Consequences!

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Once upon a time in a career far far away, I was sitting in an auditorium at a sales seminar, listening to the speaker explain that every purchasing decision is made on the basis of emotions.  The two most common emotions that drive people’s purchasing decisions are fear and greed.  He claimed that nearly every purchase we make is driven by one or both of these emotions.  He asked the audience if anyone could remember making a purchase that was not driven by emotions.  Someone in the audience raised their hand and he asked them what their “emotion free” purchase was.  The guy stood up so everyone could see him and loudly exclaimed, “toilet paper!”  This was met with a roar of laughter from the audience. 

When the laughter had died down the speaker asked the poor guy why he was buying toilet paper.  “Because we were almost out”, he said sheepishly.  “And how did you feel about that?” asked the speaker.  There was a murmur of agreement from the audience accompanied by nodding and a giggle or two.  Every one of us in the room could relate to the mild fear that drove that purchasing decision.

If you want to get kinda philosophical about this, you can think for a minute about what an enormous role fear plays in each of our lives.  What kind of person would you be if there was no fear?  What would motivate your actions in the absence of this emotion?  What would our existence be like if our actions did not have consequences?  More importantly, what the heck does this have to do with dogs?

Everything.  I don’t know about you, but I have to constantly remind myself that each and every behavior, whether it is dog behavior or human behavior, has a consequence.  Think about it for a minute…  It bears repeating doesn’t it?  Each and every behavior has a consequence.

Whether it’s your kid being rude, your spouse being extra kind or your dog jumping on you with muddy paws, each of those behaviors has a consequence.  The likelihood that the behavior will reoccur is directly affected by the consequence.

“Well, that’s all just peachy, Jon, but what does that have to do with dog training?”

Consequences are the “reinforcers” we are always talking about!  If you want to know why Fido jumps on you, look for the consequence.  Why is your daughter so incredibly rude sometimes?  What is the consequence!  If your wife is especially kind and sweet to you on Thursday, what is the consequence?  By identifying the consequences of a given behavior we are focusing on what reinforces that behavior. 

When we have a firm grasp on what the reinforcers are, we are in a much better position to modify the behavior.  If we have control over the reinforcers (we don’t always have this) we are able to design a program to modify, increase, or eliminate the behavior.

In the case of the dog that jumps on you, what are the consequences?  Physical interaction is the first one that comes to mind.  The dog gets to “play” with you even if you don’t think it’s fun, it’s still play to him because he initiates the activity and you respond in a way that satisfies his need for physical interaction with you.   Game ON!

What if the consequence was the immediate denial of attention?  The important part of that last sentence was the word, “immediate”.  The strategy only works if the dog understands the removal of attention as a direct consequence of the jumping behavior.

I chose this particular behavior/consequence as an example because I’m using it right now on a dog that is boarding here at the kennel.  He is a world class jumper who absolutely cannot resist jumping and putting his paws on me.  In order for him to understand that this has a negative consequence for him, I wait until he has stopped jumping before I open his kennel door to let him out.  It takes him a minute to settle down, but he gets better at it every time I let him out for his exercise.  Dogs here at MCK get out for exercise at least 4 times every day, so I use this opportunity even if they are not here specifically for training.  Similarly, I refuse to pet, touch, or make any contact with the dog unless he has all four paws on the ground.  Keep in mind, this dog is not here for training so I have not had any focused sessions with him, but we are seeing a huge improvement in the jumping behavior already after a week here at the kennel.

When he goes home, his humans are likely to continue with their old ways and he will begin to jump on people again, but I can’t do anything about that.  Why not?  Because I have no control over the consequences of these people’s behavior!

So now that you’ve read the long version, I’ll give you the short “Easy Button” version:

Look for the consequence to identify the reinforcer.

Determine if you have any control over the consequence/reinforcer.

Modify the consequence to modify the behavior.

Slack Leads to you all!

Mollify Your Monsters by Multiplying Your Efforts

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I’m still feeling kinda puny after having surgery 3 weeks ago.  That explains my absence from the blog.  I’m very grateful for my friends and family who have helped exercise my critters while I’ve been laid up.  I’m back to walking with my dogs every morning now, even if the walks are much shorter than they’re used to.  I’ve had to take some of my own advice and multiply my efforts in order to provide Peck & Kaia with enough exercise to keep them from going bonkers.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know how important exercise is for dogs.  Not the “throw ’em in the backyard and let ’em play” kind of exercise either.  Nope,  I’m talking about exercise that involves interaction with you.  Unless you happen to be a young, fit, well trained athlete, you probably don’t have enough energy to go mile for mile with my dogs.  I know I can’t!  So I have to find ways to multiply my effort.  This is especially important right now because I don’t have as much strength or energy as usual but my dogs are just as full of vinegar as they always are.

