Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Why you don't need to be leader of the wolf pack

For years mainstream dog training has been defined by stories of wolves, packs and the need for dog owners to set themselves up as pack leader. So it may come as some surprise that it’s actually a myth – and an unhelpful one at that.

The notion that dogs treat their human companions as pack members, constantly vying with them for authority over lesser members of the group, has long been debunked by behavioural science. The wolf researchers who inadvertently ‘loaned’ their various hypotheses to the dog training world decades ago, have been relentlessly challenging the misconceptions around their studies and dismissing their relevance to domestic dog training ever since. And the best of the best in wolf studies are now trying equally hard to shake the concept of hierarchical packs altogether and, instead, promote the idea of the wolf as a regular, family unit kind of a guy..... which is nice!

So why is the pack dominance stuff still around and why should we worry about it? It’s a sticky idea, that’s for sure. There’s no shortage of people using it, teaching it or even making television about it. It’s an easy-to-get, plausible explanation for things that are, otherwise, a bit of a challenge. It sounds like it makes sense. There’s mystique around it. And there’s something about it that calls to our human soul and psyche – after all, most of us quite like the idea of being a pack leader.

Clear, consistent expectations
There is an element about the leadership idea, too, that is valid. Dogs do need clarity and consistency from their owners – they need to know what you want from them and what they can expect in return – and that is pretty much what being a good leader is all about.

But the whole pack leadership, alpha dog notion is a myth, so why does it endure and why, in the face of so much evidence to dismiss it, am I writing this piece now? As one of the large group of force free trainers, it’s tempting, when faced with a methodology so diametrically opposed to our own to shoot it down in flames, to condemn it as nonsense and expect potential clients to be swept away by our rational and relentless journey towards the ‘truth’. But the reason it persists is because it works. That’s right – that’s not a typo and I haven’t gone mad or defected like a character in a John Le CarrĂ© novel. But it works for the wrong reasons. That’s why it is, at best unhelpful and, at worst - in cases of fear related aggression - downright dangerous.

What do I mean ‘it works’? Well, people see it working everyday with their dogs. It’s one of the reasons why positive reinforcement trainers lose credibility in the eyes of many owners. People who have been persuaded that pack leadership is the only way to harmony with their dogs do indeed witness reduction in unwanted behaviour all the time. That might be food stealing or snarking at other dogs on walks. Tails go down, physical stature is reduced and eyes are turned anxiously toward the owner. So when we say it’s wrong, that must be just sour grapes, right?

Before my colleagues in the Academy for Dog Trainers disown me, let me explain. If a trainer who uses aversive techniques to get desired behaviours from a dog tells you that it’s because of status, or hierarchy, or dominance or pack leadership, they simply haven’t understood the principles in play. That, amongst other things, makes them a danger to you and to themselves.

The myth is not in the method, it’s in the rationale for why it works. Science has a sound explanation for that and it’s not authority over the pack. So why does it work and why should dog owners avoid it?

Making associations – good and bad
The answer to the first question is conditioning. It’s how animals learn and get their information about what’s safe and what isn’t. They associate certain events or behaviours with either good stuff happening or bad stuff happening. Clearly, if it were that simple then everyone would be doing it and I would be out of a job. But in a nutshell, that’s what’s going on. (Check out the links at the end of this blog to explore the different kinds of conditioning that take place during learning). In brief there’s Classical conditioning in which events that are outside the animal’s control predict other events that may be good or bad. There’s Operant conditioning in which the animal can control events by his or her own actions.

Dominant control of any animal is about getting the behaviour you want by triggering a desire to avoid or escape an unpleasant experience and that’s how ‘pack theory’ actually works. Which brings two other questions into the mix. What do you want to achieve? and what kind of relationship do you want with your dog?

The first has a scientific base and the second is more about personal ethics, which is bias and I make no apologies for mine. I’m firmly against anything that involves fear to get a desired behaviour and proud to advocate for the use of kind, force free techniques to do the same.

