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!

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!

Good Luck Diesel!

At approximately 2:00 PM on Saturday, Diesel left Muck Creek Kennels to go to his Forever Home.  His new guardians are a nice, local couple who have loads of time to spend with our rambunctious boy.  I’m very happy for Diesel because now he will have a home inside their house and inside their hearts.  He’ll have a full-time human all to himself and he won’t have to share his new humans with any other animals.  His new humans have experience with the German Shepherd breed and they understand that Diesel needs lots of exercise and mental stimulation in order to thrive in his new surroundings.

To be totally honest, I was a little sad to see him go.  My eyes got a bit hot as I watched him looking at me from the back of their SUV as it went down the driveway and out the gate.  Diesel and I had grown very fond of each other over the last 2-1/2 months that he has lived here at MCK.

Later the same evening, Lyn and I were talking about his departure and she wondered out loud if I was the right kind of guy to be doing rescue work because I seem to get so attached to some of the animals.  I thought about it for a minute and it occurred to me that if I wasn’t the kind of person who got attached, I wouldn’t be the right kind of person to help either.

Back when I was building houses for a living, the raw materials showed up on a truck.  The driver pulled the straps off the load and dumped it on the ground and drove away.  Then we cut the pieces to length and nailed them together until we had something that looked like a house.  Now my “raw materials” arrive in animal crates.  They look at me, and then quickly turn their heads in a typical, canine calming-gesture.  Sometimes they are shaking with fear.  Sometimes their distrust is so profound that I am unable to touch them.  The sound of my voice makes them loose control of their bladder.

And the tools are different too.  In cases of extreme fear we are limited to love, patience, and consistency.  Gradually we build trust.  Then we begin to communicate and cooperate.  Every day, you hand this animal a little hunk of your heart and they give you back the thing that makes you human.

Awwww… fer Pete’s sake!! I’m getting all mushy again!!  DANG IT!

Farewell Diesel!  I wish you the best of luck in your new home!  You taught me a lot, my friend, maybe more than I taught you!

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Slack Leads!

Jon Borcherding  A.B.I. Certified Dog Trainer  253 442 9625

Stubborn Dang Dog!!!

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, “I love my dog, but she’s so stubborn, I can’t get her to do anything!”  Or maybe this variation:  “I’ve tried over and over to get him to stop digging, but he’s such a stubborn mutt!”

People love to imbue their dogs with human characteristics and stubbornness is one of them.  It seems completely harmless on the surface.  We have trouble teaching our dog a certain behavior so we just assume they are stubborn because we can’t get their compliance or cooperation.  Most of the time when I hear folks say this, I know they’re just being silly, applying a liberal dose of whimsy to a difficult situation.

The problems crop up when we say that our dog is stubborn and we begin to actually believe our own silliness.  Branding a dog as “stubborn” is tempting at times because it relieves us from the responsibility to modify behavior, “I wish I could get him to stop barking, but he’s just so dang stubborn!”  See how that works?  There’s a problem with a behavior, nuisance barking.  We try to fix it, we are unsuccessful, so it’s the dog’s fault because he’s “stubborn”.

I don’t like to make big, unequivocal, blanket statements, but let me go out on a limb here:

There is no such thing as a stubborn dog.

There.  I said it, knowing full well that I have opened myself up for a bombardment of allegedly stubborn behaviors, many of which I may have insufficient talent to fix.  Be that as it may, I will stand by my statement, “there is no such thing as a stubborn dog”.

Often, when a client or customer describes their dog as stubborn, I tell them, “There are no stubborn dogs, only unmotivated dogs.”  Then we look at the behavior we’re trying to achieve and we start searching for an effective motivation.

What I’ve found is a dog who knows you or accepts you as a handler will do anything you ask as long as the following 3 criteria are met:

1.       He must understand what you are asking.

2.       He must be physically and mentally capable of the behavior.

3.       He must be properly motivated to perform the behavior.

Number one is where things most often break down if we fail to gently teach the dog what we want.

Number two breaks down when we have unrealistic expectations about our dog’s mental or physical abilities.

Number three is the easiest one to miss.  I’ve seen traditional trainers use excessive amounts of force trying to motivate and I’ve seen positive trainers using inappropriate rewards in their attempts to motivate their trainees.  The possibilities for screw-ups are almost endless!

Let me tell you about my screw-up yesterday to illustrate my point.  I was running a T-drill with a retriever yesterday morning.  He had run the same drill in a different place the day before and he had been running this same drill with varying levels of challenges for quite some time.