Since my dogs are labs, multiplying my effort by using retrieving is a complete no-brainer.  I won’t go into any of the finer points of retriever training here because we’re talking about exercise.  Tennis balls can be inappropriate toys for some trained retrievers but for others, they are a great way to burn up excess energy without exhausting the trainer.  The Chuk-It toy works well for this because it enables you to throw the ball farther than you normally could.  Dummy launchers are another method of flinging a retrieving  bumper 50 or 60 yards with minimal effort.  These gizmos use a .22 caliber blank to throw a retrieving bumper.  Once again, not always appropriate for a trained retriever, but a great way to multiply your effort.

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Multiplying your effort doesn’t always mean using a gizmo or piece of equipment.  Just throwing a bumper is a great way to get your dog to burn energy with a minimum of effort on your part.  This works especially well when the retrieve includes swimming.  If you have a smooth flowing, safe creek for the dog to cross it’s even better.  This is what we did this morning.

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This is great exercise because it requires enormous effort for the dogs to cross the current.  They have to use all their senses and drive to mark, track and find the bumper.  I get to keep all the usual retrieving rules in place so we’re not backsliding on our retriever training.  Oh… and did I mention that the dogs absolutely LOVE it?

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Multiplying my effort is a very familiar concept to me.  I use it a lot.  I try to remember little things like taking the path back to the truck that doesn’t include any road or well worn trail.  It doesn’t cost me very many calories, but the dogs are much more excited and cover exponentially more ground than they would if we were just plodding down a trail.  Any time you can introduce your dog to a new patch of habitat to explore, you are multiplying your effort.  The novelty of the situation forces your dog to fully engage his senses.  A fully engaged critter burns more excess energy than one that is simply walking on lead with his human companion.  Some times it’s enough just to walk the same area, but take the route in reverse.

So, those of you who aren’t marathon runners, what do you do to multiply your effort so that your dog gets the interactive exercise he needs?  Please share your tips and ideas.  I can always use more effort multipliers!

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It’s Raining Bones!

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It’s too quiet around the kennel lately.  All the dogs went home last week as I prepared for a surgery that I had been putting off for some time.  Nothing dramatic, just one of those things that were easy to ignore for a long time, but eventually my life long practice of “Wellness through Denial” led to the inescapable admission that I was aging and there are certain things that need to be addressed rather than ignored.  Enough about that already!

Anyhow… the point is I’ve had lots of time on my hands lately and I’m not really allowed to lift anything heavier than a book.  I took advantage of the situation and lifted some books!  The experience I want to share with you is a book by Suzanne Clothier with the cumbersome title, “If a Dog’s Prayers Were Answered, Bones Would Rain From the Sky”.  If that title isn’t long enough, there is also the sub heading: “Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs”.

The title is obviously too long and awkward in an age that is dominated by acronyms and messages limited to 140 characters.  Nevertheless, the overly wordy title sets the stage for a writing style that does not balk at detail, is not afraid of conditional clauses, and takes every opportunity to communicate the vast riches of canine-human relationships regardless of the ever present danger of the run-on sentence.  Whew!  Still with me?

The preceding paragraph contains what is probably the only valid criticism I can muster against this book.  Let me confess right here that I was deeply moved by my first reading, I found new reasons to be delighted in my second reading and I continue to be head over heels in love with this book on my 3rd reading.  The translation for you short-sentence-twitter people:  I heart it! 

Bones Would Rain from the Sky is easily the most important dog related book I have ever read.  You can’t really grasp the import of that statement unless you have seen my bookshelves.  I am a voracious reader on many subjects.  I have read literally hundreds of dog related books.  Many of these books are more like owner’s manuals or recipe books: How to Train Your Retriever, Canine Calming Signals, Essential Animal Behavior, etc.

