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

Expectations, Disappointment and Opportunities

When we get a new puppy, as a first time or an experienced dog owner or as a competitor in a dog sport, we have certain expectations. We hope for the perfect companion or the perfect agility dog.

Mum and puppies

Depending on our level of experience we try to make sure we get it right.

We might research first the breeds, then the breeders, look for the best puppy pre-school and best teenage dog classes, join a club or train with our ‘doggie’ friends. However, regardless of how well we are prepared, sometimes it just does not go to plan and turn out the way we expected or hoped it would.

A first time dog owner may have bought the puppy at a pet shop and the puppy started showing signs of being overly fearful already at puppy pre school but no one picked it up. Maybe because the class had too many puppies attending, the instructor was inexperienced, not qualified or just did not see it. The pup now starts to be increasingly fearful, cannot be left alone and is very slow to pick up training.

An experienced owner did all the research, got the puppy from a responsible breeder, attended a good puppy pre school but when reaching teenage hood the dog starts to be more and more spooked by seemingly normal things.

Or a well meaning owner adopted a dog from the local shelter, during the trial period the dog seemed ok if a little bit shy but now after a few weeks he shows reactivity towards other dogs or strangers.

A successful agility competitor got a high drive dog from an experienced breeder but the dog is too highly aroused and despite the best efforts does not succeed in competition and cannot cope with these highly distractive environments.

Out and about

While a lot of these problems can be overcome with early and appropriate interventions some dogs will never be the dog we hoped for. Despite a lot of work the dog remains reactive on leash when surprised or at close proximity, has a hard time to cope with being left alone or an agility trial environment is just too much for them to perform.

If a dog does not live up to the expectations depending on the owner and the owner’s situation the dog might end up in the shelter and their prospects are rather bleak. In Australia alone 180’000 cats and dogs are euthanized annually, a lot of them for behavioural reasons at a very young age.

On a side note, a lot of dogs end up in shelters for completely normal juvenile behaviours, just because there was not enough socialization and training or the owner was not ready for the work involved in brining up a well adjusted dog. Or the trainers were not able to normalize the dog’s behaviour and put it into perspective.

On the other hand there are owners who embark on a life changing journey with their challenging pup or rescue dog.

Accepting limitations

After an initial period of denial when owners still try taking their reactive dog to the coffee shop or dog park or hope their puppy might ‘grow out of it’ they start realizing that this is probably not the right way to go. There might be a feeling of guilt because after trying to figure out what had gone wrong they were confronted by the fact that their dog came from a puppy mill or a backyard breeder and they feel guilty for not realizing earlier what kind of problems this could cause. Or they were so overwhelmed that they were looking for a quick fix using outdated training methods based on pain, coercion, force and fear which made the problem worse.

They might even feel depressed or lonely as no one seems to understand what they are going through; especially owners who have really bonded with their dog and giving up on them is not an option. They also might feel alienated from the ‘normal’ dog owning population who seem to think a dog who is reactive on the leash, cannot go to the dog park or coffee shop is the ‘fault’ of the owner at the other end of the leash.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel as the owners adjust and seek qualified help for their dog, come to terms with some of the restrictions such as not going to the dog park and will find new ways of enjoying life with their challenging dog. They might go to a class that caters for their special needs dog and meet other dog owners who are going through the same experience. They might also find suitable options such as nose work or trick training for their dog to participate.

Some owners find an interest in challenging dogs or dogs at shelters and start volunteering to help these less fortunate dogs to become more adoptable.

And some might embark on a learning journey and ‘end up’ as dog trainers. Many professional dog trainers, including me, started out with a dog who did not live up to the expectations. Thanks to my challenging dog I found my vocation and a new career.

When I realized that Zorbas was never going to be the Agility dog I hoped for and after an initial time of denial and grief I started my education to understand what was going on. He came from a backyard breeder, he did a bad puppy class and at that point I did not know what proper socialization is or how to desensitize and counter condition. In time we both adjusted, we now have a deep bond and at almost 14 years of age he is enjoying retirement. I do not say it was easy but if I only ever had ‘nice’ dogs like Shellbe who is doing well in Agility and Rally O and easy to live with I could not relate to what owners of dogs who do not live up to their expectations are going through. Shellbe is fun and exciting but Zorbas taught me much more for the better or the worse.

Love them for what they are

The only regret I am having is that I did not know then what I do now. I think I could have made a difference.