The T drill is a common retriever training tool in which we place piles of bumpers at the top of a T and at the ends of the arms of the T.  Imagine the T as a big letter, written on the ground.   It can be just 10 or 20 yards tall for beginning dogs or over 100 yards tall for advanced dogs.  We stand at the foot of the T and send our dog in a straight line toward the top.  We have the option of stopping him anywhere along the line and sending him, via hand signals, to any one of the 3 piles of bumpers where he is to pick up one bumper and return to us by the shortest route.  More often than not, we just send him to the top pile where he picks up a bumper and returns directly to the handler.  That way he gets the idea that his main job is to run far and fast unless we say otherwise.

Peck was running the drill yesterday and for some reason he was running the route to the back-pile in a big curve.  I don’t mind a little variation from a straight line, but I don’t want to see big curves that slow down the return or put the dog in territory that is clearly off the line.  One of the main points of this drill is to teach straight lines so we can send a dog on a retrieve without worrying about him wandering into the next county or getting himself into trouble while he’s making a retrieve.

So… here’s Peck running out to the pile and making a big curve to the right, then making a big curve at the same spot on his return with the bumper.  This happened on two retrieves in a row, so I began to put some pressure on him to run straight.  I applied this pressure by yelling the command, “BACK” just as he neared the spot where the curve began.  Nope… didn’t work.  He still ran a curve, out and back!

DANG STUBBORN DOG!!

At this point I was getting frustrated because Peck is capable of running this drill perfectly.  I was tempted to up the ante and nick him with the e-collar to add more pressure to my BACK command.  Fortunately, I recalled my own little sermon about stubbornness.  I decided to take a walk and find out what was going on.  I sent myself on the same retrieve and took the curvy route that Peck had taken.  I paid extra attention to the wind direction to see if there was some scent that was pulling him off the line.  Sure enough, there it was, a partially eviscerated rabbit had been abandoned by a predator and the scent was pulling Peck off the straight line.

If we think about this scenario in terms of motivation we can see that it was actually amazing that Peck didn’t totally abandon his retrieving and go check out the tasty morsels that were lying there like a bountiful buffet line!

Peck had to decide if he was gonna make a perfect retrieve or if he was going to go have rabbit for breakfast.  I shudder to think that I was about to zap my dog for nothing more than obeying his nature.  This kind of stuff is going on all around us every second of every day in dog world.  There are constant motivators at work.  Some of this stuff is really difficult for us humans to even see.

So what did I do?  Well… I want my dog to be able to work in the face of challenges like this, so I shortened up the lines of the T and continued running the drill.  By shortening the lines I was able to increase my influence without resorting to force.  We cut the drill down from being about 125 yards to about 50 yards and it made all the difference.  Peck didn’t forget about the rabbit, but with me in close proximity he was more motivated to work with precision and less motivated to take a bunny-break.

The lesson I’ve taken from this is to look for the hidden motivators behind any behavior I am trying to modify.  Every behavior has a consequence and every behavior has a motivator.  There is no such thing as a stubborn dog.

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Happy? Excited?

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I’ve been watching dogs for a long time now.  I think observation is crucial for anyone who wants to work with canine behavioral issues.  Some dogs I’ve watched only briefly while others I have watched since they were born.  My yellow lab, Peck, was born into my waiting hands and I’ve been watching him ever since that moment.

One of the things that still intrigues me is the line between happiness and excitement.  Sometimes they look like the same emotion.  Other times there are well marked boundaries between them.

 An example of excitement for Peck would be when he sees me getting our stuff together for a walk.  His excitement is obvious, but there’s also a good measure of happiness thrown in too.

Another example that shows more happiness and less excitement would be when Peck approaches me for some petting.  Like most labs, he enjoys a good butt-scratch.  At these times his happiness is obvious but there isn’t the same wild excitement about him as there is when he’s anticipating a walk or a hunt or a training session.

Immediately after feeding is another time when my dogs show a good measure of happiness, wagging their tails, rubbing against my legs, licking my hands and face if I let them.  We could just call this submissive, food-seeking behavior, but I think it’s more a show of happiness in the form of gratitude.  Some of you may dismiss this notion as a gross anthropomorphism.  Maybe.

The reason I’m going on about the difference between happiness and excitement is because I see so many people who don’t seem to recognize any difference between these 2 emotions.  I’m sure you’ve seen it too.  One of the most common cases I see is when a person pets a dog roughly in a clear attempt to elicit an excited response from the dog.  Kids are great at this, especially young boys.  I often see young boys roughhousing with a dog and it’s easy to see they are both excited, but are they both really enjoying it?  Is this happiness?

Excitement and the hormones it releases also bear with them a measure of stress.  Hormone-fueled stress can have detrimental effects on humans and dogs alike.  It simply isn’t possible to avoid stress entirely, nor is it desirable.  On the other hand (paw), it can serve to make us better guardians and deepen our relationship with our dogs if we approach the dichotomy of excitement / happiness with a sharpened awareness rather than allowing things to “just happen”.