I’ve learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of dog training and animal behavior through reading.  Many of these books have collected dust for a long time, but they remain on my shelves because I found something in them I thought was important.  Several of these books are old, time tested favorites.  I have used methods or ideas from these books and found the ideas to be sound.  There are a couple of these books that I revisit at least once a year because the messages they carry are especially relevant to me and my work.

Bone Would Rain From the Sky is going to be one of those books I return to often, yet this book is in a class by itself.  Let me try to explain why:

If we took all the animal related books from my shelves, we could probably rough-sort them into 2 piles.  One pile would be books that are human centered.  In other words, they espouse an approach that defines the place of humans in the animal / human relationship and they go on to speak about how we can move the animals closer to the humans.  The next pile, predictably, contains the books that center on the animals place in the relationship and they offer concepts and methods that help humans to approach the animals in their space.

Bones Would Rain from the Sky makes a courageous attempt to look at the empty, white space between humans and dogs and shows us ways to prepare that space so that we can both move closer to each other on mutual territory.

Let’s take a look at what that means from a practical standpoint.  One of the common issues we deal with in behavior modification is the so called Alpha dog.  There has been much talk of the alpha and there is much contention about whether or not it is helpful to view an animal as an “alpha”.  In the human centered approach we might see suggestions that the human needs to dominate the dog or take back his alpha-human status.  In the animal centered approach we hear of ways to limit the dog’s access to alpha consistent behaviors and methods to reinforce the acceptance of human authority.

Clothiers approach is different.  It stresses the context of the behavior.  Example:  the dog that growls when we tell him to get off the sofa.  In this instance Clothier suggests that we have allowed the dog to make the rules about who gets the sofa.  When we allow the dog to make the rules, the rules will be enforced with dog behaviors, i.e. growling, snapping, biting.  Rather than inserting ourselves directly into the situation, we need to prepare the space between us for a more successful relationship.  Forcing the dog off the sofa in this instance may earn you a growl or a bite.  I say “earn” because if you force yourself into a situation where the dog is enforcing the rules, you DESERVE to be bitten!  Instead of forcing your rules where you have no authority, try to prepare a space where you have authority.  Use food or other motivators to reestablish yourself as a rule maker.

I don’t think I’ve really done justice to this concept in my very brief treatment here.   That is why you need to go buy this book.  Right Now!  You’ll be glad you did!

 

Slack Leads!

Nutrition War Rages On!

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This article by Dr Doug Knueven in Dogs Naturally Magazine explains recent research on lupine/canine adaptation to a human diet.  The research shows evidence that part of the genetic adaptation which occurred as wolves became dogs was an ability to process carbohydrates found in some of the dogs that were studied. 

The title of Dr. Knueven’s article is rather provocative and is meant to be so.  As you read further in the article you find the good Dr. has a balanced approach toward the research.  After careful consideration, he concludes that, while some dogs carry genes that may enable them to thrive on a starchy diet; the vast majority of dogs will continue to get the most benefit from a grain-free ancestral diet.

My conclusion:  Dogs eat meat.  If they eat kibble, they will benefit most from kibble that contains the most meat.

Just as Dr. Knueven predicts, I believe this study will be used by the big dog food manufacturers to defend their extensive use of grain fillers. 

On a related note:  I had the opportunity last September to watch two wolves devour a good sized mule deer doe.  They did not eat the stomach contents.  They tore into the animal through the rectal area and proceeded to rip off and consume large hunks of tissue from the haunches and back area.  The next day the stomach and contents were still largely intact.  Corvids (ravens & crows) were working the carcass over by this time.

So much for the old saw about wolves always eating the stomach contents first.  Yes, I know, one incident is an anecdote, not research.  However one incident is enough to remove some of the certainty of previous assumptions.

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Diesel Dawg Update!

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I’ve had Diesel here at the kennel since Nov.1 and we have been actively training for about 2 weeks.  In our last update I mentioned that we were working on extending Diesel’s  SIT.  You’ll recall that I don’t usually teach STAY.  So SIT is a big deal because it replaces STAY. 

Diesel has made excellent progress since our last update!  I can now put him in a SIT and turn my back and walk away, at least 30 paces, then walk in a circle around him.  He remains seated more than 9 out of 10 times. 

When a behavior is learned to this extent we can begin replacing our fixed ratio of one click/treat (c/t) per each successful behavior with a more variable schedule that focuses the c/t on the best examples of the behavior.  Our target is to progress to an average of 3:1.  That means that on average Diesel will get a click and treat for about every third successful Sit.  If we’re having a good session I try to extend distance and time.  If the session is less focused and his mind is wandering, I try not to push the boundaries.  This way we set him up for success.