First published for the Pet Professional Guild.

Is calm really just another behaviour?

What is the most difficult thing to teach our dogs? Coming back or a great recall? While I do agree that this is a difficult behaviour, I do think teaching calm is much more difficult.

Calm mum – calm puppies

Being calm is not the same as a cued ‘sit stay’ or ‘down stay’. Without becoming too airy fairy: Calm is also not just the absence of arousal, heightened state of alert or stress.

For dogs calm means that they are content, happy, and relaxed. They are able to lie on their bed and watch the world go by without barking at every noise or every thing that moves. Calm is a state of mind.

It is normal for puppies to only have two speeds: One is go, go, go and then they crash and go to sleep. For very young puppies calm is not really on the agenda, but we can (and should) start teaching relaxation at a young age. Like everything else it has be age specific and for puppies a few minutes of a relaxing massage or a two second ‘sit stay’ might be all we can expect.

I meet a lot of dogs who are bored out of their minds at home in the backyard or dogs who spend most of their day alone. They either develop separation distress related behaviours such as vocalization, escape or destructive behaviours or over attachment and attention seeking behaviours as soon as the owner is home. For dogs who have no job and not enough company calm is an impossible state of mind

We get dogs as companions and then leave them home alone all day and when we come home we want them to be calm. For most dogs this is too big of an ask!

There are a lot of different ways to provide incentive and an environment that promotes calm.  There are also a lot of different protocols to teach calm. In my opinion it is best to use a holistic approach.

Firstly and probably most important, we have to provide adequate outlets for their energy and cater to their social need for companionship. They need physical exercise, brain stimulation and company. If these needs are not met we cannot expect them to be calm.

At the coffee shop!

A lot of dogs love to go out for a walk twice a day. This is not just for physical exercise but also to keep them socially well adjusted. Socialization, like everything else, requires practice. If they are not exposed to new things in a positive way and on an ongoing basis their social skills will deteriorate very quickly. However, too much physical exercise, especially high arousal activities like the dog park or incessant ball chasing, just increase excitement and high arousal levels.

While most dog owners are aware of their dogs physical exercise needs,   they sometimes do not provide adequate mental stimulation. Many dogs, especially working breeds are ‘run into the ground’ every day, spend a lot of time at the dog park but they are never calm or relaxed. They are in a heightened state of alert and arousal at all times because they do not get enough down time and mental exercise.

For their mental exercise provide a few short but fun training sessions every day. Try teaching them a new trick like closing the door and use at least some of their food for enrichment.

Dogs are social animals, they are not made for being left alone for extended periods of time. I do understand that most of us have to work and leave their dogs home alone. Most dogs cope with that if they are not left for excessive periods of time. However, and I repeat myself, if you work full time, have a busy social life and three children under the age of six years, a puppy or dog might not fit your lifestyle unless you are prepared to make some major changes. Crating your dog while you are at work is not an option. Crate time, especially during the day, should be limited to a maximum of a couple of hours. If you are absent most of the day, look into a good day care, dog walkers or swop time with neighbors.

At daycare pic Maxine www.caninekindergarten.com.au

Once we have catered to their mental and physical needs we can start teaching behaviours that lead to calm.

Teach a go to mat and relax: This can start out as a ‘drop stay’ exercise, in the beginning facilitate with a chew. The dog learns to happily chew on the bed and relax.

Teach impulse control: Typical exercises for this are look at me, hand target, wait, or lie down. The one I like most is ‘Doggie Zen’ (sorry I really cannot remember where I got it from) but for me it works like this: You ask your dog to sit, show the dog the treat, hold your hand with the treat at arm length away from your eyes at eye level and wait until the dog takes the eyes off the treat and looks at you. You have to be quiet. If your dog jumps up calmly put your hand with the treat behind your back and start again. Once you get eye contact, click or say yes and reward. In the beginning you reward for every glance! That is not a cued behaviour but a relaxation exercise.

Capture calm: Interestingly most owners miss their dog’s calm behaviour. A typical scenario is the dog calm on her bed and getting ignored. However, as soon as she gets up there is a reaction from the owners. By mistake the getting up is rewarded while calm is ignored. This tells the dog being calm is not worth doing. We need to change our approach and capture calm. While this is not training per se, it should be a major part of our relaxation protocol. When you see your dog in a relaxed state of mind calmly with a low, gentle voice tell him he is a good dog. Do not use treats, do not move towards him. Otherwise he might go right back into working mode. Dogs do no come pre programmed to know what we want, so we have to let them know.