Suppressing the signals
The desire to escape or avoid something unpleasant affects behaviour change. Fear is a powerful motivator. But what you witness is a suppression of the symptoms of a behaviour and not the cause. If your dog reacts aggressively towards another dog or to a person because of fear,  that dog may stop reacting in that way to avoid an unpleasant consequence or to increase the prospect of escaping the object of their fear. But ask yourself this: has your dog’s attitude to the thing he or she is afraid of changed? Does he like it any better? He’s not suddenly reassured because you’re ‘pack leader’. Nothing about the scary thing has changed. He’s still scared. But now you’ve given him two things to be afraid of – the original object of his fear - other dogs or people - and your reaction to him when he encounters them and shows fear. And that now makes your dog's behaviour much more unreadable and unpredictable.

Aversive training makes you the predictor of bad stuff happening
Put it this way. If you are afraid of spiders and I tell you not to be and give you a slap each time you show your fear, do you stop being afraid or do you just stop showing me that you are afraid? What if your fear remains and you find yourself in a situation where you can’t escape the object of your fear, the spiders, but the risk of the slap is still present? Then there’s every chance that you will go into either a panic fuelled shut down or a fear induced rage.

The problem with using unpleasant consequences in training dogs – and that could be anything from a strong lead jerk to a shock collar - is that you run the very real risk of either developing or increasing negative associations with everything involved: the place, the time of day, the other dog, the car you travelled in to the training session and the owner. That last one is an eye opener isn’t it? You as the owner are the most consistent predictor of bad stuff happening. You are always there when it goes down! Think about that.

Now, it could be argued that in most everyday situations during training the application of an aversive is mild, a ‘ rebuke’ or ‘correction’ or ‘guidance’. But consider this: Whatever you call it, the laws of conditioning are such that for aversive training to work, it has to elicit a desire to escape an ongoing bad experience or avoid one happening. That means fear. It means something that your dog finds unpleasant.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Desensitisation and counter-conditioning (classical conditioning) that gradually helps the dog overcome fear and positive reinforcement (Operant conditioning) that reward good stuff are just as effective, and you get a bonus. Not only does your dog’s behaviour improve, but his attitude towards a whole range of things that he encounters in life does too.
So, what kind of a relationship do you want with your dog? You decide.

For more information about learning and conditioning:
Positive reinforcement training and force free dog behaviour modification.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

In praise of squeezy cheese

It’s not often we’re moved to try and summon up a prose poem in honour of processed food, but in the case of squeezy cheese, we feel we have to try.

Our enthusiasm is, naturally, dog training related.  Dogs essentially work for pay* – pretty much like you, we’d suspect. So if you’re trying to train them to do something you want – like come when called, you need to reward the right behaviour. And when it comes to rewards, for many dogs, squeezy cheese is the equivalent of the banker’s bonus. 

It’s works, too, for dogs who are anxious or fearful about something and you want to change their attitude and associate what they’re afraid of – be it other dogs or postmen or visits to the vet with something really positive.

All in all, we love squeezy cheese and if we could re-patent it as a semi-automatic, resealable, high motivation treat delivery system, we surely would, but the manufacturers would probably stick a law suit on us.

Why do we love it? Well, let us count the ways:

For getting your dog to think good positive thoughts about stuff he or she is really not sure about, it’s good because:
1. Most dogs love it – even the words ‘squeezy cheese’ make our two snap to drooling attention in a way that would have Pavlov giving high fives from his grave
2.You can prolong the delivery of the treat– something that’s really hard to do with meat or biscuit treats. That can be very, very helpful if your dog is afraid of other dogs or strangers and you’re trying to get over the tricky ‘growling and lunging whenever they see one’ problem. With squeezy cheese, you can keep on giving them just a taste as long as the scary thing is in view. But keep it just for those occasions, don’t make it a general treat.
3. If you’ve got a fearful lunger and growler, other dog owners see what you’re doing – so they know you’re doing your best to try and do something about it. That way, you get more sympathy votes than disapproving muttering (and let’s face it, sometimes you really need more of the former and a good deal less of the latter)
4. It’s great for getting a dog gradually accustomed to a Halti, Gentle Leader or muzzle if you need one. (No, they really won’t just take to it like a duck to water – you have to work at it)