All the while we have been working parallel on his Recall.  About half the time when I put him in a SIT, instead of me returning to click and treat, I call him to me for his c/t.  We’re getting good results with this approach. 

Now we’re trying to get him to return to the HEEL position.  We’re making progress with this, but there is plenty of room for improvement.  We’ve started working on HEEL using a technique called Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior or DRO for short.  This technique is also called “Shaping the Absence”.  I’ll try to explain this in another post.

Until then, best wishes and Slack Leads to all of you!

Goodbye Stormy!

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On Sunday August 11, I said goodbye to my new friend, Stormy.

I was a little sad to see him go, but I think he’s going to be very happy in his new home. Stormy was with me just a little over a month. You may have seen a video of him on our youtube channel. He’s a spunky little Border Collie mix that arrived here through the good graces of two ladies who have dedicated enormous amounts of time and money to helping dogs like Stormy.

Stormy showed up here in a crate and he was not too happy about being put in a kennel. He had a terrible fear of men, gates, doors and anything else that hinted of physical restraint. Stormy had been found wandering in a field in Eastern Washington with two other dogs that were obvious litter mates. They were only about 8 weeks old when they were picked up as strays.

Stormy was placed with a foster family, but things didn’t work out. He was allowed to run free on 20 acres, so he went from being a homeless, feral puppy to being a feral puppy with a place to go for food. Within the first hour after arriving at the kennel Stormy had already tried to bite me twice. He was extremely fearful and he DID NOT like me reaching for his collar!

The first time I let Stormy into the exercise yard he did a couple quick laps and managed to pee on every fencepost (twice!) and any other vertical surface he could find. Marking territory is one thing, but this guy even peed in his own water bucket. After his first two laps, Stormy spent the next half hour trying to convince me that he was never going into the kennel again. I eventually lured him in with some food.

After that first episode, I got in the habit of clipping a light, 15 ft. cord on him every time he went out. I think this helped him grow accustomed to the sensation of being on a lead and it also enabled me to catch him with a minimum of drama when it was time to go back in the kennel.

Eventually his behavior improved to the point where I could let him out without the long-line. When this happened he would grab the line with his teeth and drag the loose end out into the exercise yard with him. On two occasions he managed to get ahold of the long-line and pull part of it into the kennel with him. (It was always clipped onto his kennel gate when not in use.) He never chewed or destroyed the long-line. He just piled in a corner and laid on it. It almost seemed like it had become a kind of security blanket for him.

After being here about a week, Stormy went to the vet to get neutered. We hoped that being neutered would help with the marking behavior. Stormy was so busy peeing on everything that it was difficult to get him to focus on anything else. The surgery proved to be a good decision. The behavior improved almost immediately. Stormy was still in the “cone of shame” after his surgery, but we were beginning to make some real progress with his training.

I knew from the beginning that Stormy would have to be trained with positive reinforcement. He had so much fear of physical restraint that I’m sure a chain collar or other aversive stimuli would have sent him into a major meltdown. In the beginning of our training I used thin slices of turkey hotdogs as a primary reinforcer. Later I switched to kibble as Stormy began to enjoy “the game” more than just the treats. The kibble was easier to use because it’s handier and cleaner than slimy hotdog slices. The timing of the reward can be very important so it’s nice to use something that can be handled easily and quickly.

By the time Stormy’s new guardian came to check him out, he was well on his way to becoming a nice little gentleman. I confess to feeling a tiny bit of jealousy when this woman came to my kennel and immediately received all the trust and affection that I had to work so hard to get. That’s my Stormy! Always the lady’s man!

Once Stormy began to trust people, it was like the layers of armor were finally peeling off his little dog-heart. Here was a dog that was once as suspicious of people as any wild animal. He was turning into a mushy, little lover-boy right before my very eyes!

Watching him flirt and cuddle with his new human, it really seems like Stormy has found his Forever-Home at last.

I want to extend a huge Thank You to all the people who were involved in finding Stormy a new home. I want to convey my best wishes to his new guardian. I would also like to say thanks to whoever decided that I was the right guy to work with this awesome little pup. I truly appreciate having had the opportunity to know and work with Stormy.

Goodbye Stormy! Good Luck to you!