A gentle massage or listening to music such as Through a Dog’s Ear are other ways of promoting calm and relaxation.

Lazy afternoon at home

In my opinion calm is more than just a behaviour and while we can and should teach preliminary behaviours such as ‘go to mat’, ‘doggie Zen’, ‘wait’, ‘pay attention’ or ‘lie down’ calm is a state of mind. Our dogs can only reach this state of mind if their physical, mental and social needs are met and if they live in an environment that promotes calmness

It is a bit like focus, which is a state of mind that cannot be reached with training of attention cues such as look at me or touch only but depends on the relationship and connection we have with our dogs. But this is a topic for another blog!

 

First published by the Pet Professional Guild.

Dominance, Resistance to Learning and Switzerland

Why is it so difficult for some to let go of the dominance myth and associated punishment based methods?

I just re-read an interview with John Bradshaw. If you have not read his book ‘In Defence of the Dog’ you are missing out.

No I will not write another blog on dominance. I think we are well and truly beyond that.

It is easier to teach an old dog a new trick than a dog trainer.
It is easier to teach an old dog a new trick than a dog trainer.

I am pondering the question why are there still ‘professionals’ out there who either steady fast insist that you have to dominate your dog and use aversive training methods or call themselves positive but still use punitive or aversive methods (physically manipulating the dog/puppy, using ‘no’ and ‘ah ah’)?

Seminar 7 Flyer - July 17 2016 Flyer
Fun with Fido our latest seminar

And why does this group of trainers have more exposure on TV and other media? Does the dominance group have the better marketing? Are these trainers more into self promotion? Do these trainers spend their money on marketing instead of further education? I don’t know.

But there might be something deeper and darker to it. Life is frustrating for some and anger often not very well controlled. The thought of being able to dominate (and hurt) someone weaker might have appeal to some. And if ‘permission’ is given by ‘experts’ to use those methods why would a certain group of dog owners not do it?

There might also be some out there who are just not educated enough and do not understand the basics of the learning theory. Another reason could be a lack of empathy.

We know using fear and intimidation will cause compliance but at what cost to the relationship. It seems common sense and we do not do it anymore with our children (well most of us anyway). So why do some insist on doing it to our dogs?

Shouldn’t we all know by now that ‘force is not compatible with mutual respect.’ [1] It also destroys trust and inhibits learning. Effective learning is a cooperative process in a trusting relationship.

There has to be an element of maintaining ‘cognitive consistency’ Leon Festinger (1957) proposed the cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.’[2] [3]

Dissonance can be reduced in three ways. Individuals could change their attitude. This is often difficult because people have trouble changing behavioural responses. Secondly, they could acquire new information that supports their original believes or thirdly they could reduce the importance of cognitions.

In dog training this means despite all scientific evidence that the dominance theory used in training is outdate, some reduce cognitive dissonance by acquiring ‘new’ information that supports their belief and reducing the importance of cognition. In this case it goes along the lines. It is better to use the dominance theory and its associated punishment based methods to save the dog and/or get the results fast. This is an argument commonly used by rescue groups and balanced trainers supporting these groups. Basically arguing that the result justifies the means, which is another fallacy in itself as punishment does not establish a different, more appropriate behaviour it merely suppresses the unwanted one. In addition to that the side effects can be severe.

Another reason could be that by now ‘balanced’ trainers are so committed to their outdated knowledge that they will very likely resist any new learning. They have said for years now that a force free way is not working. That means they now lack motivation and ability to change and the cost of learning is immense.[4]

Cost of learning used in the psychological sense. If you learn something new that makes your old knowledge obsolete you have to change everything. It means you are not just adding new knowledge but the new way replaces and questions the old way. It becomes even more problematic if there was a significant emotional investment in the previous believes. [5]

For balanced dog trainers this means they have now reached a ‘point of no return’. They cannot change without loosing face and significant investment monetary and time wise to catch up. It also means they will only become more resistant and probably defend their old ways til the end.

This means we can only wait for a generation change and until then have to go with Bradshaw: “They [dogs] need defending from people who persist in the old methods and don’t take any notice of science.”[6]

We are waiting for the new generation of dog trainers.
We are waiting for the new generation of dog trainers.