And as a reward, it’s perfect because:
5.You can dispense teeny, tiny amounts and they still love you for it and think it’s worth doing the right things to earn it
6.As with point 2- you can reward your dog for staying calm over a period when he’d otherwise be out-of-control excitable
7.It’s easy to carry around in your pocket and even when you’re right at the end of the tube, even just the smell of it is enough

We could go on – but you get the idea. OK – you may have to fumble a bit with the cap occasionally, but your dog will know what’s coming. Of course, for those of you who are health or, indeed, health and safety minded, we should say: Only give your dog the smallest taste each time – don’t over do it or they’ll end up overweight. And always put it back in the fridge at the end of the walk or training session.

So there we are: the glory that is squeezy cheese. Simple, lovely tubes of cheese spread that you can get in any supermarket. Shall we compare thee to a marrowbone? Though art more succulent and more portable……

* If you want to know more about how dogs learn to earn, see our website: http://www.waggamania.com

Monday, 21 May 2012

Big T's Story

Big T’s story

My Rotti, Thomson loved playing bally and going on adventures in the car.

To say that he didn’t have the luckiest start in life would be an understatement. At the age of two, he’d been rehomed and returned three times to the RSPCA rescue home in Bath. Each time he came back, he was harder to handle than before and the staff were sceptical that he could ever be rehomed. Most treated him warily (with some justification), though one had managed to build up a rapport.  He wasn’t a people-pleaser, Big T. He had the hard-eyed glare of a dog that expects nothing good from life.

It took three weeks of daily visits, sitting with him, taking him out for walks and playing bally before the RSPCA felt confident enough to give him a last chance for a home. And he became my mission, though what it was about him that made me do it even now I’d find hard to explain. He was aggressive and angry with people and apoplectic with other dogs. With a mass of anxieties, virtually any contact with the new could pitch him into a frenzy.

Over the months (and the years), I tried all kinds of training approaches to help him overcome his fears. And, yes, it was hard and sometimes deeply frustrating. Dealing with a troubled dog is not a five minute fix. It’s not even a five month fix. It’s a very, very slow process. The journey with him was littered with disappointments when he just failed to respond in the way that many of the training theories said that he should. It felt as if he was the exception, too far gone, taken too many knocks, to be willing to play the game with me.

But the truth is that if you take it little by little most things are surmountable. Over time, it became obvious that theories about packs, and dominant dogs, wasn’t working for us. He didn’t think of me as a dog – pack leader or otherwise. I didn’t look like one, smell like one, or act like one and there was no point in trying to pretend. He wasn’t stupid, after all, just stroppy. Once I stopped worrying about who was ‘leader’ and focused on the things that would change his behaviour, using a positive approach for a positive result, then an awful lot that had seemed inconceivable suddenly became possible. As he started to get less anxious about the world and everything in it, when every aspect of training didn’t become about a clash of wills, the whole process gathered momentum. I was discovering what really governs behaviour and he was learning that life could be pretty cool really.

And the way to his trust lay in simple things: letting him know that good things were on offer (a good game of bally was definitely the way to his heart) as well as teaching him that unacceptable behaviour wasn’t met with force, but understanding and careful management.

There’s no question that there were some anxious times for both of us along the way. Thomson taught me that a relationship with any dog, not just a troubled one, isn’t about a battle for mastery, a constant game of one upmanship it’s a process of non-verbal trade and negotiation and informed understanding.

I learned that dealing with a fearful dog isn’t about insisting he changes his ways, but persuading him, slowly, that it’s safe and worthwhile to do so.
So how did things work out for Thomson, the un-homeable Rottweiler, who was ready to take on the world in jaw-to-arm combat and couldn’t come within 40 paces of another dog without kicking off?

