Change Is Difficult – We Are Humans After All

As trainers we sometimes talk about ‘owner compliance’ or maybe more accurately the lack of it. Part of our job as dog trainers is to find ways to motivate owners to make changes to the lives of their dogs. Often this means they also need to change the way they do things. To change the dog’s behaviour we need to change the owners’ behaviour first. Change is hard and we humans need good reasons to initiate change.

Doing what puppies do!

I recently saw a client with a dog who showed signs of separation distress and after the initial assessment we went through the ins and outs of a behaviour modification process to help the dog remain calm when left alone. Separation distress is a challenging condition and the associated behaviour change program requires a lot of effort from the owners. In some cases the dog cannot be left alone at all until some behaviour modification has been implemented successfully and some cases need medication.

In this case I suggested trying the recommended behaviour modification for two weeks and if we did not see marked improvement consulting a veterinarian behaviourist to discuss medication. Despite being in contact with the owners, ‘thanks’ to social media I saw the dog come up on another trainer’s page. Some trainers might know that sinking feeling when that happens, especially if the other trainer uses a different approach.

The reason why I am mentioning this is that this experience made me think about why as dog trainers we sometimes have trouble initiating change with our human clients.

It might have to do with our main focus being the dog and the behaviour modification that has to be done with the dog rather than the behaviour modification for the owner.

Despite being called dog trainers we spend a lot of time talking to people and trying to change their way of doing things and maybe, in addition to our knowledge of dog behaviour, we might need to focus more on our communication skills with humans.

I discussed the case I mentioned with my counsellor[1] and she recommended looking into ‘motivational interviewing’. She also pointed out that most people will go for ‘a quick fix’ if one is offered and asked how I was going with the exercises my physio therapist gave me? That brought the point home. Despite my best intentions my exercise were not really going very well and I was looking into alternative options that promised a quicker result. It is human to do so. It also helped me to understand why my clients had sought a different approach that seemed easier and required less change from their side.

Instead of asking for ‘compliance’ we might have to find ways for our clients to take ownership.

When clients call us for help with their dogs they have a problem and often some kind of crisis brought it to a head on. This might be the neighbours complaining about the barking, the dog has bitten another dog or a person or it took them two hours to get the dog back at the off leash area. They are aware that they need to change something but somehow they just cannot get it started and seem ambivalent. It seems all our reasoning, logic, pointing out the consequences or behaving as ‘the expert’ does not work.

Owner compliance is just not there. This might be the crux, when we talk about owner compliance we assume that the owner has to comply with our recommendations but it just does not get the results we hope for. We might be well meaning but telling our clients what to do can build resistance.

Compassion with clients both human and canine.

I started looking into ‘motivational interviewing’[2] and while I do not say we need to become motivational interviewing experts using some of its techniques might help our clients to get motivated for change.

In the case I described earlier, I probably ‘lost’ my clients when I started explaining the process of desensitizing and counter conditioning. My clients were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task and might have concluded that the status quo after all might be easier to maintain then the change.

Before embarking on the dog’s behaviour change I could have discussed the benefits and costs of ‘just living with it’ and the benefits and costs of embarking on this process. This helps to understand the situation better and can emphasize the benefits of change.

These clients cannot go out without being worried because the dog vocalizes and neighbours complain on a regular basis. This is highly stressful for the dog and the owners. If the dog was able to spend some time on his own the owner could have a social life again. It also shows that the cost of ‘living with it’ is high and not feasible in the long term.

I could have asked a scaling question, meaning that the client rates on a scale of one to ten how important it is for them to change right now. This gives me an indication on how big the ‘burden of suffering’ is and depending on this design a behaviour modification program that matches their level of motivation for change. I also should have listened more to the ifs and buts.

There was nothing wrong with giving advice but maybe I should have phrased it as a suggestion or encouragement rather than ‘expert advice’ expecting compliance.

In the meantime I have started changing my approach and have talked to the clients again, this time discussing the benefits and costs of ‘living with it’ and how much it means to them to have a social life again. We also have engaged a veterinary behaviourist and I am hopefully second time round we will be able to make better progress.

I am not expecting miracles but changing my behaviour has helped changing my clients’ behaviour and therefore has helped making changes for the dog.

On a personal level I have stopped talking about ‘owner compliance’ but will expand my knowledge of ‘motivational interviewing’ and change my approach to hopefully being more successful in helping my clients. But change is tough even if I see the benefits!

 

[1] I find having regular sessions with a counsellor is very helpful for debriefing and invaluable for my own wellbeing. Dog training can be a challenging job and burnout or compassion fatigue can part of it for some of us.

 

[2] The spirit of MI can be translated into five central principles summarized by the acronym DEARS:

  • Develop discrepancy
  • Express empathy
  • Amplify ambivalence
  • Roll with resistance
  • Support self-efficacy

Principles and Techniques of Motivational Interviewing

“Performance dogs” – Do they have fun?

I got told a couple of times lately: Shellbe (my German Shorthaired Pointer who I compete in Agility with) really covered you there!