I’ve learned a lot just by trying to see the difference between happiness and excitement in my dogs.  Some of the stuff I’ve learned has made me a better handler and guardian.  Honestly, I’m not absolutely certain there is a clearly defined difference between happiness and excitement.  Maybe it’s kind of like comparing apples to apples.  But I know that looking for a difference increases my awareness and that has to be a good thing.

Try it!

Diesel’s Saturday Field Trip!

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I know quite a few dog trainers in our area and I’m happy to say that I really enjoy sharing tips and tricks with them.  Dogs, like humans, are individuals.  We can get a lot of knowledge in a general sense by working with a few dogs, but because of time constraints, we can only have direct experience with a limited number of individuals.  Anyone who trains for a living is going to have some experience to share that increases my knowledge and raises my competence.

I am fortunate to have a friend in a truly gifted trainer right in our back yard.  She is highly skilled in training for Agility which is one of the dog sports where I have no experience.  That’s why I was so excited when Kari Hammargren invited me to bring Diesel to her training facility in Graham.

On Saturday, for the second day in a row, Diesel loaded into the cab of my pickup with no fuss at all.  He settled right down as we headed for Kari’s place in Graham, about 20 minutes from Muck Creek Kennels.  We arrived after the usual Saturday class had gone home, but Kari was extremely generous with her time.  She dropped everything and opened the facility for us so we could try out some of her agility equipment.

Kari had us start out with a few easy things, a low A-frame, a wobble board and some short jumps.  Diesel breezed right through this stuff like he was born for it!  After we got through the easy-peasy stuff, Kari let us into a fenced area with a tall A-frame, a tunnel and a dog-walk that you can see in the photo above.  I was impressed with Diesel’s confidence and his willingness to try all this new stuff!

I guess we were at Kari’s place for about 45 minutes.  By the time we loaded up and headed for home my face was sore from smiling so much!  Wow!  That was fun!  One of the coolest things about Agility is the way this activity brings out the personality of the dog.  Diesel’s goofiness was in full bloom and it was a joy to watch him do his thing.

I can heartily recommend Kari to anyone who wants to get started in Agility.  Her number is 253 302 0856.  Thanks again for having us over, Kari.  We’ll be back!

Happy New Year!

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Among the 40,000 new laws that go into effect today is the new Tethering Law that takes effect in Illinois.   While some people see this kind of legislation as a win for the dogs; I see it as one more area of life where common sense is no longer necessary as the govt. steps in to regulate our relationships with our pets.

I don’t see how this law will really help dogs.  Responsible dog owners already know that tethering or chaining is a dangerous practice to be avoided whenever possible.  No amount of legislation will help uncaring or negligent dog owners to see the light.  This law simply legitimizes a hazardous and neglectful practice.  The new law regulates the length and weight of the chain or tether.  It’s kind of like having rules for how hard you can beat your dog.

Have I ever tethered a dog before?  Yes.  Often, while camping, I have placed a dog on a tether to be sure he or she didn’t run off into the woods while I was cooking or attending to other chores that took my attention away from the dog.  Obviously, this is a different situation than the person who leaves a dog on a chain all day while they are at work.  The use of a chain or tether as a primary means of containment for a dog is an outmoded and dangerous practice.  Statistics show that chained dogs are responsible for an inordinate number of dog bites.  All things being equal, a dog is far more likely to bite or exhibit other aggressive behavior if he is left on a chain.  Tethering, over time, can lead to behavioral changes and psychological damage to the dog.  At its worst, chaining also causes terrible physical damage to the captive dog.

So perhaps we should entirely outlaw the use of chains and tethers?  Nope.  That won’t work either.  The legislation of commonsense does nothing for animals, but worsens their plight by shifting the burden of common sense from the dog’s guardian to the government.  Do we really want to rely on government to dictate what is and is not “common sense”?

If we allow our government to decide how long a tether should be, how long will it take before we allow our govt. to decide that it is illegal to leave a dog in a car?  Wait a sec… that’s already illegal in some places.  So now, I am unable to take Fido with me to the store if I live in one of those places.  My dogs LOVE to ride with me in the truck, even if it means waiting for a half hour while I shop or do an errand.  Would I leave them in a hot vehicle on a hot day?  Of course not!  Fortunately I am blessed with enough common sense to make good decisions about my dogs.

It seems to me that people who support government control of every aspect of our lives simply don’t believe that they or their peers have as much common sense as the govt.  It boggles my mind that they can maintain this kind of blind faith in our corrupt, bloated, controlling nanny state.

Before you write me off as just another wild eyed, anti-government whack job, I challenge you to name one aspect of your life that is not already controlled or regulated by govt. in some way.

How’s that working out for us as a nation?

Slack Leads, People!