Well, he found that other dogs could be chums – well, some of them, anyway.  He’d often be found lying on his back and showing his belly, leaning up against the sofa where his mate, Woody, cocker spaniel and all-round busy body would be having a snooze. Which is much, much more than, in bleaker days, I could have ever expected or hoped for.

Now in truth, it didn’t end up as a Disney movie so I’m not going to over-egg this. He stayed wary about strangers for the whole of his life. If you met us out on a walk, he’d always wear a muzzle, just to be ultra safe, because he was never overly keen on people he didn’t know trying to give him a fuss. And, occasionally, he’d meet a dog that made him nervous and he’d have a bark and a grouse.

But he got more comfortable with the new and he loved an adventure. We went on holidays by the sea and long walks in the woods. He even posed for a bunch of Japanese tourists in Oxford who wanted a picture with the Big, Big, English Dog - in his younger days they couldn’t have got within the range of a long lens. 

About three years ago he got ill. The vets did their best and he put up a good fight – in the right sense of the phrase – but he died, aged 10. For all the tough times we went through, the memories he left me with are sharp and sweet and I still miss him. It was a long road, but when you think about where we started, we did OK, Big T and me.

I learned a lot about fear and aggression, helping Big T, and have learned a whole lot more since. So, if you think the situation is hopeless and before you surrender the cause, give us a call.
If you’ve got a rescue dog and want to have a chat about a particular issue, or have a story that you think could help other owners, drop me an email: simon@waggamania.com

Dealing with Social Embarrassment: by Nina

Shrug off the embarrassment and do right by the dog
Dogs are social animals and so are we. Therein sometimes lies a problem. Our dogs are part of who we are. How they behave reflects on us.
So if you’ve got a dog who barks, growls and lunges on the lead at every encounter with other people or dogs, it can be petty mortifying . Human nature being what it is, the chances are that what you do in those circumstances has a lot more to do with social embarrassment than helping your dog learn how to do the right thing. You raise your voice, you tell your dog off, you jerk the lead, you show you’re seriously not pleased. This might be effective in showing the other human that you know your dog’s behaviour is unacceptable but does it actually get your dog to cool it?  And while it might be perfectly understandable when it comes to our own social conditioning, in dog training terms, it’s bad news. At best, it’s a missed opportunity to resolve problems. At worst, it can exacerbate them.

Dog behaviour like this is often caused by frustration (they want to get to the other dog to meet and greet, but are hampered by a lead) or anxiety (they’re scared of the other dog, no matter how inoffensive or placid it might seem to you, and are making a display to get it to go away). Shouting, snapping or lead jerking either increases the tension and frustration or, for an anxious dog, confirms the view that this is a really frightening situation and ups the anxiety levels and the barking and growling.

So here’s a plea: if your dog is on a lead snarking and growling, don’t shout, don’t tell off or yank back the lead, don’t risk adding to a frustrating or fearful situation. Don’t do what feels like the socially acceptable thing to do. Keep your distance and call forward to reassure the other dog owner that you’re in control. If you know whether the problem is anxiety or frustration, let them know what you are going to do and what you’d like them to do. 
And here’s another plea to anyone who’s encountered a barking, growling dog in the hands of a clearly mortified owner – have a little understanding. Feel smug by all means, but cut them some slack. Keep a reasonable distance to keep things cool, but show you understand the situation. If the owner indicates their dog is safe, just loud and they’d like to try a meet and greet, help them out a bit if you feel confident. If you don’t, there’s no shame in that, give them a wave and move off. They’ll appreciate your good nature nonetheless. Often as not, it’s dogs whose socialisation has been held back by illness or injury or rescue dogs that have spent long periods in kennels that experience these kinds of problems. So that owner you’ve come across may very well be doing a great thing to give a dog a new start in life. And in our book, that’s no call for embarrassment at all.