It was in competition or training when I made a mistake and Shellbe did everything she possibly could to make up for it. And she did! Isn’t that what friends are for?

Almost Flying pic www.pinnicle.com.au

I hear it more often in Agility circles but it probably happens in other competitive sports as well: I am getting my next performance dog! I have to say this makes me cringe.

What does it mean, getting a performance dog? Does it mean the main aspect of the relationship will be the chosen sport? What happens if that does not work out? What does the dog do the rest of the time? Even ‘performance dogs’ only train and compete part time. There are probably 22 hours left in a day where they are ‘just’ pets. Since when have our egos become so big that it is not enough to have fun in Agility or Rally and get the occasional qualification card or even win? But that it needs to be perfect every time, even for the ones who do not train for perfection.

To be honest sometimes I am a bit disillusioned with competitive dog sports. Most of us are doing this as a hobby and not for living. Our dogs did not ask to be there and do Agility, Rally or Obedience. We make them do it! It is our job to make it fun and if we cannot make if fun I think we should have a break or at least take a deep breath.

Dogs are transported to trials all over the place and then spend 7 hours in their crates to just come out for their runs. Fairly predictably they cannot concentrate, run out of the ring or get marched off the start line because they broke the start line-stay. The dog is frustrated, the handler is frustrated and it goes downhill from there.

Or a dog barks or lunges at another dog at a competition, leashes are jerked, dogs are yelled at. This is a highly stressful environment for dogs and handlers and we all suffer from trigger stacking.

This scenario goes along the lines: The first run was bad because there was another dog too close to the ring, someone left a toy or food pouch on the ground, then a competitor yelled at a dog in close vicinity, it is really hot and windy and flies everywhere. Around lunch time the dog has had it and reacts to lots of stimuli he would normally cope with but not any more.

The same goes for the handler, the judge made her wait, the steward got the numbers wrong and then just when they lined up at the start the timing gear fails or a dog runs into the ring. The handler who normally copes with this has had it. Trigger stacking for the handler, too.

We need to keep in mind what the least intrusive training methods are and use them. Susan Friedman proposes a Hierarchy of Intervention Strategies with six levels

I personally think we are well-advised in dog sports to remain within the first four levels. Level one is ‘Distant Antecedents’ which deals with medical, nutrition and physical environment, for dogs these would mean adequate exercise and food as well as mental stimulation. I do think most handlers in dog sports are really on the case there and are doing an amazing job.

Fun Agility. Pic Le Hammer www.caninefunsports.com.au

The second level are immediate antecedents which are environmental settings, motivation and cues for a specific behaviour. Are long car rides and extensive crating at competitions really in the best interest of the dog?

Level thre is positive reinforcement which delivers a reinforcer for the correct response. If the behaviour falls apart in competition this could be an indication that the reinforcement history is not long or strong enough. The last acceptable level is ‘Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior – reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.’ We all know how difficult this is in a competition. Our reinforcers are often weak (praise, the next obstacle) and it is extremely difficult to find a non aversive way to let the dog know when a mistake was made.

Common problems like the dog leaving the ring, missing a contact or breaking the start line stay are often met with the dog being removed from the ring. If you remove the dog from the ring you are using negative punishment (we take away the possibility of a reinforcer) and we are already beyond level four of intrusiveness. Is this really the best and most ethical approach to these problems? I do not think so. We should really look at other things, training level, time spent in crate, reinforcement history, nervousness of the handler and the dog, to name just a few.

If you use even more aversive tools like startling the dog or throwing something at the dog, which was recently recommended for a dog who picks up toys in Rally. While this might be effective (which I doubt), there is no place for positive punishment in dog sports. The dog might stop picking up the toys but most likely he will be stressed and not enjoy the sport anymore.  For the record, there is no place for this in any ethical dog training. Effectiveness is not enough to justify certain tools. As frustrating as it might be, we have to go back to relationship building, distraction training, better and more precise reinforcement delivery, again to name just a few.

Sometimes it also helps to just have a break from it all. Do other things with your dog, try a new sport or just have a bit of a holiday.

On a holiday!

Another often seen situation is a disappointed/frustrated handlers and the dog knows. Disappointment, frustration, tears, anger have no place when competing with your dog. Do not get me wrong I am occasionally disappointed, we all are, it is a human reaction. But the dog does not need to know. I know myself and I make sure my dog does not have any bad experiences in a trial environment ever. Every single time we come out of the ring she gets a jackpot and spends at least 20 to 30 second eating it. She gets this regardless of the result. This gives me time to recoup if it went wrong and she does not realize that I am disappointed. If you get disappointed, try to find a procedure so your dog does not realize it.

Here a few things that could make it easier and more enjoyable (obviously apart from proper training):

  • Relax. We are not competing for sheep stations (at least not here in Australia).
  • Try to bring back the fun. Most of us started a sport because it looked like fun and it was, but then it all got a bit too competitive.
  • Be realistic, if you train once a week you will most likely not win.
  • Compete against your personal best not the others. If you are, like me, no spring chicken anymore, the younger competitors will probably run faster!
  • Do other things with your dog, ‘normal’ walks, play, trick training, go to the coffee shop or just hang out.
  • If you get very nervous and suffer from peer pressure, I can assure you, if you are competing for fun and as a hobby, in most cases only your friends are watching you or maybe not event them. The wider community really does not care, again relax.
  • Keep it fun, celebrate the good ones, learn from the mistakes and if it went really pear-shape, forget about it.
  • Enjoy your dog for what they are and not what you want them to be.