Or there is one other way: Switzerland introduced a licence for dog owners in 2008. A ‘side effect’ of this was that the dog training industry had to be regulated. All dog trainers now have to have a basic education including an assessment (total of 140 hours minimum), at least three years experience in dog training and having passed a practical exam with their own dog, similar to the Canine Good Citizen Award in Australia. These trainers then need to adhere to a code of ethics and do further education to keep the accreditation valid.[7]

How would that be for a start?

 

[1] http://www.dogbehaviorblog.com/2014/02/a-paradigm-shift-from-punitive-to-positive.html

[2] http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

[3] McLeod, S. A. (2014). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

[4] http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/resistan.htm

[5]http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/referenc.htm#ATHERTON

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/jul/17/dog-training-john-bradshaw-animal-behaviour

[7] https://www.skg.ch/files/live/sites/skg/files/shared/Aus-%20und%20Weiterbildung/Reglement%20Ausbildung%20SKN.pdf

Balanced dog trainers

Balanced trainers popping up right left and centre. What does it mean ‘balanced’ trainers? Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Balanced trainers define themselves (and I try to keep this objective) as using all four quadrants in operant learning. I will not go into the details but what distinguishes them from force free trainers like me is that they will use tools such as check, prong and shock collars or (positive) punishment such as yelling, jerking, hitting as they see fit. Most ‘balanced’ trainer will use (positive) reinforcement such as praise, interaction, treats as well. They will also say that the four options are all suitable for training, depending on the situation. To be fair, most will try to use positive punishment as little as possible.

If they tell you that upfront, it is then obviously your choice if you want to go ahead with this kind of training or not. There is no law against this and it is still very common.

Their argument goes that with positive reinforcement only, you cannot train a dog.

Guess what I do agree! In addition to reinforcing and rewarding the good things you need to manage and set up for success.

I am not going to watch my dog bark, run off or harass another dog. I will also not watch my puppy chew up the furniture or my hands.

But my approach to teaching is based on mutual respect and trust. I will not force my dogs to do things but I will TEACH. This is not the same thing.

Positive trainers like me use a lot of management tools such as confinement areas, carful supervision, management and a lot of reinforcement based training. I will also break it down into small steps so the dog has every chance to succeed.

And yes sometimes we get it wrong and the dog does the wrong thing. We are all just humans. In these instances we use ‘interrupt’ calmly with their name, ‘redirect’ meaning ask for an acceptable alternative behaviour and ‘reward’. Be careful, if you have to use this too often you are just training a behaviour chain. This means you teach the dog to first, jump up then sit to get a treat. This also means you are reactive (sorry the pun) and not pro active.

I have made a choice for ethical and moral reasons not to use positive punishment (I will also not use negative reinforcement just to be clear). I know they can work to suppress behaviour but they are not teaching an acceptable alternative, they can be detrimental to dog’s wellbeing and affect the bond and trust.

If I have to make a choice between a seemingly quick fix and a lasting and trustful relationship I am always choosing the later.

I am following a few of the balanced trainers for different reasons and I am really trying to understand their reasoning.

However their argument is just not cutting it. One is asking for case studies to proof that punishment can have severe side effect, trying to make the point that the science is not there (here you go http://eileenanddogs.com/fallout-aversives-punishment-negative-reinforcement/ or https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201205/is-punishment-effective-way-change-the-behavior-dogs) to then proceed to say that he has case studies to proof the opposite. Well that is a classic, anecdotal evidence is not science.

Another one goes on to describe the problems we can create when ‘training in drive’ caused in his example by the use of toys in training. Then he changes tack and blames food to create too much drive. While there is the odd Labrador that goes ‘crazy’ for food there is an easy solution to that, just use lower value food. Problem solved.

In my experience, food is actually calming most dogs down!

They also seem to miss that perception is changing on what are acceptable ways of treating other beings. It was ok to use corporal punishment in schools until the 1970ies in Australia, not any more.

But the real give away about ‘balanced’ trainers is the language they use and the vitriol against positive trainers; calling the positive trainers a cult, extremists and more, just to mention the ones that can be used in a professional context.

I am very passionate about no PAIN, no FORCE, no FEAR but I am not slandering, intimidating or swearing when discussing the ‘balanced’ approach. I am trying to understand and reason within socially accepted norms.

It is 2016!

 

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