extinction Burst

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negative Reinforcement – The Bill Collector Quadrant

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

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

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

Watching television, I saw an excellent example:

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

past due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even lenders want to avoid the use of collection agencies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, the real question is:

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

OMG – you get a lot of treats. You’re going to get FAT.

People often say to my dogs, “OMG, you get a lot of treats.”  Sometimes they go a step further and elaborate to the dog, “Too many treats will make you FAT.

Let’s clear up a few misconceptions.  Yes, OMG my dogs get a LOT of treats.  No, my dogs are not fat.  Why not?

1 – I am not using cupcakes.
Maybe some people think corn chips and cupcakes are treats.  It’s their midnight snack.  I call those junk.  Fresh veggies from the garden are a treat.  Likewise, my dogs get a variety of healthy, yet tasty, food options.  Those often include various dog foods, organic meats, vegetables and cheese.  My dog’s “treats” are probably healthier than your supper.

2 – Inedible rewards.Kip agility jump

Asking a dog to sit prior to opening the door is a “treat.”  You have opposable thumbs.  You can open the door.  The dog gets the treat of an excursion.  Life offers plenty of zero calorie treats such as tug games, fetch and play.  Many include exercise and activities that help dogs stay healthy and fit.

3 – Clarity through consistency.

During the initial stages of training, dogs are deciphering the rules.  Rewarding good behaviour some of the time, and ignoring it other times confuses the dog.  I want to take advantage of every opportunity to get my message across as quickly and efficiently as possible.  So yes, OMG I use a lot of treats because I want the dog trained quickly.

4 – Proper technique means fewer treats.

Consistent feedback during training means the dog understands expectations quickly.  Once this happens, I can wean dogs away from food rewards.  Hit and miss feedback ironically means MORE treats because you need to feed for longer periods.

5 – Lack of carrots leads to sticks.

Many dogs try to be good.  When it goes unnoticed, they misbehave.  OMG I do use a lot of treats so I can avoid using OMG a lot of punishments.

I personally have no problem listening to the OMG, you use a lot of treats dig.  I know my dog is not FAT.  Like water off a duck’s back, I persevere.  A properly executed training plan gives fast and effective results.  While some people sneer, I am gloating knowing that the wiggling, friendly dog they are insulting used to be aggressive.  OMG – I did use a lot of treats.  Look at the results.  Pretty impressive eh?

To all the people that are actively training their dogs, ignore the peanut gallery.  They are the same people that will say, “OMG you should do something about that” when your dog misbehaves.

How would they feel if you dared to suggest that OMG – they get paid a LOT?  Teachers should coach after school sports for free.  Maybe musicians should play free gigs.  After all, they love to play music.  Funny, it sounds OMG insulting when the tables are turned.

That is why you should never feel badly about training your dog, especially if it includes proper techniques, healthy food choices and exercise options. OMG, you’re right I do use a lot of treats because OMG, I want my dog trained quickly and effectively.

Toolbox or Technique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly is citronella?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It then goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

According to at least one manual:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural just doesn’t sound so pleasant anymore.

Pain: When in Doubt, Leave it Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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