First published The Pet Professional Guild

Beware of the Behaviour Chains

Isn’t it frustrating, we try to train your dog not to jump up but it gets worse? It is the ‘behaviour chain syndrome’.

Sitting pretty
Sitting pretty

We train behaviour chains all the time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by mistake. Behaviour chains can be great and useful or useless, ineffective or even dangerous.

There are lot of behaviour chains that are useful, like a ‘go to mat’ cue, ‘come when called and let me touch your collar’, a formal recall or retrieve in obedience. We often train these using back chaining.

This simply means we teach the last behaviour first and make it very rewarding. The last behaviour then becomes a reinforcer for the one that precedes it. This can be an invaluable tool.

The ‘go to mat’ cue is taught by starting with being on the mat. This calm behaviour is rewarded heavily with chews such as pigs’ ears or roo tails. When the dog loves being on the mat, we start sending to the mat, staying very close, and then gradually increase the distance. Very quickly we are able to send the dog from further and further away to her mat or bed. Once this is reliably on cue (a success rate of about 80 %), we can start introducing distractions, including the door bell and visitors. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog calmly went to her bed chewing her favourite treat when visitors arrive? The perfect dog! If you want to be fancy you can actually transfer the cue from your verbal ‘go to mat’ to the door bell. How impressive would that be? To do this, ring the door bell, immediately followed by the verbal cue, reinforce and repeat. Once the door bell becomes the cue, we then can omit our verbal cue.

On the other hand we tend to train behaviour chains by mistake when dealing with unwanted behaviours.

A classic example for this is a dog who jumps up. The dog jumps up, we ask for a sit, the dog sits and gets a treat. The dog learns to jump up, then sit, and get a reward. That kind of approach will not decrease the jumping but most likely make it worse. You are teaching a behaviour chain: “jump – sit – get treat’. The dog will not learn to sit without jumping.

A similar scenario is loose leash walking. This goes along the lines: The dog pulls on the leash, the owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead; owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead, etc etc. This will never teach the dog to walk on a loose leash! It teaches the dog to pull, come back into position and then pull again. All we are teaching is a yo-yo action.

In both instances the dog performs the unwanted behaviour first, then the one we want (and we think we are rewarding it) but we cannot get rid of the unwanted one!

The solution is to teach the behaviour you want first by using a lure and practice in different environments and reward generously; making sure the dog ‘understands’ the cue in a lot of different contexts and situations. We need a long and generous history of reinforcement for the wanted behaviour. We then have to manage carefully and set the dog up for success.

 

Going back to the jumping up: First we teach the sit in many different environments and reward generously, then and only then we go back to the context where the dog is likely to jump and get READY! If the dog approaches, we ask for a sit BEFORE she jumps and reward.

If the dog jumped up, we take a deep breath (yes we made a mistake) wait for a sit and reward. We do not cue the sit. The dog needs to find out what gets her the treat. But do not yell or push the dog down, this just might be the game the dog was waiting for. If we manage carefully we should get a reliable sit for greeting very quickly.

For loose leash walking, we use a similar set up. First teach the position, start with the traditional ‘heel position’. Dogs find that easier than just a loose leash. Get the dog to do a step, reward, then two, three, four steps. Start in a very low distraction environment like your back yard.  It is important to have a very high reinforcement rate but at the same time increase the number of steps until you reward very quickly. Once the dog gets it, gradually introduce distractions. When the dog walks nicely in that position we can start to relax criterion and eventually will have a dog who nicely walks on a loose leash.

Loose leash walking!
Loose leash walking!

Another common ineffective behaviour chain is to ask for a sit when the dog comes back, especially in the early training stages. This is not an effective way of teaching a reliable recall. In pet dog training most owners just want the dog to come back but it seems many are having trouble teaching it and most dogs find the environment much more rewarding than the owner. One reason is the notion that the dog has to sit when he comes back. I have seen many dogs happily running to the owner, only to be told to sit. And many dogs then seem to say: Not with me! And run off and in the future avoid coming back.

Coming back should be taught in such a way that the dog comes running really fast towards the owner, close enough for the owner to touch the collar and later hold it. This has two benefits, we know we can get our hands on the dog and in the case of an emergency hang on to them.  We first teach the collar touch and then move away gradually and rewarding for a fast approach. This is a behaviour chain for reliable recalls with some added safety.

Full speed recall
Full speed recall

Asking for a sit in the early stages of training might work at home and in low distractive environments but outside of that we need much more value for the coming back. If we ask for a sit in we might inadvertently poison the come cue!

There is nothing wrong with behaviour chains but make sure you are teaching the right ones.

 

First posted by Pet Professional Guild.